Language matters

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Language Groups – Source: David Poullard on Wikimedia

Why would anyone learn a foreign language just now? For the moment we can’t travel beyond our shores, and we’ve lost the freedom of movement within Europe that we enjoyed as part of the EU. Besides, doesn’t everyone speak English?

Well actually they don’t, and anyway, even if you never left the UK again, there are benefits. Learning a language is a workout for the brain for a start. Learning new words, sounds and syntax is demanding, and managing two or more languages is tricky. It’s a challenge for the ‘corpus callosum’, the link between left and right hemispheres of the brain. Speaking a ‘new’ language involves actively suppressing your mother tongue, at the very time you are juggling with foreign vocabulary, grammar, accents and the inevitable irregular verbs. It all adds up to lots of information exchange between the two hemispheres. This improves your memory, your ability to multi-task, make decisions and solve problems, and helps stave off dementia.

Conveniently, learning a first foreign language develops new brain connections, which makes acquisition of subsequent ones easier. So you don’t have to be overly impressed by the multilingual and indeed in some parts of the world being multilingual is simply unremarkable. It’s easier if you learn related languages, as most European languages are. To a German speaker Dutch and Flemish are relatively easy, and many Scandinavian words and structures are recognisable. French is a way in to Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. Slavic languages are closely related as are Celtic ones. And these language groups are all interrelated, if more distantly.

It can be a satisfying detective game working out meaning in languages you’ve never learnt. It’s almost a rite of passage to visit Italy for the first time with only school French and somehow communicate. Directions given in Luxemburgish once got me to the right place, and on a remote Pyrenean track I listened to a farmer telling me excitedly in Catalan how she loved the annual September day when a hundred or more cyclists went by her property. My reward for telling her it was a tour from Bordeaux to Barcelona was a handlebar bag full of tiny plums from her tree.

It’s not all about challenging your brain of course. After the year we’ve had, few would dispute that we crave human interaction. We know from experience that a brief, friendly exchange with a chance stranger encountered on a solitary walk can lift the spirits. Language classes are all about interaction. Their essence is communication. From the first hesitant ‘getting to know you’ and ‘ordering coffee’ exchanges to discussing current affairs, you interact constantly with your fellow students. Links are formed, friendships made. Teaching evening classes I was once made vividly aware of how classes can help a community cohere. After the last class of one course, a student told me she’d joined after her husband died because she just didn’t know what to do with herself and her grief. None of us had known her situation, but the good humoured attempts at communication (and possibly our tradition of a mid-lesson glass of wine) were a distraction and eventually a support, as she became part of the group. It was a small part of what got her through.

When – let’s be positive here – you eventually get to visit the relevant country, how much richer is the experience if you can connect with people outside the tourist bubble. You don’t need a sophisticated knowledge of the language. You just need to make the effort, and not mind that you may feel exposed and childlike. When you’re ‘in the field’ and it’s your only way to communicate, it’s easier than in the classroom with your classmates and teacher listening, and nearly always the reaction is positive.  Asking the way in Cuba in minimal Spanish, I soon found myself sitting on a shady verandah drinking a milkshake made with bananas from my new friends’ garden.  Long ago, hearing my accent, an elderly German treated me, an impoverished student, to lunch because an English soldier had helped him on his way home at the end of the war. And walking with friends across the Apennines in July 2016, we told anyone who cared to listen that we’d voted remain, which proved an excellent icebreaker even if our Italian didn’t then quite stretch to a searching analysis of the Brexit question.

There are many ways of learning languages. Classes are fun and supportive and you learn a lot about the country and culture along the way. Lessons in the relevant country encourage rapid progress. There are online courses. Futurelearn has languages you can try out for free – usually the first four lessons, which are thorough and varied. On CD there are Michel Thomas courses, well suited to those who like to work out the logical patterns in a language. Online you can order BBC courses (books and CDs), focussing on practical language and culture for travellers.

As well as a satisfying sense of accomplishment, learning languages gives you an enhanced appreciation of cultural diversity and, by making people less insular and more accepting, helps to break down barriers. It helps practically when travelling, encourages you to connect with locals, and exercises your brain.
It’s hard to think of any downsides. Apart, perhaps, from irregular verbs!

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