One of the perks of an academic career is having the ability to apply for, and all being well, be granted sabbatical leave. Of course, travelling with 2 children under 5 around the world is not quite the kind of sabbatical that most academics hope for, but I consider myself lucky to have a supportive husband who will willingly grab his passport and suitcase no matter how crazy the adventure (particularly if England – his country of birth – is one of the stops).
Despite the feeling that we are a small travelling circus (though I feel comforted in not being alone in this feeling, as David Haywood so entertainingly details), here I am, in the heart of Reading, in the south of England, a stone-throw away from London leafing through the latest copy of the Guardian, as though I do this every morning of my life.
The British newspaper is still recovering from the furore (including more than one thousand comments!) that Simon Jenkins has caused last week with his poorly-thought and generally abysmal piece “Ignore the panic. There’s little point learning languages at school”. The response which inevitably followed three days later contains details of the many things that are wrong with just about everthing Simon Jenkin wrote or stands for regarding the benefit (or his suggested lacktherof) of learning foreign languages in school. How did he get it just so wrong?
As I read, I am sat about 2 miles away from where the latest European Second Language Association conference (EuroSLA27) is about to be held, at the University of Reading, bringing together experts in the field of second language learning, neuroscience, theoretical linguistics and multilingualism.
Despite being over 11,000 miles away, the very topic of language learning is currently relevant for New Zealand because various political parties (Labour and National) have just recently put forward their language policy announcements. Languages are thankfully recognized to matter – phew, no Simon Jenkins lurking there – and consensus appears to reign in the realisation that a system overhaul is needed in how we accommodate, support and encourage languages to flourish. But coming to the realisation is one thing, and making actual changes is another, as Miriam Meyerhoff, a linguist from the Victoria University of Wellington, accurately points out.
I can’t help but wonder if one of the stumbling blocks that we face in our entire approach to language learning is thinking: what good is language X for me if everyone speaks English anyway? But following this logic, why learn to swim or ride a bike (I can walk or be driven everywhere, and there are plenty of boats and yachts around, in fact more of them than people, according to NZ travel brochures), why learn a musical instrument (I can play much better music from my old, beaten-up phone), why learn to cook (Countdown has a myriad of ready-to-eat options), … come to think, why learn anything at all? Language learning is hard; no one disputes that. It takes effort and commitment. But benefits will come aplenty if such effort is invested.
And there is another thing: language ability is not binary. There is no switch that magically says “congratulations, you now speak language Y” when adequate proficiency is achieved. At any one time, we speak bits of languages, bits. Language boundaries are messy and fuzzy, not neat, linear connections. Equating “speaking a language” to speaking like a “native monolingual speaker” of that language is naïve and unrealistic. In reality, only very experienced translators can say anything they want, and immediately understand everything they hear/read in the languages they know. Most mere mortals compartmentalise and confine their languages within the domains in which they use them.
I use bits of Romanian with my parents, a mixture of English varieties (Kiwi and British) with my husband, some rather ungrammatical rudimentary form of German when travelling in Germany, and scattered bits of French to help me read this or that on the internet or when trying to follow the gist of the odd French movie. But yes, I do speak Romanian, English, German and French – yet, neither as a monolingual native speaker. But that does not mean that I do not speak any language at all! (Ironically, most people I meet think I am Spanish – a language I actually do not speak at all.) But don’t just take my word, have a look at the bilingualism myths page written by one of the world champions of bilingualism, Francois Grosjean.
So let’s unwind the pressure valve, and be more open to foreign languages so that we can allow enjoyment of language learning to pave the way towards a more multilingual society – only good can come of it!
Next stop for us: Germany, bis bald and tchuss!