In the rest of the world language disputes have mostly disappeared, but in South Asia acrimony over language still erupts from time to time. Current fashionable discourse on the problematics of language use (both in India and Pakistan) and the political nature of the parochialism in language issues pit different languages against each other, although, it is certainly true that there are several vulnerable languages, dialects, and sub-dialects that genuinely need help and patronage today so that they do not vanish in the future. The solution to the acrimony however lies not in the perpetuation of a false narrative of conflict between languages but rather in the encouragement of a right balance and the proper facilitation of the language learning process itself. The possibility of the preservation of at-risk languages and the solution to the unpleasantness of linguistic disputes both lie in a better, non-political, engagement with languages and a more holistic appreciation of language learning. This article attempts to create such an appreciation through an understanding of the benefits of language learning. It also reveals how active personal engagement with a second, a third, or a foreign language (whatever the case may be) can potentially help foster the creation of better human beings and consequently better societies. This article also offers educators, policy makers, and lay readers some talking points that can help steer the discourse on language matters away from the political towards a more personally transformative constructive understanding of linguistic pluralism.
Language Learning and Self Awareness
There is a well-known ancient adage that goes “Speech is silver, but silence is golden.” The reasons why silence can be “golden” are probably obvious to all, but the idea of speech as “silver” becomes particularly estimable when one starts learning a new or a “foreign” language. When we begin learning a new language and work consciously to develop the skills needed for an effective and eloquent use of that medium, we gain a new appreciation for our ability to make discourse as we start valuing each instance of a successful speech act as something precious. We are all “inhabited by language” but often, in life, we take language for granted in the sense that we do not pay much attention to how we use language and how language shapes us. We also take our own thought process for granted in the sense that we assume that our mental and cognitive structures are natural or universal although they are actually are greatly influenced by language and our relationship to it. Another way of expressing this would be to imagine that “language” is our operating system on the blank slate of consciousness, and the languages we know or speak are the software that we run on. But we are seldom aware of this. However, when we start learning a new or a foreign language, this tendency gets challenged.
The attentiveness to detail and the analytical rigor that accompany the careful study of a new language harness verbal-linguistic intelligence – one of the primary intelligences in multiple intelligences theory – resulting in the development of a special kind of awareness that sharpens the mind and helps refine our faculties of perception, observation, and expression. Engagement with a new or foreign language fosters not just awareness of our shared external world of culture and matter, but also makes us aware of our cognitive biases, the mechanics of our own thought process, and the limits of our own speech patterns and language. It is only through awareness that speech may become “silver” – the appropriate counterpoint to the golden qualities represented by silence.
Every Language is a Distinct and Unique Vision of the World
Every language articulates a slice of the human experience, encodes a certain wisdom, and represents a distinct and unique understanding of the world. This makes every language a prism as well as a doorway that opens up a new possibility. This has been expressed in various ways by those who have experienced it for themselves:
“A different language is a different vision of life.” – Federico Fellini.
“Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things.” – Flora Lewis
“Learning a new language is like beginning another life.” – Michel Bouthot
“Change your language and you change your thoughts.” – Karl Albrecht
As a transformative force, a new language thus offers us ever new ways of “being” or “becoming” – as we may choose. Every new language that we learn continuously opens up to us a whole new world of thought, experience, and wisdom shared by the users of that language. An encounter with another different world of ideas, new conceptual categories, and alternate modes of thinking is something that is, in and of itself, tremendously enriching. A new language also gives us new ways of seeing things, many of which might remain invisible to us otherwise, and thus opens us up to further experience life more fully.
Language Learning and the Economic Advantage
The personal enrichment that happens is reason enough to embark on the amazing adventure that is the process of learning a new language. However, many people who invest themselves in learning a new language are driven by more mundane and practical considerations, such as improved job prospects and better salaries for example, since linguistic knowledge translates into economic opportunity as well.
Depending on one’s location and one’s field, second or foreign language skills often improve the employment potential and the earning potential of an individual. All things being equal, businesses and organizations across the spectrum are increasingly interested in a workforce that can function in more than one language in today’s globalized economy, given the transnational and multicultural nature of their set-up. Big corporations, multinationals, and international NGOs in particular are increasingly investing in people with superior communication skills, including those functional in a more than one language, because they bring to the table something extra beyond the normal expected professional and technical competencies. Employees who are competent in a second or a foreign language in the corporate world, in the medical field, or in different government agencies often have a professional advantage within their organizations because of the added value they bring through their language skills.
A career with international corporations, the government or the military, the aviation and airline industry, the travel and tourism industry, or in the world of education and academia is always an option for those who are passionate about languages. These sectors offer many opportunities for those interested in a foreign language related career in particular.
Language Learning for Personal Empowerment and Enjoyment
While languages can also be a career opportunity, what many people are not aware of is that there are some other compelling but overlooked reasons to study a new or a foreign language. Even if one is not interested in any of the language related careers, just learning a second language or a foreign language when one gets the opportunity can be worthwhile for the following reasons:
- You gain a valuable, useful, and practical lifelong skill.
- Knowing other languages enhances your awareness of the world and allows you to understand and connect with others in a very special way.
- Knowing another language empowers you to effectively participate in a globalized multicultural world that celebrates difference, originality, and diversity.
- The study of another language helps you excel in other subjects. It improves your English, your general study skills, your communication skills, your awareness of your own thought process, and your capacity to engage in abstract and conceptual thinking.
- Learning another language trains your mind to be sharp. The process enhances your brain power, your cognitive abilities, and your ability to be creative and innovative — all of which are necessary for achieving success in any field today.
- Every language represents a different and distinct vision of the world. Your access to a whole new universe of words, ideas, and culture makes you a richer and wiser person.
- Learning a new language can also be lots of fun… if you’re ready to work diligently!
Tips for Learning any Language Quickly
That said, what is the best approach for learning a new language fast? Nowadays there are many websites where one can start learning the basics of a new language for free. Generally speaking though, one cannot learn a language properly and effectively on one’s own or by oneself. Formal good quality instruction and being a part of a learning community are key. The best way to start learning a new or a foreign language quickly is to take a class, and then to use that as a springboard to practice a lot of independent reading, writing, listening, and speaking. One cannot learn a language without using it. Learning a language requires persistence, dedication, and diligence. Approaching it as a form of lifelong learning is the right way. However, with regular practice, progress can be made fast and the process itself can be immensely enjoyable and rewarding. Language learning channels mental energy into very constructive pathways. As a hobby, it can give a person much satisfaction and happiness.
The powerful human brain has much greater capacity for the assimilation of languages than what we give it credit for. The knowledge of another language empowers a person in tremendous ways. The possibility of the preservation of at-risk languages and the solution to the unpleasantness of linguistic disputes both lie in a better, non-political, engagement with languages and a more holistic appreciation of language learning. The development of better disciplined, aware, and socially well adapted beings is a desirable process in any society and needs to be a priority for developing countries like India. Coupled with other kinds of skilling, the study of languages can play an important role in the betterment of a population. Lastly, in many parts of India, the three language formula in the education system is either not applied or is ineffective in its implementation. Those who emerge from the educational pipeline knowing only two languages (such as in Tamil Nadu and the Hindi belt) have a disadvantage compared to those who come from places where they properly acquire three languages in their school years.
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Shonu Nangia is an academic, linguist, and translator-interpreter by training and works as an Associate Professor of Foreign Languages at LSU-Alexandria (USA) where he teaches French and Spanish. His scholarly work has appeared in Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, Michigan Academician, Folia Linguistica et Literaria, The Journal of College Writing, Louisiana Communication Journal, and a host of other places. He is also the author of the book Male-Female Relations in the Literary Maghreb: Poetics and Politics of Violence and Liberation in Francophone North African Literature by Tahar Ben Jelloun. He also enjoys organizing film festivals and yoga and meditation workshops.