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I consider myself to be extremely lucky. I am probably one of the few native English speakers, born in England, who began to learn a second language at the tender age of six. My mother had the patience and the foresight to teach me my first words and sentences in French.
Why do I consider myself lucky? Not, as you might reasonably assume, because today I speak perfect, flowing French (I don’t in fact: despite studying the subject at university, it has become shamefully rusty through lack of practice). The reason I feel so fortunate is that what my mother was really giving me was a love of language and languages which has been with me ever since.
If I am asked what languages I know, I find it a difficult question to answer. I am an English native speaker with a near-native level of Spanish. I can get by in French, Italian and —at a pinch— German and Catalán (at least enough to order the right number of beers and to give reasonably accurate directions to tourists lost in the sprawling metropolis of San Sebastián). At some point or another I have spoken, and have pretty much been understood, in Croatian, Basque, Japanese, Portuguese, Swahili and Quechua. I can roughly decipher Latin inscriptions in churches and I can distinguish the Cyrillic alphabet from the Greek and Japanese characters from Chinese.
This might all sound very impressive, but in fact I don’t believe I have any special gift other than a sometimes frighteningly cavalier attitude towards embarrassing myself and making mistakes and a deep-felt fascination and inquisitiveness for language.
Photo: t i n a | r a v a l.
The differences and diversity that exist between one language and another are startling – and this is not frightening, but thrilling. Of course language learning requires effort but, for me, it is a mistake to assume from the outset that learning a language is difficult. From this point of view, Basque speakers and teachers often do themselves and their language a disservice. I don’t believe one can claim that Basque is any more difficult than any other language, but it IS wildly different. In fact, the 16th Century scholar and renowned polyglot Joseph Justus Scaliger had tens of ancient and modern languages under his belt, but was evidently beaten by euskara: “Cést un langage estrange que le Basque... On dit qu’ils s’entendent, je n’en croy rien.” But mistaking differentness for difficulty means fretting over how you are ever going to cope instead of delighting in something new and unusual.
Here are some personal examples of how differences between languages delight me: I find the fact that Basque and Swahili add their prepositions to the end of the noun a thing of great beauty (why should a noun always look the same?). I am struck by the significance of “people” being singular in Spanish while they are plural in English. The strictness of German word order is a marvel of precision engineering, and their sending of verbs to the end of relative clauses sends shivers down my spine. I used to envy my Russian-studying colleagues at university for the mysterious, elegant script that only they could understand. Learning a new language inevitably involves learning new sounds and even letters (ß is still my favourite, but the ñ comes close) and fancy punctuation (I have always been a great fan of the ç cedilla – a good excuse if one were needed to learn Catalán or Turkish in addition to French). Imagine learning a new language which has a whole new alphabet! A secret code! Very exciting. And as for my most recent discovery (the formation of verbs in the Semitic languages) really, you wouldn’t believe it if they weren’t used regularly and without apparent mishap by millions of people around the world.
So, given this complexity, why bother to learn a second language or more? There are many reasons. Studies into bilingualism have shown that bilingual children do not tie down concepts and the world around them to simple, single words and, as a consequence, they tend to be more imaginative, creative and better at problem-solving than their monolingual counterparts. They embrace difference and are more open-minded to other cultures.
Photo: t i n a | r a v a l.
Bilingualism is obviously a luxury not all of us are granted in life, but it is not necessary to achieve a high level in other languages to appreciate the benefits mentioned above. The linguist Guy Deutscher refers to speaking other languages as “the ability to build bridges between minds” and I found a good example of this in a conversation with a student who recently took a year’s course in beginners’ Chinese. One of the many things she found interesting on the course was the fact that, when you greet somebody after lunch, rather than saying “Good afternoon” as you would in many European languages, you should ask “Have you eaten yet?” Not only does she know the correct phrase to use in a given situation, but she has gained an important insight into the Chinese way of thinking.
You don’t even need to travel to find this ability useful. Unless you never leave your house, don’t have a television and reject the Internet, it is impossible not to come across examples of different languages in action. You may find that you can recognise a few words in a foreign news report —and if you do, you immediately feel a closer link with the person being interviewed than you do just from listening to an often monotone and inexpressive dubber. Imagine travelling by car and guessing the nature of the merchandise in a passing German lorry from the writing on the side— not very exciting as hobbies go, but it certainly makes long car journeys more bearable. When a tourist with a smattering of Spanish or a Basque with limited Euskara makes an effort to communicate in these languages, they are attempting to build a bridge. And we need to remember that bridges are generally built from both ends, so a sympathetic and encouraging ear is as important as the voice trying to reach it. Pixka bat goes both ways.
The point I hope I have got across is that learning any language —even just a few words— can be extremely fulfilling. I derive the same amount of pleasure from knowing a couple of words in Croatian as I do from speaking Spanish fluently. If all our children could discover this fascination at an early an age as possible, the future could be very bright indeed. In Spain, at the very least, everybody should know a few basic expressions in Spanish, Basque, Galician and Catalán. And though our childhood is long past, it is never, ever too late to start building bridges between minds; not just for work, or for travel, or for studies, but for the sheer, unadulterated pleasure of it.