The widespread success of the English language in the world is unquestionable. In a wide range of areas such as science, technology, commerce, and culture, English has become the predominant language. One would think that nowadays any affair among most nations could be dealt with in this language. However, is this a reason for English speakers to refuse learning other languages? What is the importance of learning a different language? According to Quentin Peel, other languages should be learned not only ‘as a mere matter of acquiring a technical skill, to buy or sell a piece of machinery or order a meal in a restaurant…’ but also because languages enable human beings to communicate and understand each other.
The declining number of people taking up language courses, especially in the UK and the US, shows that less people are interested in them. In the UK, registrations for the study of other European languages is decreasing and many universities might be reducing or closing their language departments. In the US, there is also a negative tendency. From 1960 to 1998 figures show that there has been a reduction from 16% to less than 8% of registrations for foreign language studying. Is this lack of interest something to worry about? Quentin Peel believes it is.
In order to evaluate whether learning different languages is so important it is essential to understand the functions of a language. Shan Wareing distinguishes between referential, affective, aesthetic and practical uses of the language[i]. Language can be used as an instrument to communicate information, to differentiate power or social relationships between different people, to give ‘pleasure by its sounds and rhythms and by play with meanings’, or as a means to communicate to others the willingness to converse. Language can also be the way of ‘establishing our identity, and of shaping other people’s views of who we are…’. Members of any society, no matter how large or small it is, identify themselves as belonging to them by means of the language they use. And usually, the boundaries of those communities are established by its particular use. Furthermore, the use of any particular language has social and ethnic implications, which may ‘either enable or restrict access to social and institutional structures, privileging one community of speakers over another’[ii].
So, learning a language might not seem very important for English speaking groups if they do not understand the varied functions of a language. If the study of a foreign language is only pursued as a means of obtaining a skill to only facilitate commerce or tourism, most of its main functions are lost. Quentin Peel might be right when worrying about ‘a monoglot world’, especially when globalisation encourages every nation to exchange economically, socially, politically, and culturally with all others, in order to succeed. The world is not ‘monoglot’ but polyglot and the European Union is only one of the many examples of regions which are in constant exchange and in which more than 20 different languages are spoken.
Those who would not bother to really understand other cultures by learning their language would argue that any nation being a ‘super’ power need not worry about it since the rest will desperately try to do so. But in a fast changing world there is no guarantee that any ‘super’ power would continue to be so. Progress and development, religion, geopolitics, international trade, and climate issues are but a few of many constant sources of conflict among nations. One would hope that they have realised that in order to accomplish their objectives they must be open to establishing good relations with others, regardless of their geographical location, ethnic group or language.
Then, what better way to understand each other than by knowing and using a wide range of rich languages? There is a lot to appreciate in language. There is much more to English than the CNN or the BBC, Hollywood movies or Microsoft computing. Each language presents exceptional peculiarities, a shared culture and history, a way of thinking of the people who conform a certain social group. And each of us may be in any of those groups and might need some time to be understood by others. Peel might be right when he states that ‘Learning a language should be seen as the root of cultural understanding…’[iii] the very first step of many towards it.
By the Blogs Team
[i] Shan Wareing in Language, Society and Power. Linda Thomas and Shan Wareing, Routledge, London, 1999
[ii] Joanna Thornborrow in Language, Society and Power.
[iii] Quentin Peel, The Monotony of Monoglotian, Financial Times, 08/01/2001 page 23