As Russian forces gathered at the border before the invasion of Ukraine, one reporter, Philip Crowther, stood out from the rest. Not so much because of what he said, but because in his piece to camera he moved effortlessly between six languages: English, Luxembourgish, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German. He gave the same report in each. This polyglot, born in Luxembourg to a German mother and a British father, became an instant social media star. Rightly so. His was a virtuoso performance.
We live in complicated times as far as language learning goes. While many people in mainland Europe move easily between two or even three languages, language learning in UK schools is in a state of decline. It’s no surprise that Emmanuel Macron speaks English, or that Angela Merkel speaks English and Russian. But a British politician who makes the effort to speak another language is still something of a novelty. Brits abroad are notoriously prone to use English.
At the same time, digital media have transformed the world of language learning. Apps such as Duolingo, Babbel and Memrise compete for business – Duolingo has over 500 million registered subscribers and courses in 38 languages. Some, such as Italki, even put learners in touch with native speakers to practise conversation via a video link. Gone are the days of language students listening to a crackly audiotape and repeating what they’ve heard.
Meanwhile, Google Translate is getting so accurate that it hardly seems worth putting effort into learning another language. If you have an Internet connection and a smartphone you can communicate with someone else whichever language they speak. This isn’t quite the Babel fish imagined by Douglas Adams that allowed Arthur Dent to understand Vogon when he put it in his ear, but it’s getting close. Most taxi drivers today don’t bother with The Knowledge, but instead rely on satnav apps and still get to their destinations. Language learning, too, seems like a lot of effort to achieve what an app promises to give us effortlessly.
But that analogy is weak. We know that the brains of London cab drivers who have done The Knowledge are different from other people’s – they have larger hippocampi. And learning a second or third language has benefits in fighting the cognitive decline of ageing. But learning to speak more than one language is important quite apart from physiological benefits to the brain. This is because effective communication involves more than accurate translation. It’s not like discovering the fastest route between two places in a city, it gets to the heart of how we interact with others, and the effort we are willing to make to connect with them despite our differences.
We speak face-to-face, looking each other in the eye. We try to understand each other. This is how we have evolved as social animals capable of expressing far more meaning in our voices and expressions than is conveyed in the literal meaning of words. We make the sounds, or try to, and listen closely to the other person, picking up nuances of facial expression, movements of hands, non-verbal clues of emphasis, humour, anger, irritation, and irony.
The act of trying to speak someone else’s language is a way of showing that we care enough about them to make that effort, and mistakes are part of that – they reveal an openness to making ourselves vulnerable. We don’t hide behind an app with its near-perfect literal translation, but engage on a human level.
More than this, the process of learning to speak a language can’t be separated from how different people use words and idioms, the subtleties of meaning that arise from appreciating the choice of one word rather than a synonym. This always occurs in a social context. It is impossible to separate language learning from the culture and place where the language is used, so learning a language inevitably involves learning something about how people in a different country or culture live, describe their world, express their feelings.
When, in the late 1870s, the Polish ophthalmologist LL Zamenhof invented Esperanto, the new language that was supposed to be an international lingua franca, the choice of name (which means “hope”) embodied the dream that a universal language would foster harmony between people from different countries. That language never really caught on. And sadly, international harmony hasn’t either. But we do need to keep talking to each other.