Friday, February 01, 2008

A multiplicity of languages

The European Commission's "Group of Intellectuals for Intercultural Dialogue," chaired by Amin Maalouf, one of my favourite writers, this week delivered its report on its discussions on the contribution of multilingualism to intercultural dialogue.

The report — A Rewarding Challenge: How the Multiplicity of Languages Could Strengthen Europe — according to the press release "makes proposals on how languages can foster intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding, establishing a clear link between linguistic diversity and European integration." There are some introductory comments on the question of identity (a matter on which Maalouf has previously written eloquently about) and a discussion of the general implications of what it is to live in community of 23 official languages, with the basic conclusion that everyone ought to learn another language. Simple.

I rather favour this bit, as it gives the example of Joseph Conrad, whose linguistic mix (albeit in different proportions) I happen to share:

For the people of Europe, old and young alike, intensive and in-depth knowledge of a language and all the culture that it transmits is a major factor of fulfilment.

In a civilisation in which communication is becoming so important and in which there is an increasing amount of free time, to add to one's existence this exploration of another linguistic and cultural universe can only bring enormous professional, intellectual and emotional satisfactions.

Moreover, mastering a personal adoptive language and familiarising oneself with the universe of its speakers should be conducive to a more outward-looking attitude to the world and others, and strengthen the sense of belonging to Europe ; not at the expense of belonging to one's country or culture of origin, but in addition to it,
particularly as, in his or her relations with the speakers of the personal adoptive language, a European citizen would naturally tend to extend to them knowledge of their own country and their own culture.


For those Europeans whose mother tongue has a dominant place in the world, and we think immediately of the British, acquiring a personal adoptive language is probably even more vital than for others, given that the temptation to remain ensconced in
monolingualism is probably much stronger than elsewhere. Without a special effort to promote, from the very earliest age, the intensive learning of an additional language, the advantage which English speakers today have would rapidly become eroded, and the globalisation of their mother tongue would have an adverse effect on their competitiveness at both individual and collective levels. This paradoxical pattern of events was stressed in no uncertain terms in a recent study commissioned by the British Council.

It might perhaps be worth stressing here that some Europeans should obviously choose English as their personal adoptive language, following the example of Joseph Conrad who was of Polish mother tongue, had French as a language of international communication, and became one of the greatest writers of the English language. It is important for English to retain and consolidate the eminent place it holds as a language of culture rather than being straitjacketed in the role of instrument of global communication, a flattering but detractive role, and one which is potentially a factor of impoverishment.

How many languages do you know? What is (would be) your personal adoptive language?

1 comment:

Melanie said...

I am ashamed to say I am monolingual, English only. My French is very, very basic and that's even with living in Montreal for 11 years. I'd love to be fully bilingual in French, and if I still had room in my brain, I'd love to think and speak in Ukrainian because that's my family background.