Salam sejahtera, saya mampu bertutur dalam pelbagai bahasa dan ia memperkasakan saya — Hi, I speak multiple languages and that empowers me.
As an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia (a country that’s not particularly kind to the children of immigrants), I was brought up to view languages as a currency of sorts, a means to buy your way into another culture’s good graces, be it in pursuit of a higher education, economic gain, or political cooperation. Over the years, my need to learn multiple languages “just in case” seeking prospects overseas became a necessity evolved into a deep respect for and love of the different cultures of which foreign languages are a part. To speak a people’s language well is to gain an understanding of the people themselves, which eases access to their society. It empowers me to know that my multilingualism enables me to connect with an incredibly diverse range of people on opposite sides of the globe.
Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? Twelve time zones apart from (and 20°F colder than) the tropical island I grew up on, there are times when Swarthmore feels so strange to me that it’s like I’m wading through a fever dream. But my command of the English language allows me to reach out to this community, and what better way to connect with people on this campus than by writing for a student publication?
One quote in particular adds to this discussion.
“The most important aspect of knowing another language is that it will permit the speaker entry into a different culture … and in turn the realization of these differences illuminates one’s own cultural suppositions,” said German Professor Hansjakob Werlen.
By unravelling these cultural suppositions, learning another language helps to increase one’s understanding of one’s own culture, and offers a certain insight into the mechanisms of the culture that monolingual individuals in the same society might be less inclined to notice. This is, of course, closely tied up with increased individual growth and wisdom through a developing awareness towards one’s sociocultural environment. Here’s a personal example: there are four different ways to say “you (singular)” in Malay, with varying degrees of formality and familiarity. A greater emphasis is placed on respect for others in Malaysian culture than American culture, and the language reflects that. Yet, there are a stunning number of correlations between both countries. For example, sex and religion are inexplicably invoked whether you’re cursing in English or Malay, one of the countless social phenomena that can be tracked through nuances in speech patterns, turns of phrase or even types of swear words.
This makes me think of another professor’s words.
“The fact [is] that often you’ll discover links that you didn’t expect between your language and the other language … learning a foreign language teaches you ultimately how much more we’re similar, I think, and how much that you just weren’t taught, that you just didn’t learn until you learned [the language],” said Professor and Head of Russian section Sibelan Forrester.
But the pros of multilingualism extend both ways. Whilst language acquisition can empower the speaker, it can also empower those who are spoken to, as it may be seen as a gesture of respect.
“Speaking a foreign language to someone whose language that is, or who also is a speaker of it, indicates your respect for them and their culture, that you’re accommodating them rather than expecting them to accommodate you,” Forrester said.
She continued, “Not only, but especially [with] small languages, languages where there aren’t many opportunities to learn them, if you aren’t in that culture—if you show up speaking it, even not very well, it’s a huge affirmation for the people to whom you’re speaking,” she said.
Swarthmore’s facilitation of foreign language events and student-run cultural organizations may help with that, at least to some extent. Since English is almost always used out of necessity here, hearing someone else make an effort to speak your first language rather than the other way around can really make your day. Or perhaps just a demonstrated willingness to learn someone else’s mother tongue is enough to bring a little positivity into someone’s life: I offered to pick up Bulgarian so my professor would have someone at Swat to talk to, and the smile I received in response was worth every hour I’ll be spending poring over Cyrillic during the summer.
As a linguistics minor, Natalie Flores Semyonova ’19 stressed the importance of language itself.
“I think that languages are the foundation to humanity as this social entity and so being able to harness that in more than one language than your own … just opens you up to so many different experiences and so many different perspectives and feelings and people,” she said.
Werlen agreed, especially with regard to his own personal experiences.
“When traveling as a teenager in Europe, I soon experienced that special empowerment that knowing other languages affords the speaker, whether it was arguing about soccer in Italian or trying to write love letters in French,” he said.
To say that communication is key in the ever-expanding age of globalization is somewhat of an understatement. Here, at our little liberal arts college that emphasizes ethical and social concern, exercises in understanding are especially pertinent in the process of preparing for the “real world” after graduation. But, while learning another language for some global-scale purpose is a noble pursuit, you don’t have to have some cosmically crucial reason to do so.
For example, the reason for Flores’ acquisition of a second language was family.
“My grandma speaks no English, and she’s lived with us since I was born, so I wouldn’t have a relationship with her if I didn’t speak Russian,” Flores said.
We read together and there’s times when we’ll just sit down for three-hour chunks of time and she’ll just talk to me about different grammar rules and read me old stories. Through her and through the fact that we share that, it sort of connects us and also connects me to the culture of Russia.
On the other hand, Werlen cites the ability to read literary texts in a foreign language as a major draw.
“I studied Spanish with my wonderful colleagues here at the college and loved my new power … to read one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, in the original,” Werlen said.
However, it was his desire to understand the lyrics of the music that he listened to that led Werlen to learn English as a teenager, with a humorous twist.
“I was an exchange student in Wisconsin and I still recall the horror of my very British English teacher when I returned [home] from there with an exaggeratedly pronounced Wisconsin accent,” Werlen recounted.
Finally, being able to reinvent herself was an added bonus to the study of other languages for Forrester.
“You get to be someone slightly different in the other language. You get be more picky and precise, or you get to be more kind of freewheeling in what you say … so you really gain in richness as a human being,” Forrester said.
In her final comments on why Swatties should pick up another language, Forrester hit the nail on the head with the ultimate motivation.
“Look, you can order a pizza [in a foreign country], and it comes,” she joked.