The Importance of Being Multilingual

Let’s talk about languages; it’s been a while, and it is one of my favourite topics. I am currently learning German (again), which I love, but I am feeling a slow onset of despair at ever becoming fluent in this language.

I realised today that all my best friends here are at least bilingual – mostly trilingual, with smatterings of other lingos (I include Hunky Scotsman No.1, because he knows lots of Scottish slang, which is essentially another language, plus he has a fair knowledge of German) Is it a coincidence? Maybe. But probably not, for someone who values languages as highly as I do. I find it very charming when my foreign friends unconsciously let slip with a bit of their mother tongue in the midst of an English conversation. I have a Frenchie here whose English is so American that everyone assumes she is from the US, but she’ll always say “pardon?” in French – too cute. I love that I can speak to my GBF in English (our default), French or Spanish (when I say speak in Spanish, I mean I quiz him about Spanish grammar, or set his teeth on edge with my La Vane voice). There are lots of Chinese students in my residence hall and I won’t deny a little warm buzz every time I hear mandarin being spoken in the vicinity – or smell Chinese cooking that I’m too lazy to do myself.

When I see/hear my friends speaking their mother tongues, it’s a funny sort of sensation. I feel like I get a glimpse of the real them. Not that they are not their real selves in English, of course – but perhaps a purer version of them, something closer to their true essence. If I don’t speak that other language, then there is something in them that is unreachable to me. It’s not an unpleasant quality – I kind of like it. Their intrigue abounds. I mean, that’s the reason I find (SOME) foreign accents attractive – it’s suggestive of a whole other, mysterious, unknown world. Even the most banal utterances become exciting and exotic. It’s like when Americans and Canadians coo over my English accent. It’s rather nice, being able to make a good impression with zero effort.

Why should it matter? What is it about people who speak other languages that allows for a deeper connection? No matter the language; I don’t know the first bit of Slovenian or Turkish, and don’t really intend to study either seriously at all, but the fact that friends here speak them is somehow significant. I’m not saying I am not or cannot be friends with monolinguals – simply valuing other languages is enough. If you have zero interest in languages and think they are pointless, then we’ll find little in common, methinks. Knowing at least one other language changes the way your mind works, and the way you empathise. It more easily allows for flexible, alternative ways of thinking, because you can frame your thoughts in more ways than one. You are able to conceive of ideas in a different way, or even ideas that might not exist in one language. It forces you to think in a different system, whose logic may not correlate with another within which you function, and to realise that what you are accustomed to is not necessarily a reference point for others. In short, it expands your brain. I wonder: do music and coding count as other languages?

In language lessons as an adult, I would sometimes hear people who were struggling with a grammar point say, “but that doesn’t make sense! In English…” First mistake: holding English as the model upon which other languages were formed. Extrapolating a little: so much of bigotry, prejudice and arrogance comes from limited ways of thinking, and inability to empathise or perceive things in more than one way. I’m not saying that language learning is going to erase all these problems, but it’s a step toward opening the heart as well as the mind, and opening up more of the world to the learner, too. It’s not such a big jump from understanding that in another culture people express things in a different way, to understanding that they think in different ways too. It can make us more understanding, even if that is just accepting that we don’t understand.

Quite simply, languages allow for more of what we all crave: human compassion and connection.


One thought on “The Importance of Being Multilingual

  1. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful thoughts with us! I couldn’t have said it in a better way. I’ve learned six languages (currently busy with Hebrew) and each time I started to learn a new one, I was introduced to a completely new world. And only the ability to speak to people in their own language opens so many doors, you’ve never even looked behind yourself.


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