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Two is better than One

September 28, 2014


There is the old joke of what do you call a person who only speaks one language – an Englishman.  It may be a stereotype but it’s probably never been truer as the number of students studying modern languages at GCSE, A Level and University continues to decline relentlessly.  More than the lack of the knowledge itself I am always grieved by the contempt which is sometimes shown in this country to other languages: their uselessness, their incomprehensibility, the outrageousness of speaking them on the streets of London.

As a person of Welsh descent brought up in England, I have always had an interest in languages and admired those who were fluent in more than one.  For the Welsh, more so than the Irish or the Scots, the preservation of our distinctive and ancient language has been intimately tied up with our sense of national identity.  There is a Welsh saying “gwlad heb iaith, gwlad heb galon” a country without a language is a country without a heart.  It is if the language carries a great part of our national and cultural DNA to be passed on from one generation to another. It is one of the achievements of my adult life I am proud of that I’ve been able to ensure that I am not the first generation of my family not to speak Welsh.

But in additions to the specifics of why I might wish to learn the language of my family, there are good general reasons for being able to speak more than one language.

Sometimes it is useful.  While I think the utilitarian argument is often grossly overdone in respect of any form of educational activity there are times when it can be directly helpful.  Although in my own lifetime the ability to speak English (or rather American) has spread enormously, certainly in Europe, not everybody speaks our language and if you want to quickly go about your business being able to say something in the local language can be useful.

But if the strictly utilitarian was the only tests then I think the decline in the study of languages might be justified.  However there are other reasons.

The first is the sheer fascination and beauty of different languages.  Learning other languages and how they describe both the commonplace and the special is like seeing the world in colour when you have been used to seeing it only in black and white.  You appreciate nuances of meaning and appreciation which are invisible when only looked at through the lens of your own native tongue.   The English say “Indian Summer”, the Welsh say “Small summer of Michaelmas”.  We both refer to that occasional blast of late summer weather which we experience at the end of September.

This is heightened when you can appreciate the links between different languages.  The words in each language which are related to each other, the words they have more explicitly borrowed from each other.  Our word triumph which comes from Etruscan through Latin, alcohol which comes from Arabic, kiosk from Turkish.  A knowledge of other languages can often be a key to understanding and communicating better in your own native tongue.

The second and, for me, most significant reason is one of empathy.  By learning someone else’s language you acquire not only an understanding of the practicalities of their life, you also get an insight into their psychology and at times their soul.  It is possible to learn some things in translation but things can also be lost in translation.  Hearing and reading in the original language adds a greater depth of understanding which in, most cases, is well worth well the effort.  Diversity is the delight of our species and languages are the ultimate expression of that diversity.

Finally if you are not convinced by any of the arguments above there is one left.  The mental effort of learning other languages is good for us.  Researchers  think that the ability to speak another language might be a protective factor for the onset of dementia.  So two might indeed be better than one.


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