Salomone on the Importance of Multilingualism

Our St. John’s colleague, Rosemary Salomone, has written an interesting column for University World News titled “Why English is Not Enough,” which reflects on the importance of language in understanding different cultural responses to events that attract global attention–including the recent, religiously-motivated murders in France. Here is a fragment, and a thought afterward:

Hearing American journalists and political pundits deconstruct the underlying issues was one thing. Hearing the French explain and defend their deepest convictions was quite another, even if one sharply disagreed with the underlying principles or policy outcomes. At the very least it gave grounding for a more informed response to the problems now confronting France’s criminal, educational and social welfare institutions in the wake of these recent events.

As debate on free speech and the press slowly recedes for now, and France’s (and Europe’s) ‘Muslim question’ takes centre stage, these observations give rise to a less obvious though consequential point on language and cultural competence.

Defining moments, like the attacks in Paris, should remind us that language is key to gaining an insider’s view and a sense of the ‘big picture’, which by the way also allows us to critically examine ourselves. Print and broadcast media, as well as the global blogosphere, still speak in many voices and worldviews and they are powerful shapers of ideas and opinions.

Though multilingualism is clearly important in the global economy, we should not underestimate the force of language and intercultural awareness in promoting global understanding and security.

Today it’s French. Tomorrow it could be Spanish, Chinese, Farsi or any other language depending on the vagaries of world events. With terrorism unwittingly binding the free world together, linguistic skills and the cultural doors they open are essential to both digging deep into differences, especially among our enemies, while finding common ground for mutual respect and joint action among present and potential allies.

Read the rest. I quite agree that the knowledge of foreign languages is important for these instrumental, political reasons (as well as for far more important intrinsic reasons, such as reading what the great minds of other civilizations have had to say). One thought that occurs to me on reading Rosemary’s piece, however, is that the instrumental reasons to learn a foreign language may be especially weighty today in the case of European languages like French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and so on. That is because it is in Europe, more than many other parts of the world, that cultural clashes of the sort we have just witnessed and are probably going to witness in the coming decades are most likely to occur.

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