I loved reading this article in The Guardian last week about a ‘video pal’ scheme instigated by the University of Warwick during the pandemic and consequent lockdowns; designed to support university students in developing their French language skills despite being unable to travel, it started with 5 students and now has almost 7,000 enrolled, and it has clearly had a huge number of additional benefits for all those concerned, not least in helping older (and sometimes lonely) citizens feel connected. Learning, communication, connection … what is there not to like in this scheme?
Indeed, reading this Guardian article helped me to overcome my slight irritation at reading an article the previous week in The Spectator, where the author – well-respected and eminent in his field – effectively communicated that learning languages wasn’t really worth the hassle for a native English speaker. I do him a slight disservice; he made a very good point about ‘hidden asymmetries’, by which (as he explains) he means that what works in one direction might not work as well in the other – a Swede often has more powerful pragmatic reasons to learn English than a native English speaker might have to learn Swedish.
The author gives himself away, however, with the phrase ‘Much as I would like to learn Italian…’; while learning Italian might not offer him some financial or practical advantage, he has (wittingly or unwittingly) touched on the core value of language learning – that of human connection and exploration. Every language in the world is a gateway not just to transaction, but to an understanding and a deep appreciation of the different perspective on the world offered by a particular swathe or sliver of humanity who have experienced the world through a different lens, in the past and in the present (and, of course, in the future – a future which entices us, if we seek to share in this development together). Often this lens is similar to our own, although it is never the same; often, though, this lens is very different, and can be both – in equal measure – exciting and challenging to embrace.
We all know that the future of the world depends on co-operation across cultures, and on humans understanding one another, in order to work together more seamlessly. Fundamentally, however, this understanding will not just appear if we do not take responsibility for working to connect with one another, and to understand one another. Language is an easy first step – no-one is expecting fluency or native capacity from language learning, but I am more convinced than ever that every little step towards learning a language really, really counts in our progress as a world. This powers me in my advisory capacity to the lovely team of passionate educators at Dragons Teaching, just as it does with my own children, who I continue to encourage to learn language. And in case you were wondering, I learn some new language every day, too … my personal contribution to the global project.
So – learn some new words in another language today. Take every opportunity to extend your understanding of the human race. You will be helping to ensure the future of the world.