Forget mind-altering drugs – learn a language

Australians have grown lazy about studying languages while our own has spread inexorably across the world, but we should make it a national priority.

I’m regularly astonished by the multilingual skills of my Indian relatives. Their first language is Tamil, but they were educated in English, and switch between the languages constantly when they talk among themselves, sometimes forgetting that I can’t understand the Tamil bits because the mix comes so naturally to them. (Either they forget, or are joking about me – I’m not quite sure…)

They also speak Hindi because it’s the national language, and some Sanskrit, too, because it’s the language of the Hindu scriptures.

India’s an extraordinarily multilingual country – it’s the second-largest market for English-language books nowadays – but there are many others. English is widely spoken in Western Europe, and in our own region, most Singaporeans and Malaysians tend to have two or three languages.

In the Philippines, most education is conducted in English and even the laws are written in it. Reading the local newspapers is always a fascinating exercise – the articles are in English, but drop in a few bits of idiomatic Tagalog, on the assumption that their readers are comfortable in both.

But we native speakers miss out when we float through the world in our English-speaking bubbles. There are millions of people out there who can swap between languages as rapidly as Aussie backpackers exchange empty tinnies for full ones.

Whenever I travel overseas, I feel lucky, and not just because the local media never, ever reports what Shane Warne’s said on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. When I visit a country where another language is spoken, I’m reminded how fortunate I am to have grown up speaking English.

Every airport has signage and forms that I can read, and even in remote corners of the earth, there’s still a good chance you’ll get by with a smattering of simple English words.

Sure, there are other options – you can always use hand gestures and mime, and one of my friends once managed to communicate which sort of restaurant he wanted to visit in Hanoi by showing his cyclo driver a picture of a dog. But English is nevertheless a handy language to speak.

French used to be considered the international language of diplomacy, but nowadays the most conspicuous place you’ll find it in international relations is when a few stubborn countries insist on making that awkward switch to “douze points” during Eurovision voting.

Pop singers from all over the world drop English words into their hits (check out Utada Hikaru’s J-pop classic ‘It’s Automatic’ for one especially tasty example), and garments across the world feature English words that make minimal sense to anyone who can comprehend the language – I particularly like this sweater, also from Japan, with ‘Benign’ written on it. The global reach of the internet seems likely to keep English on top for the foreseeable future.

I studied French in high school, and although I love speaking it, my opportunities to do so are so rare that I’ve grown very rusty, so much so that I can’t remember how to say “I’ve grown very rusty” in French – after all, Eurovision comes but once a year.

But I learned enough to know that visiting a country is profoundly different when you can talk to the locals. I’ve been able to discover that many French people share my love for long, abstract conversations about the meaning of life that end up magnificently unresolved. I’ve also discovered that they all have at least one cousin living in Bondi.

Plus, when I speak French, I can also quickly dispel the instant assumption that I’m English. This immediately improves how people treat me, especially if I pretend that I’ve been surfing with their cousin Armand.

I do believe that, in general, multilingual people have richer lives. It not only adds enormously to the pleasure of travel and allows us to empathise with more people whose backgrounds are different to our own, but it exposes us to vastly different ways of thinking. It’s mind-expanding in a way that a yoga workshop never can be.

(Oh, and your yoga workshop? Full of Sanskrit.)

For instance, our relationship with our Indonesian neighbours isn’t always a comfortable one – how much better would we be able to understand our regular differences with them if we were literally able to understand them? It’s not just understanding the words, it’s understanding the culture, with priorities and assumptions that aren’t always like our own.

When Kevin Rudd spoke in Mandarin on his visit to China, he sent a potent diplomatic message to the Chinese leadership that he literally understood them. He may have somewhat undermined that message a few years later with those rat-related comments, but he’s nevertheless proof of the lifelong benefits that language study can bring.

Not only is being able to speak languages other than English invaluable for business connections, but it will enrich your life in many other respects, too. You can read Proust in the original French, and better still, you can tell people you can. Who knows, it may even lead to you becoming UN Secretary-General someday?


Originally posted at SBS Life