Multi-lingualism: lived or produced?

Article published on March 20, 2010
community published
Article published on March 20, 2010
The EU has made a list of eight key competences for lifelong learning - eight requirements for an educated European. Communication in other languages is listed second, which underlines its importance. Each year the EU invests lots of money in the promotion of multi-lingualism. Most of us also invest a lot to be able to speak at least one foreign language well. What are the returns?

It often seems to me from the first sight that the bigger, richer and more established country, the more problems with foreign languages it has (with some exceptions). The low level of English among French people is a legend passed around by tourists, students and other visitors going to France. And they don't seam to mind it. The same can be heard about Spain, Portugal :) and, to some extent, Italy, but maybe they speak French. Germans seem to speak pretty good English and often some French too, making a rather exceptional big and rich country. All English-speaking countries are legendary for their neglect of foreign languages, with the exception of Canada, where people, again, speak some French. In Japan, people study English for six years and invest large sums into private tutors, yet their relationship with English is typically marked with ongoing struggle, strive to be perfect and shame to actually communicate.

In the small countries' front, the situation is better, yet not without struggle. Lithuanians think their English is so great that the profession of translators and interpreters is doomed to disappear -- meanwhile restaurants and cafes in Vilnius never fail to amuse native speakers with the funny 'English' inventions in their menus. On the way to this perfection, we have lost Russian, for which we had infrastructure, plenty of cultural production (many people of my generation still pick up some Russian by watching films) and lots of native speakers to practise with.

In Hungary, elderly people speak German, very young people (15-19) speak English, while those in the middle hardly speak any foreign language. The generation of 35-55-year-olds tried to delete Russian from their heads as soon as it was not compulsory to learn it anymore. Does it make their lives easier, think for yourselves.

Now before I go to my argument, I'd like to present three opposite stories. The first is from one of the films of the Serbian documentary filmmaker Slavomir Žilnik, whose workshop I attended in Budapest. The film is about a young former refugee from Kosovo named Kennedy, who, after growing up in Germany, was forced to return to Kosovo as it was claimed to be 'safe'. The guy, who works as a taxi driver and lives in his car, freely juggles Romani, Albanian, Serbian and German.

I also met someone from Southern Sudan, who, as deprived as he is of all the education opportunities available to Europeans, is fully fluent, apart from his native language, in Arabic and English, which he constantly seeks to improve.

Another interesting gentleman is a Moldovan domestic helper for old people here in Tel Aviv. He speaks Moldovan, which is close to Romanian, and hence learning Spanish and Italian in three months was piece of cake. He speaks German and Hungarian after living in these countries for a year. After four years in Israel, he is fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish - the latter because of one family he worked with.

Finally, I cannot help but remember the story of my university groupmate from Cameroon. The main thing we Europeans have heard about Cameroon is the conflict between Anglophones and Francophones. So, with all this knowledge, we asked her which group she belonged to. She responded that it would be difficult to choose one language, because both felt kind of native to her, and you need both to be successful at school. Someone then asked her what she spoke in their family, and she named two languages of the different ethnic groups her parents came from. This makes her effectively quadri-lingual, or whatever you call it.

Meanwhile, I'm ashamed to tell you that seven years of studying German at school did not make me a fluent speaker. Interestingly enough, all the classmates who chose to study Russian claimed they didn't learn the language either, since they were 'doing nothing in classes', and parents would do their homework. I spent half a year and invested a lot of money into learning Hungarian, but left the country without the ability to speak in past tense and go beyond the basics in a conversation. I hardly had any local friends, and those that I had, of course, spoke to me in English.

It makes me contemplate that our great-grandparents were certainly less educated and literate, but more advanced in quite a few of the eight key competences of the EU. Learning to learn in particular. Their multi-lingualism came from a life necessity, be it business, employment or communication with their spouse or friends. Most people spoke a dialect and were able to switch to other dialects when travelling; intermarriage across borders was probably more common than today, and educated people often spoke Latin and ancient Greek, in addition to a bunch 'living' languages. I'm currently reading the memoires of G.I.Gurdjieff (1877-1949), who claims that during his travels he picked up as many as 18 languages. Well, OK, leaving borderline geniuses aside, it was quite common that ethnic minorities were not so bordered, and business interests or friendships drove people to learn another language -- at least a bit. Leaving Europe aside, elderly Israelis from Iran, Iraq, etc still remember Yiddish, which they picked up during their encounters with the at the time more multi-lingual Israeli society, while many Ashkenazis claim they have never heard the word 'latkes'. Needless to say, the Mizrachi elders know Arabic and Hebrew and often also English or French or whatever the colonial language was in their country of origin. Their grandchildren have often had classes of Arabic at school, but did not take them seriously and did not move beyond basic phrases. It seems to me that the world at some point became more bordered than ever, and it takes money and political action to make it multi-lingual again.

The difference between all those people mentioned and us, young educated Europeans spending money to add more languages to our CVs, is not only that we live in an artificially homogenised environment with stricter, even though fading, boundaries. It is the fact that the former learn the languages of their neighbors, which meant frequent encounters and lots of sharing (of jokes, of newest slang, etc). A language is always a relationship, and learning a language at school builds a relationship to an often distant culture which we know we need to master, but which affects our everyday life in a rather distant way. The languages we want to learn are mediated by books, TV and internet. It's not necessarily bad, and there's no choice, but I strongly support the idea of knowing the language of one's neighbour. I think most of us in Lithuania could become really fluent in Russian, Polish and Latvian if we invested in it just a little. Language is best learned naturally. With this, learning additional languages would become much easier.