Cultural conversation: language learning

What role does language play in keeping a country's heritage alive and how does it help unite diversity in today's multicultural society? Vision explores

In movies, music and literature, English appears to be as dominant on the world stage as ever. So the Council Of Europe’s annual European Day Of Languages - held each year on 26 September - could easily be seen as a counterpoint, a means by which other, less popular, languages can be celebrated. But dig a little deeper, and it’s so much more than that. The idea is to encourage people to speak multiple languages, if only so that they might develop a greater understanding of different cultures.

Indeed, though some Europeans might consider themselves monolingual, it’s not actually the experience of the majority of the world’s population. For example, it’s a fact of life in Dubai that, alongside the official language of Arabic, most can understand English. Go to a mall, and you’re also likely to hear Urdu, Indonesian, Bengali and Tagalog. Such multilingualism has been key to Dubai’s success as a thriving city.

But none of these languages are being spoken in isolation. They may not even be spoken fluently. According to the Council Of Europe, that isn’t the point: the idea is to be able to communicate and be understood “according to your own needs and requirements”. So rather than being frightened off by a lack of proficiency, the simple act of speaking another language helps promote a more multicultural view of the world. It makes a lot of sense. If your first language is Spanish, for example, but you can speak some Chinese, you’re much more likely to be able to understand the perspective, culture and traditions of a person living in Shanghai. 

Of course, language also helps keep a country’s heritage alive, forming common bonds for its speakers. That doesn’t mean a language has to operate in a ghetto, but the example of Catalan, the local language in North-East Spain is intriguing. Its use was a form of rebellion after the Spanish Civil War, but became a key part of Catalonia's move to becoming an autonomous community within Spain. Catalan culture and identity united around its language. 

Given that EDL wants to encourage “plurilingualism”, then, it’s no surprise that some Dubai institutions were celebrating on 26 September. At International House Dubai, there was an open day for those interested in learning a new language at their institute, with demonstration lessons and a book sale. Elsewhere, the British Council, Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute came together to celebrate French, English and German at Alliance Francaise in Oud Metha, and there were also free language workshops at Eton Institute. 

So anyone thinking of trying a new language should perhaps first reflect on the words of Neil Madden on the EDL website. Talking of the “move into the polyglot age”, he says that learning to use another language is about more than the acquisition of a useful skill. 

"It reflects," he writes, "an attitude of respect for the identity and culture of others, and tolerance of diversity.”