A Conversation for Talking Point: Learning Languages

Is it really that serious?

Post 1

You can call me TC

Actually, according to something I once read, only a very small percentage of the world's population (about 4%) are actually monolingual. Even in Britain, there are still a few Welsh/English bilinguals, not to mention all the immigrants. Then we have the patois of the channel Islands and various other border areas. Other anglophone communities which require another language are to be found in Canada, large parts of Africa, the Southern border of the United States, and any immigrant community anywhere. In Marocco, I even read, four languages are the norm: French, Arab, and usually at least two local nomad dialects.

While, obviously, many immigrants in Britain may still be struggling with English, basically they have the wherewithal to learn new languages easily, simply by dint of the fact that they are aware of the concept of language.

For example, it takes a lot of drumming into a monolingual person that a particular letter can have a different sound in another language. (e.g. the "h" or "j" in French, or in fact the "j" in German, Dutch or Spanish.) A child who has been brought up on two languages (Polish and English, or Hindi and English) will be quite open to the varieties of pronunciation which one single letter can provide, and therefore when they start to learn French, Spanish or German at school, will be able to adapt more quickly to the pronunciation.

This is just one example of many - but it can, if taken further, easily be concluded from this that the next step will be getting one's mouth around the pronunciation. If a person has been used to making more sounds than just those used in English, due to speaking (or even only hearing) another language from birth, their tongues, lips, jaws and teeth will be more agile and ready to form the new sounds required to sound like a French, Spanish or Japanese person.

So while Welsh or Polish may not be considered languages which are going to improve your chances of a dream career, what matters in the long run is that the channels that bilingualism has opened up in your thought processes, in their turn, open you up for learning new languages and many barriers (inhibitions, awareness of other cultures, difficulties with pronunciation) are already down before you start learning a more prestigious language.

Sorry - could go on for pages on this subject. I hope I got my point across:

1. Only monolingual people will even consider worrying about the difficulties of learning new languages
2. There aren't many monolingual people.

Is it really that serious?

Post 2


I'm surprised at that small percentage, unless even only knowing a word or two counts as better than monolingual. Even so, it's a big step to be described as bilingual. There are surely many people who know at least a little of another language, but not sufficient to hold a meaningful conversation. I certainly wouldn't describe myself as bilingual, though I have some basic ability in other languages.

Interesting, what you say about developing the physical ability to make different sounds. Some people do naturally have more flexibility, I wonder if they are better at learning other languages. Certainly I think some do have more of an aptitude than others, probably because of the way their brains function.

Still, it is willingness to learn that is probably important in terms of getting on with other nationalities.

Is it really that serious?

Post 3

You can call me TC

Yes - there is an enormous amount of interpretation as to what can be described as bilingual.

Although I speak 5 languages and three of them fluently, (sorry, I don't like being immodest, but "speaking in tongues" is the only thing I CAN do) I don't consider myself bilingual. My children, OTOH, who may not be as fluent in English as I am, I DO consider bilingual, because they grew up speaking both languages from birth.

At what point in learning a foreign language you can define your ability as "fluent" is equally questionable, of course.

Is it really that serious?

Post 4

Wand'rin star

When you can follow the "Just a Minute" rules: when you can speak without hesitation, deviation or repetition. smiley - starsmiley - star

Is it really that serious?

Post 5


Blimey - by your definition, I am not even fluent in English!!

I would love to be bi-lingual. When I was little, I used to imagine I was half German (because we had some German friends) and half English;
I used to imagine I could pick up other languages with ease. Your children are very lucky, Trillian's Child!

I think if you can speak another language, especially if you have been brought up in two languages from birth, it's a marvellous gateway into another culture. The literature and history of another country is opened up to you. Not only that, but you must be able to think in two slightly different ways as each language has its own rules and different ways of expressing thoughts with different verb structures etc.

In any translation, no matter how skilful, some of the nuances of the original work must be lost.I studied Russian for a year at school, and was told Russian has no verb 'to be'. I thought that was such an essential verb, I couldn't understand how a language could operate without it. I remember thinking Russian people must think of themselves slightly differently - there is no way of saying 'i am', 'you are' etc.

I did German A-level, and am now trying to get my French up to the same standard. It is getting much easier with the internet -
now it's possible to read German and French newspapers online and listen to their radio. As I love reading,
one of my favourite ways of studyding languages is by reading a book in that language - I'm not very good at just studying verb table and grammar rules, I like to think this is a fairly painless way of making some of my revision stick!

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