Multilingualism: Humanity's Beating Heart | Being Bilingual
Hello friends! This is a guest post by James McDonald! As with all guest posts, they're here to share some a new perspective, hot tip, or something different that you wouldn't get if you were just reading my voice all the time. All views expressed here are theirs and may differ from what you are normally used to from me. Please be kind and open - there is always something for us to learn when we step outside our normals. - Until next time, Soph!
This guest post is the third in a 4 part series titled, Being Bilingual, which aims to explore different perspectives on how language impacts our sense of self.
"Nelson Mandela once said that if you speak to a man in a language he knows, it goes to his head, but if you speak in his own language, it goes to his heart. Language is arguably one of, if not the most important foundations of human society, present in all cultures and nations across the world in some form. The variety and diversity of every country's tongue is something of a marvel, demonstrating to us the myriad reflections of human society and nature."
This is essentially what I wrote in the opening lines of my personal statement for university.
Whether or not you believe any of that, you can't deny that human beings are incredible creatures when it comes to communication. In a world where connectivity has never been higher, it's very easy to see how the form of language and communication has changed over the last 20 years. Memes are now the go-to form of humour and relatable content, phasing out even abbreviated text speech of which our parents so vehemently disapproved yet now use with embarrassing abandon. With the world of digital communication changing every day so rapidly, you may ask what the point may be in learning a new language if you, like me, were born a native English speaker with little need to learn a second tongue.
As a recent graduate in French and German from the University of Warwick, I've spent the past 4 years immersed in both a linguistic high and slog. It's easy to lose sight of the opportunities languages offer you when you're being forced to learn obscure verb tenses and awkward grammar rules, yet now that I've graduated, I of course see the value of these bad days. The ability to speak another language besides your mother tongue opens you up to a literal world of new possibilities and opportunities. Not only this, but it gives you a unique insight into the mindset and culture of a nation in ways that monolinguals simply won't understand. This for me is the greatest treasure that multilingualism can offer, giving me a window into the most intimate and innermost part of a country and its people. Language is ultimately a reflection of those who speak it, and I think that’s truly beautiful.
Take German, for example. It often gets a bad rep of being an ugly and difficult language to learn compared to many Latin languages that seem to flow off the tongue like French and Italian, yet what I came to see was a language built on robust and logical rules that, while a little trying at first, make perfect sense. It's a little reflection of the country and its people, its history and its culture. It's a language built on rational thinking, unsurprising when one looks at Germany's contribution to the Enlightenment movement. A perfect example of German's logical and literal take on the human condition is its ability to create entirely new words to express things using compound nouns (putting smaller words together to make bigger ones.) My personal favourite of these being the moment of sadness that you feel when your paper plane falls to the ground, or, Luftfahrtorigaminiedergeschlagenheit (literally: aviation-origami- despondency.) It's these little moments of discovering a quirk or an aspect of a language entirely different to our own that make me smile and appreciate just how rich and diverse human civilisation can be.
It’s this insight into a foreign country’s way of thinking that helps us ultimately to improve our own societies and open our minds up to new possibilities in resolving problems. Language is more than just communication; it’s history, culture, identity and mentality all rolled into one. Like us, it changes and develops to fit the era we live in, adapting itself to remain relevant and preserve a hint of the past that has brought us to today. And while this seems all grandiose and airy to say, on a more human level, it binds us to each other.
People all over the world, no matter where you go, will enjoy you trying to speak their language. Take Polish as an example - a slavic language with an intimidating and complex grammar system with almost alien phonology for native English speakers. I knew barely any Polish when I went there on holiday, yet I was determined to at least try and make the effort, as all guests should. While I couldn’t quite grasp the intricacies of the case endings or the multitudes of verb forms, simply asking for a black coffee in rusty Polish in the train station cafe in Gdańsk was enough to make the woman behind the counter smile. These are truly the gems you encounter when you attempt to speak another language. Rigorous study isn’t necessary to enjoy a new culture (although it certainly helps if you want to master the language,) and even little things like “please” and “thank you” can go a long way.
Multilingualism is truly the beating heart of our society, for without people learning languages other than their own, who knows how much longer it would have taken to achieve some of the things we take for granted today? Language is a symbol of global cooperation and I consider myself truly lucky to have immersed myself in it. I can only recommend that you do the same. Do something good today, and start that Spanish lesson on Duolingo you keep avoiding.
About the Author
Hey, I’m James and I’m a half-Korean language graduate in French and German, currently living in the UK! You might see me occasionally pass by on Sophie’s wonderful blog as I try to muddle through life and find my place in the world.
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