Monday, 13 July 2009

Why language matters.

I read the above Tweet and decided to investigate.

It took me to Building Peace, the blog of Reach364, a Captain in the US Airforce and C-17 pilot, and a post that begins with a question -

Why should American military officers learn foreign languages? For that matter, why should Foreign Service Officers or any other representatives of the American government?

And whilst the context of the article is military, considering the situation in Afghanistan and Jordan, the comments Reach makes are relevant to language learning in general, not just in volatile situations.

Acknowledging that advances in technology and translation software mean that people can 'talk' to one another without being able to speak the language, Reach makes the following statement -

I still believe learning human languages the old fashioned way is important. Why? This is the crux: foreign language ability is not just about converting information from one format to another. It's about human relationships.

He talks of language as 'a way of building relationships, of winning trust.' Couldn't agree more. How many times have I been met with a beaming smile and extra special attention because I spoke in Spanish, French, Catalan, or even when I attempted to speak German in Switzerland? I see it as a mark of respect to attempt to communicate in someone's language, even if it is a job to get your mouth around the sounds and intonation. I've mentioned before that some of my favourite and most rewarding teaching experiences have been when pupils have led, sharing their experiences and language with joy and pride - and been amused by my efforts!

As Nelson Mandela said -

Reach concludes -
Language is extremely hard. We need as many language solutions as we can get, and technology certainly can and should help fill the gap. But no matter how good the technology gets, no matter how prevalent English becomes, old-fashioned speaking of a foreign language still matters.
Certainly with him there.

What do you think?


Thanks Lisa for highlighting this one! I found the stories that were related about those who could speak the language quite powerful. Even more than would normally be the case, given the military setting.
Andrew J

I agree with you very much. Part of learning the language is also learning the culture, and that will go far in helping us build strong relationship within our communities and with other nations.

I agree 100% and think that it helps you understand that the world is bigger than where you live. I know a little Spanish and am learning Hindi as well. People are so impressed that I want to learn other languages, especially when I (attempt) to converse with them. It makes me feel like I've extended my boundaries just a little.

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