Language is mankind’s greatest tool. It stores and accumulates our knowledge, encoding thoughts as mundane as shopping lists and as sublime as Hamlet’s soliloquies. More than any other human skill, it permits communication and cooperation through education and exchange of ideas, in turn facilitating trade and economic opportunity.
Two great languages now vie to dominate discourse on Earth: Mandarin Chinese and English. However, depending upon how one defines a language, human languages number somewhere between six and seven thousand. Only some of these are written.
Some languages are literally dying before our eyes and ears. A few indigenous languages have fewer than a dozen fluent speakers, and these are usually elderly people with whose passing their language will tragically disappear.
Languages are also constantly evolving, a fact which explains why Shakespeare’s English (also that of the King James Bible) is so foreign to contemporary speakers.
Canadians honour two official languages; however, we speak (and sometimes write) several hundred. Before European settlement indigenous peoples in what is now Canada included eleven language groups featuring about 65 distinct languages and dialects. With European immigration, and later additions from other areas of the globe, there are dozens more.
Our official languages are hammered into us through government, education, business and entertainment. Other foreign languages flourish in minority communities, exotic to those of us who don’t know them. They seem romantic perspectives, mystery codes whose messages are available only to the initiated.
In western Canada, we smugly enjoy the benefits of a globally dominant tongue largely through historical accident, and it’s not uncommon for Canadian English speakers to resent the notion that we should speak, read or hear anything else. (The same kind of cultural xenophobia grips large swathes of Canada’s French-speaking population, particularly in Quebec, where laws have been used to protect the French tongue.)
“Owning” a globally dominant language gives one a competitive advantage. We can understand more people and enjoy broader social perspectives than someone who speaks only a minority language. However, it is easy to mistake basic linguistic competence for intelligence, a foolish error that is nonetheless egotistically appealing.
Linguistic understanding promotes trust, but cultural competition through language can lead to paranoia and often violence. The nationalism that spurred the two world wars was powerfully reinforced through linguistic pride.
North American laziness with regard to foreign language learning is practically legendary. Canadians’ tragicomic willingness to brag about their incompetence in high school French and our penny-pinching education funding when it comes to foreign languages is short-sighted and foolish.
Harper’s Index once noted that nearly 60 per cent of American students think it “important” to learn a foreign language, but that only 7 per cent of them actually do. In Europe foreign language learning has pride of place among other academic disciplines.
The European Union features tens of millions of citizens who speak three or more languages. As economic opportunities arise in other member nations, people move to take advantage of them, and they assiduously learn the languages needed.
Citizens there, who work in all kinds of jobs—waiters, bus drivers, tour guides, hotel employees, bankers—routinely shift from language to language as needed. They may not be equally fluent in all of them, but most people exhibit general competence with several languages. It’s not uncommon for speakers in conversation to shift between two or three languages within the space of a sentence, as needed to get the meaning across.
In our recent trip to Europe, the twenty-something clerk at our Frankfurt hotel spoke four languages: English, French, German and Hebrew. He disdainfully criticized the German education system for beginning foreign language instruction only in Grade 5; in Israel, he informed us, they begin in Grade 3.
Those of us who visit from North America seem comparative rubes, mildly retarded, flashing our Rick Steves grins as if competence in English grants us some kind of royalty.
With its tolerance and variety in cultures and languages, contemporary Europe has become a model of what is culturally possible. Globalism should mean more than wearing sweatshop clothing and selling junk food in China. We need to adopt the European attitude of broadening our linguistic competence. Mandarin might be a good start.
Former English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, BC.