Languages as another way of being

LinguaMania multilingual image
Katrin Kohl

The research programme Creative Multilingualism is revealing an aspect of UK society that lies hidden in plain sight: the country’s multilingual riches. They offer a vital resource for the country’s economy and its domestic and external relations. But above all they hold invaluable potential for enriching individual lives.

We know that many schools across the country are multilingual spaces in which languages flourish more vibrantly outside the Modern Foreign Languages classroom than inside it. We don’t currently have an overview of which languages are spoken where, or how they interact. Indeed what characterises this diversity is the fact that it varies from county to county, from city to city, and from one part of a city or rural community to another. The communities in schools reflect the diverse communities in which they are located, and they provide centres in which those communities meet and mingle.

Is Britain one of the most multilingual countries in the world? It seems likely, but we do not know, and it is hard to establish reliable and meaningful evidence let alone answer the question in a metrically robust way. The reasons for this difficulty are manifold, and the flipside of the difficulty is what makes languages so enduringly fascinating: their extraordinary diversity, and their living interaction with the peoples and individuals that use them.

There is no consensus on what distinguishes a language from a dialect, or a regional variation. ‘Arabic’ is not just one language, and there is no certainty about the number of languages used in Africa. Not all languages have gone through the kind of standardisation process that allows us to say confidently that ‘English’ is a language while ‘Scouse’ is a dialect. But does that confidence reflect reality? Not all linguists would agree, and what is ‘English’ anyway? Does it encompass ‘British English’, ‘American English’ and ‘global English’? And what about Scots? Is Skateboard Lingo part of English even though much of it is not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)?

Once we delve into the fabric of multilingualism that makes up our country, we find that people care deeply about their language, or their languages. Communities support them through supplementary schools, and lobbied their MPs successfully in 2016 to avert the threatened abolition of qualifications in languages ranging from Portuguese to Polish, Panjabi to Japanese. What motivates communities to preserve their languages? Would it not be better for children to focus their energies exclusively on English literacy skills?

Schools vary in their approach to the languages their pupils bring from home – some welcome them into the classroom while others prefer to leave them outside. In Wales, many children now have the option of learning Welsh first, or alongside English. Some schools in England have founded their curriculum on the principle that bilingualism gives children an educational advantage. The Judith Kerr Primary School in Herne Hill teaches in English and German, and the Europa School in Culham teaches children to become fluent in English and another European language. Other schools, too, have adopted ‘Content and Language Integrated Learning’ (CLIL), teaching subjects such as history, geography or sciences through a foreign language.

Following Donald Trump’s election, US author and journalist Héctor Tobar wrote a moving article about his rediscovery of Spanish as an adult: The Spanish Lesson I Never Got at School. It was the language his family had left behind as they emigrated from Guatemala. In his youth, an anti-bilingual education movement had promoted teaching immigrant children exclusively in English in order to improve their literacy – a policy Tobar now sees as ‘a form of cultural erasure’. He experienced the loss of Spanish as the loss of something ‘priceless’ – priceless to him personally. He was not the only one: in a context where anti-Latino messages have gained prominence, Californians have now voted to expand bilingual education in schools.

Global English is on the march – but it does not and should not have the power to obliterate the other languages that individuals and cultural groups value as part of their personal lives. Language is not just about easy communication. It is also about cultural expression, and a unique, fulfilling personal identity. Languages are the sap connecting us with our roots. Tobar reconnected with his linguistic heritage and found that Spanish literacy and fluency came to nourish his career as a writer. For others, enrichment may come from learning a new language. What Tobar experienced as he entered the world of Spanish was that ‘to know a language is to enter into another way of being’.

Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford. She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads Strand 1: Metaphor.

Image by Jalaikon / Pegasus Theatre taken at LinguaMania.

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