What Multilingualism?

by multilingualmania on January 19, 2011

in Bilingualism, Language Learning

Flickr goes multilingualWho do you imagine when you hear of a polyglot? If you are anything like me – and most people, I think – it is a person of intelligence, high education and probably quite some social status. Someone who may have even grown up with a foreign nanny for him/her to be at least bilingual, and went on to schools where a classical concept of learning including the study of languages was further supported. Now, the joke may say that a person who speaks only one language is not called monolingual, but American. In fact, however, even in Europe with its plethora of different national languages (and generally, smaller nations), many people only really speak their mother tongue, and maybe some of the English (or other) they had to learn in school. Thus, it often seems as if multilingualism is a matter of wealth and the good, possibly foreign, education it can bring.

There is also another group of multilingual people, however: Those who grow up naturally surrounded by more than one language. Increasingly, this is the case for couples from different backgrounds and/or their children; most commonly, this situation exists where different ethnic groups live in close proximity, or where local languages are supplemented by a lingua franca used to unite the various groups: in China, with its plethora of “dialects” which are oftentimes languages in their own right (but without a writing system), this is Standard Chinese, called Putonghua, the language many Chinese learn as their de facto second language; in many parts of Africa, it is the former colonial language, French (which is historically, though in the context of medieval Europe, where the very term “lingua franca” comes from). Indeed, English in the USA is quite a similar lingua franca, at least considering the situation of more-recent immigrants.

It is also possible to fall out of those groups, however – and for a large number of (if not all) adults, it is increasingly suggested that this should be their aim: to become a global citizen, to improve your chances in the marketplace and make your life more interesting, to become a European citizen rather than just a Brit / German / French / Italian / Pole / … you shall become multilingual. How, though, when the problems even start with the question of which language to choose?

Many people choose to study a language that is widely spoken and accepted as a language one should know – English (for speakers of another first language), Spanish, French, German come to mind – or one that is more exotic, seen as difficult, but a supposed key to better job chances – Japanese used to be acclaimed as such, Chinese has long since taken over the spotlight. Political and economic power often plays a great role in that, with usefulness of language skill easily apparent when it is widely spoken and of further relevance.

Non-major languages are a tougher choice to explain, but point to a reason that is important indeed: personal interest. Learning Chinese or Japanese may be good even if you don’t intend to use it, the same way that trying to solve a crossword may be an interesting exercise. A language learner is more likely to stick with it when there is both an emotional and a practical connection with the language, however. It may be better to study the language of your favorite exotic holiday destination – Thai, Vietnamese, Tibetan come to mind – than it is to grapple with French if you just hate la haute cuisine francaise.

Admittedly, finding interest seems to be ever harder even as there is ever more potential for interaction. More and more things vie for attention, and the concentration and perseverance needed to advance in a language seems a scarce resource. It makes it only more important an exercise, however – and if you find an interest and ways to keep it fresh (not least, interacting with people who speak the other language as their own), a language is one of the most worthwhile and enduring skills to learn and work on.

About the Author: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an independent scholar with a background in ecology and cultural anthropology, writing about his interests at www.positive-ecology.org, www.beyond-eco.org and www.chilicult.com. He hails from Austria, and currently works as German lecturer in China. During his career, he has learned something of nine languages and forgotten much of it again.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cintia January 21, 2011 at 12:15 am

Hi Miss McGrath, I like your website. Thank you for telling me.

Deonne Knill January 21, 2011 at 10:25 am

Well done and beautifully written. Thank you.

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