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The Multilingual Is The Political: How Language Learners Can Make a Difference


There is no way I could write a different post today. The election results made me angry, frustrated and motivated at the same time. The thing I know best – foreign languages – turns out to be a political device, as powerful as any other. If you think you’re only learning a foreign language for fun, move on – but it you agree that things can change when languages are shared and used, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

1. This is my rant

I do not enjoy people telling me where I can / cannot live. I do not approve of men telling anybody who would listen that it is sometimes okay to rape. I get very angry when neo-fascist parties get elected. And when they get elected in Germany, well – that is a facepalm-worthy moment indeed.
If you voted for any of those, I understand you had your reasons and your agenda. I’ve got mine – this blog post is part of it.
Rant over.

2. Multilingual politics, and why you can’t escape it

It’s a cute little idea to entertain: learn a few dozen nice-sounding words and phrases, go on a holiday, chat to locals, order that coffee, snap a few pictures, come back and brag about how you got to speak Spanish at last. There are cute little apps, podcasts and websites that let you do that. Hey, I’m doing that every day as well.
How about that thought, though: every foreign word you learn is political. Every single one.
Here’s just a bit of evidence:
– Today’s post-election blues. I’m now able to read news in three languages, which translates into four perspectives on what happened in Europe this weekend. There’s the Polish one (frustrating), British (oh dear…), German (this article was actually the most reasonable one), and American (good to have, if your London residence lacks perspective). This, in short, is what some parties would describe as a non-desirable electorate: someone who reads too much.
Foreign languages mess up your morality. You think about moral issues differently in your mothertongue and in the language you’re learning.
– Bilingual education distorts economies. In the US, it’s not really worth learning a foreign language yet – but abroad, this is the crucial difference.
– Languages don’t die in politics; they regroup. Read David Crystal to see how English evolved in Africa – or look to French for a re-emerging power on that continent.
– For city-dwellers, multilingual living may soon become normal. Here’s a map of second most popular languages in the city where I live (click through for source):

london languages

3. Three ways to use your languages

Consume consciously. What if a bit of extended reading turned out to be more productive than that app you’re using? (Hint: it is.) What if listening to different news companies in different languages could lead to different perspectives on the world? Don’t just wait until you get to order that foreign-looking pastry abroad. Read, listen, and think in all the languages you’ve got.
Share like crazy. I don’t care if you’re not a teacher yet. I don’t mind if you haven’t really considered teaching a foreign language. Write someone a letter. Have a language exchange. Volunteer to teach your language in your community. Don’t expect to get paid, please. Instead, get ready to receive more language, and more ways to practise it.
Discriminate against mothertongue. Have an L1-fasting day. Switch your devices’ interfaces to a foreign language. Get the newspaper and read it. Listen to the radio stations abroad. It’s easy to travel and remain in your monolingual bubble nowadays, easier than ever. But what’s the point of learning a foreign language if you’re not ready for it to change your life?

4. What’s next?

I’m not a happy bunny today. I think Europe’s just become a bit more power-hungry, trust-less and short-sighted.
The best time to do something about it was 15 years ago; the second best time is now.
Tell me what you’re going to do.

(Photo credit: Lori Greig via Compfight)

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. j. says:

    Really glad to see this post — thanks for sharing. & I agree on how being able to read the news in a different language gives you a different perspective! (not to mention being able to discuss it with others to hear more about their perspective…) I’ve also found, in the run-up to the EP elections, that watching political speeches/debates is good for language-learning because most politicians are good orators: they tend to speak slowly & clearly. (… I watched Marine Le Pen speaking yesterday & even though I wanted to put my fist through the screen, it was good practice…)

  2. Vhawley says:

    Wow I feel motivated! Really interesting article!!

  3. That’s an interesting thought, j. – I remember going through rhetorics when training interpreters, and there was a lot to be learned there.

  4. Aw, thanks! Hope all’s well with you?