By Atina Dimitrova
Nelson Mandela said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Languages are more than just a way of disseminating information. They help our understanding of different cultures. Our engagement with them provoke appreciation towards nations’ mythology and folklore. Imagine doing this in more than just one language. In two or… twenty? Our intercultural experience must be fascinating… if we continue studying languages…
Guardian article’s figures reveal linguists’ estimation that within 20 years half of all the languages worldwide will be dead… And Tim Doner, a hyperpolyglot from the U. S., at TEDx Talk Conference claims that every two weeks a language dies because of war, famine or lack of people to practise it.
Therefore, who are the ones trying to save languages? The Polyglot Workshop on the 27th February in London is the event which welcomes 14 people interested in the social, academic and personal benefits of multilingualism. They are among the ones preserving languages… by studying and teaching many.
Telegraph article’s figures show that three billion people use more than one language in their everyday life which shows how interested we are in speaking different languages. The aim of the workshop is discussing multilingualism’s benefits and discovering more enjoyable learning techniques. Some of the people share now their experience.
Richard Simcott, a hyperpolyglot from Britain, speaks more than 20 languages. Mr Simcott, one of the workshop’s organisers, is fluent in many Romance, Germanic and Balkan languages. As a person currently living in the Balkans and having knowledge of how all the Balkan languages connect, he naturally understands the relationship between the words. He called this experience “enrichment and understanding of the environment”.
Speaking many languages is linked to our ability to draw parallels and find contrasts. Mr Simcott gives some examples: “I am interested in where words have come from and how the same word may work in other languages. The word for ‘trade’ in Turkish, for example, in Macedonian means ‘doing dodgy deals’. It is funny how from a normal word in Turkish, it has this different meaning in Macedonian.” Another example is how the different languages inflame dissimilar feelings… and this can lead to funny situations. “There are definitely words that change the way I feel. For example, ‘pride’ in Macedonian is spelled in a way which in Spanish means ‘fat’. Whenever I say the word ‘pride’ in Macedonian, I always think of the Spanish one and the other way round. These two words have merged in my head bringing different emotions,” he says. However, apart from talking about the controversial connection between languages, thanks to their dissimilarities, he also talks about accents. For him they are among the most charming things we can explore – “it is the badge of who we are, it is our identity”.
And Mr Simcott helps saving languages by speaking also not so common ones like Luxembourgish and Icelandic. When asked which language was very challenging, but he continued studying it, he mentions Georgian: “It has quite tricky sounds to master. I did not have a very strong reason to study it to a very fluent level. I just liked the way it looked on the page.” He also thinks that our development of writing skills does not determine our ability to speak the language. “There are so many people who cannot read and write in the world but communicate just fine – writing came after speech,” he says.
Moreover, learning new languages is not only restricted to linguistic knowledge. It improves our problem-solving skills and sharpens our memory. This mental gymnastics also leads to many social benefits. Alex Rawlings, the UK’s most multilingual student, according to the results of a competition run by the publisher Harper Collins in 2012, shares more on the topic. “What is very nice about knowing many languages is the lifestyle that comes with it. It exposes us to people that otherwise we would never be able to speak to,” he says. Inevitably, this knowledge triggers vehement desires in us to travel. “If we go to a country and we do not speak the language, we rely on other people telling us about the country. But if we go to this place and speak the language, we are free to ask any questions, to have our own experience,” Mr Rawling shares. Speaking 11 languages and even teaching four, he outlines German as his association with the word “art”. “I studied German in the university, we had so much of German literature. I understood its enormous influence on the Western world,” he says.
Olly Richards, the founder of a website about language learning, believes that studying many languages is no longer an isolating hobby. “There are people who are passionate about learning languages even though they might not have wide experience. I want to help them do it in an effective way,” he says. When asked whether there is a book he has read in many languages, he says: ”The Little Prince – maybe I have read in every language I speak this timeless book.” Speaking eight languages, he outlines Japanese as the most challenging one because it was the first non-Romance language for him: “I had to learn a different linguistic concept”.
When we learn our second language, the quality and intensity of our attachment to more languages improves. Dom Bennett, a translator from London, working mainly with Arabic, but also speaking four more languages, talks about this. “Being ‘fluent’ always means you can improve something. However, starting a language from scratch is what triggers my life. I want my London somewhere else. Having English as my mother tongue is beneficial. But I want to be the foreigner in a basic fish shop in Madrid, Tokyo, Barcelona. This is the real world for a learner.”
Touching a similar topic with Anastasia Ioannidi, a Political Science student in France, originally born in Greece, shares enthusiastically about her experience with English, French, Arabic, Italian etc. “Accents are exotic. They make you travel,” she adds. “Languages are friends. Even if I do not go out on Saturdays, I can watch a documentary in Russian and I would be happy.”
Furthermore, Benson I. P. Hoi, a Chinese Software Engineer, currently working in Paris, finds learning new languages as “an excuse to travel”. “It is great to spend some months in a place to improve the language,” he tells while switching between English and French in his current job. Mr Hoi knows the two most-spoken Chinese dialects, Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as Japanese and some Spanish. Being currently occupied with Polish, he mentions that he may work in India soon so he hopes to achieve some good level in Tamil language.
Multilingualism makes signs of cognitive ageing occur later and increases connectivity between brain areas... especially when it comes to reading. Anca Andronic, a Romanian IT Project Manager, speaks four languages at an advanced level, and simultaneously is a beginner in Serbian. “I enjoyed reading quite a few books in many languages. I recently finished a book by the Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Firstly, I read it in English, but I wanted to enjoy it in the original language. That is the true learning process,” Ms Andronic says.
It is important for us to save the traditions of languages and it does not matter whether a language is spoken by four billion people or just ten worldwide. All languages improve our cognitive flexibility and make us even more devoted to our mother tongues. And of course, if we are able to talk to people in their languages, it makes us more tolerant because we are not restricted to a single world-view. This is linked to cultural empathy which lessens racism and xenophobia. A language goes beyond vocabulary and grammar, it helps us translate revolutionary ideas… And we will become the ones preserving languages from extinction!
Author of two novels published in Bulgarian. Photography lover. Journalism student at City University London