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Why learn languages? Changing the lens on languages in schools

I don't normally have guest posts on my blogs, but

Tim and I recently had a great conversation about

why, in an age of AI, we need to rethink the

reasons for learning languages. Enjoy!

Tim F Nash
Guest blog post for Crisfield Educational Consulting


“How can we be so interested in global citizenship and international mindedness and not be interested in languages in schools?” 
E. Crisfield.[1]


We normally think of languages as barriers that separate us from others.  If we learn another language, it is so that we can communicate with those who live behind the barrier that remains between us.  And yet the fact that both “they” and “we” use language at all should immediately unite us on the same side of the fence. 


All humans use language - not just to communicate, but also to process our thoughts and make sense of our situations even when we are on our own and don’t have anyone else to communicate with.  Language is how we get clear in our own minds what it is that we may or may not want to communicate with others.  Which begs the question: does it make any difference which language (or languages) we use?


On a flight out of Kuala Lumpur, I had nothing to read but the safety instructions in front of me, which were written in English and Malay.  I got to wondering which of the words meant “seat” and, with the help of an online translator, discovered that my life jacket was under “the place where I sat down.”  I was used to thinking about a seat as an object (which might be large or small, clean or dirty, plain or luxurious etc), but Malay shifted my focus to what I was doing.


Back in Singapore, I had noticed how many streets were called “Jalan” something.  “Jalan” predictably turned out to be Bahasa for “street,” but a local friend helped me see that it also means “to go,” “means” or “behaviour” – highlighting the inseparability of what I do, where I do it, how I do it, and how it affects others.  The lack of any semantic connection between “street”, “go”, “means” and “behaviour” in English makes it easy for me to forget this but Bahasa alerts me to the reality again.


 “A rose by any other name – be it “trëndafili” (Albanian), “kacay” (Somali) or “gül” (Turkish) - would smell as sweet.”  But the names assigned to things carry a range of meanings and associations in one language which they may not carry in another.  The poppy reminds Brits of lives sacrificed for freedom since 1914, but reminds Chinese of British imperial oppression from 1840.  Search for images of “chien” and you will not get the same results as if you search for “dog.”  The equivalent words in different languages show us different aspects of the same common concept and alternative ways in which ideas can be connected or grouped together.  They also evoke different emotions, helping us to see how something we think of as negative could equally be a force for good – and vice versa.


Language not only gives us labels or symbols for ideas; it also gives us a specific ways to arrange those ideas.  In English if you tell me that you opened your door to a “dark, sweaty, drooling, snarling …” I will all the while be wondering what this terrifying threat is that you faced and yet mercifully seem to have survived - which is great for suspense if that is what you are going for!  In French the same anecdote would begin with you opening your door to a “kitten,” which – poor thing – had somehow been left “dark, sweaty, drooling, snarling …”  The same labels but two very different ways of arranging them, resulting in opposite emotional responses.  Each of value in different contexts and for different purposes.


Languages are human thought algorithms and different algorithms yield different results.  The value of me learning Chinese or Portuguese or Amharic is thus not only – or even primarily – so that I can communicate with “them:” it is so that I can see things in front of me that I have hitherto ignored or undervalued; it is so that I can see the things familiar to me from fresh perspectives; it is so that I can think more broadly and creatively about the situation I am in.  These are the skills we need for problem-solving and relationship-building.  And we can begin to acquire them through other languages long before we reach any kind of communicative fluency (if we ever do). This should cause us to think again about the language provision in our schools.  It is not only “they” (the EAL students and the translanguagers) who need support for the sake of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; it is “we” too, whose first - and perhaps only - language is the language of instruction.



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