Saturday 8 March 2014

Learning languages – what for?

It has somehow become politically incorrect to question the current upswing in the seesaw about multilingualism, to the effect that we should all dedicate ourselves to learning languages.

I personally think it’s great fun to learn languages just because they’re there, probably because I work with them as a linguist, but there’s one other reason why I learned the languages that I use, which is, simply, that I have to use them. I wouldn’t be able to function in my everyday environments with a single language. What I find intriguing is the blank encouragement to learn languages for apparently no other reason than everyone else saying that we should. Do we know why we’re joining the chorus? Or are we just doing our best to prove R. W. Emerson’s point that “Nothing is more rare, in any man, than an act of his own” – to which Oscar Wilde added that “Most people are other people”? It grieves me to find languages ranking among the new desirables, on the strength of decidedly consumerist hype: what matters is how many you have.

Multilinguals have “many” languages for the same reason that a lot of people have more than one of anything, from pair of shoes to smartphones, not out of endemic acquisitionitis but because they need them for everyday purposes. Saying this, however, is about as interesting as saying that monolinguals have one language for exactly the same reasons: we all acquire whatever number of languages we need to use in our daily business. Are multilinguals and monolinguals all that different, then? And is it worth spending time and resources on spot-the-difference activities? Nothing is easier, in fact, than finding differences: as the saying goes, we’re all unique just like everyone else. What grieves me even more is that the current drive to (apparently) eradicate monolingualism ends up pitting people against people for yet another reason which defies rational comprehension.

Multilingualism is not “modern”, despite the peddling of its conceptualisation as new. It is in fact so old that our historical records contain no special mention of it by name: it’s taken for granted. Using more than one language is, and has always been, natural. What’s new is not the number of languages that we’ve ever had as individuals, what is new is this idea that talking about linguistic arithmetic makes sense.

The idea grew, in all likelihood, out of current preoccupation with “global” languages, as if they were also new, which in turn highlights our apparently sudden realisation that many users of those languages are monolingual – and likely to have no problem remaining so. After all, they do have a good excuse for not bothering to walk all the way to the mountain, if the mountain keeps racing towards them. But this also makes them easy targets of the charge that there’s something wrong with them for being unwilling language learners. Unfairly, I think.

What should we learn languages for? Language courses routinely offer grammar courses instead. The conviction behind this choice is roughly equivalent to believing, say, that swimming courses should offer familiarisation with aquatic dynamics and the physics of flotation. Monolinguals don’t need to become multilingual in order to become acquainted with grammar, if learning grammar is their purpose. But if their purpose is to be able to use other languages because they’ve found a need to do so, then their awareness of that need is encouragement enough to learn those languages – just like multilinguals.

Multilingualism isn’t a purpose in itself, to be worn, as it were, for ornamental purposes, nor is it something to pitch against monolingualism, as Western-minded linguistic ideology has conditioned us to do. “Against”-ideologies are not, I don’t think, the best way of driving home the physical and mental well-being that multilingualism is said to promote among human beings. Such mindsets don’t help us understand multilingualism either, because they go on portraying it as “special”. Being different doesn’t mean being better or worse, and striving to be different from what we are doesn’t mean becoming better or worse. It just means becoming different. Default or “ideal” human linguistic states aren’t found in the number of languages that we have, they’re found in our ability to make sense and make use of the languages that we need, for our purposes.

I’ll have some more to say about language learning purposes next time. Meanwhile, let me leave you with a thought for the day, Shakespeare’s dejection about other kinds of compulsive gatherers:

© MCF 2014

Next post: Learning to use languages. Saturday 5th April 2014.

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