Unfortunately for most of us who have studied languages, it is a hard, slow slog of trying to cram new words, grammar and tenses into our brains. Studying German at university, I was always annoyed that I couldn’t cram for the exams at the last minute! To have any hope of learning the language (and passing the exams), you had to do the work each week – repetition, repetition, repetition.
But apart from learning cool new words and showing off to your friends, what is the point of a new language? What other motivations are there to put in so much hard work just so that you can talk to other people that live half way round the world from you?
Well, apart from every language having specific, often difficult linguistic nuances to drive anyone crazy (Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language” is a great rant on this topic), they often contain hidden clues to a culture.
For example, listening to Hindi songs, my husband often tries to translate the words for me. More often than not, he gives up in frustration, explaining that English does not communicate the same passion and profound depth of the lyrics. One thing I have learned from this however, is that the topic of love and expressing all its pleasures and pains is a strong part of Indian creative culture (music, dance, movies etc). This is something I initially would not have expected, because of my previously un-informed view of the system of arranged marriages in the subcontinent. Interesting what language can reveal….
On another angle, it can often reveal hierarchies in cultural structures. For example, many languages have different ways of speaking to older people compared with younger people, as signs of respect. English is not one of these languages. Australians are often known for talk about taking the mickey out of their supervisors*, cutting down tall poppies* and kids are always trying to push boundaries with their teachers. It would be interesting to know if we had a respectful aspect to our language what difference this might make. In the languages I have learnt that have this feature, it has certainly broadened my view and made me reflect on the meaning of respect (a topic for a future blog post!).
But one of the more interesting things I have discovered about learning languages is their ability to build connections and relationships and potential healing. And I don’t just mean being able to make friends with someone from another country. You see this when traveling overseas. Often even if you make the smallest attempt to speak the locals’ language, there is an immediate increase in smiles, warmth and welcoming hospitality towards you (and possibly a few laughs at your weird accent, if I’m honest 🙂 ).
I learnt about an even more profound aspect of this when I spoke to a friend from South Africa. In their school, they had to learn English, Afrikaans and the local tribal language. Talk about a pathway to reconciliation!! I think that is an amazing process that would be a solid platform for other cultures communicating and working together for their country. Imagine if every child in Australia had to learn the local Aboriginal language!?!?! Not only would this save a lot of languages becoming extinct, I think it would bring the indigenous issues to the fore. And when we become aware of something, and we can communicate with one another, that’s a great start for a collaborative connection that will open up cross-cultural solutions!! I realise this sounds very idealistic, and it does not even begin to cover the complexities of Australia’s indigenous history and politics, but I think it would be a fantastic starting point 🙂
So when you’re learning a new language, try think about some of the other hints it is giving you about a culture, and what you can learn and incorporate into your understanding of people, the world and everything.
*Aussie slang for making jokes about people in higher positions than you.