The benefits of learning another language

From a talk given by City University's professor of languages at Exchange Place, London, as part of European Year of Languages

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THE EUROPEAN Year of Languages has been marked this week with activities taking place all over Europe. People have taken up the Languages Challenge, for instance, whereby they get sponsorship for charity, and learn something about a language in return.

The European Year of Languages has been marked this week with activities taking place all over Europe. People have taken up the Languages Challenge, for instance, whereby they get sponsorship for charity, and learn something about a language in return.

Examples range from students at the Language Centre in Oxford, who have a month in which to prepare for a 10-minute conversation with a native speaker and to recite a poem in public, through to workers in the Square Mile, who have been taking part in our Vino and Vocab exercise. This combines advice on which course to take with a brief language lesson with a practical element ­ how to order a glass of wine in the target language. The exercise drew lots of enquiries that highlighted why people should want to learn another language in the first place: some planned to travel, while others had come back from abroad wishing that they had learnt more. Others had foreign relatives by marriage, and wanted to visit their newly extended family, and one or two had not been brought up bi-lingually when they had the chance, and wanted to catch up on a lost opportunity. Everyone commented on the value of languages at work.

Language-learning has become a high-profile activity, as individuals and organisations become aware that English is no longer enough, and that travel, trade and the growth of a multi-cultural society provide challenges, as well as opportunities. There is still scope for complacency; people observe the widespread use of English on the internet, overlooking the growth of websites in other languages and ignoring the point that information that appears in English has often been translated, and quite possibly edited, in the process.

But learning the language is not just the basis for communication ­ it is also the doorway into a new culture, contrasting outlooks and different attitudes, not to mention the way to widen horizons for both personal travel and business. It is one thing knowing what people are saying; it is quite another to know why they are saying it ­ knowing not just where they are from, but where, in fact, they are coming from. The driving force behind the Year (which is supported by the 45 members of the Council of Europe, as well as the European Commission) is to reinforce linguistic diversity as a key element for the future. Everyone in Europe should have the chance to learn a language at some stage in their lives ­ and be equipped to do so.

It rather spoils the positiveattitude of a year dedicated to languages to remember that language can still be a controversial issue. In a surprising number of countries, language becomes intertwined with regional and personal identity, and concepts of homeland grow to the point where they lead to conflict. There are nations within a state, nations without a state, and states whose borders contain a variety of mutually hostile cultures. Many European countries have a language policy, which can, in turn, become controversial. It is ironic that language can be a barrier, rather than a means of communication; the European Year of Languages could be a valuable exercise in tolerance and in recognising the richness to be found in the linguistic diversity of Europe.

Along with the study of languages, more is being said about cultural awareness, cultural attitudes and culture shock, looking at the context in which languages are used, and the ways in which communication may fail to transcend purely linguistic barriers. "Let Nation Speak Peace unto Nation" was the original motto of the BBC, but a bit of listening would also come in handy. That might mean listening to things we don't like to hear, perhaps even in the other person's language ­ it can be difficult to transpose concepts from one language to another and retain the same cultural weight. There is ample scope for a European Year of Listening ­ or perhaps that could be the next language challenge for us all.

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