One of the messages I try to convey to school pupils when I talk to them about language learning is that languages are relevant and might actually help them in later life.
So I was delighted to read about a study (by Panos Athanasopoulos of Newcastle University, and others) on how language affects the way we see the world.
Working with both Japanese and English speakers, he [Panos Athanasopoulos] looked at their language use and proficiency, along with the length of time they had been in the country, and matched this against how they perceived the colour blue.
Essentially, Japanese has more terms for light and dark blue than English does. The study found that people who speak Japanese distinguished more between light and dark blue than English speakers, which suggests that having words available to describe a concept helps you perceive that concept.
Dr. Athanasopoulos applies this finding to business and international relations:
learning a second language gives businesses a unique insight into the people they are trading with, suggesting that EU relations could be dramatically improved if we all took the time to learn a little of each other’s language rather than relying on English as the lingua-franca.
“If anyone needs to be motivated to learn a new language they should consider the international factor,” he said. “The benefits you gain are not just being able to converse in their language — it also gives you a valuable insight into their culture and how they think, which gives you a distinct business advantage.
“It can also enable you to understand your own language better and gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own culture, added Dr Athanasopoulos, who speaks both Greek and English.
That’s precisely what I tell pupils: that language learning is relevant to the business world (at all levels) and gives them another string to their careers bow. It’s like having an extra antenna that helps you pick up signals and intelligence that you’d otherwise miss. As Dr. Athanasopoulos says, language learning also gives students an insight to their own language (and to its grammar!). The experience of learning, and maybe struggling with, a foreign language should also teach them to empathise with non-English speakers conducting international business in a language that isn’t their own. And not to take their efforts for granted.
I only wish the management at Glasgow University, and at other educational establishments threatening to slash language teaching, would take this message on board. On which subject, please take the time to sign the petition to Help Save Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow. You can also “like” the Modern Languages and Cultures at University of Glasgow under threat Facebook page, and forward the link. The full text of the open letter sent by University staff to the Scottish Education Secretary, Michael Russell, is available here.
By Marian Dougan