By Marcel van der Veer
January 2018

Published in Education

More on Languages

{"Languages take such a time, and so do
all the things one wants to know about."
The Lost Road. John Tolkien.}

Every year my daughter's high school invites parents to partake in an evening of information sessions, to help students orient themselves on their future. The idea is to have parents from all walks of professional life, each parent discussing half an hour or so with small groups of students who subscribed to your sessions. You are expected to tell about your study and career, and the students are supposed to pose questions. As you will expect, some come well prepared, others must be stimulated a bit. I greatly enjoy those conversations with the next generation who have their lives ahead of them.

I am a physical chemist so no wonder the discussion concentrates on aspects of a career in science and engineering. One question frequently comes up though - and if it does not, I will throw it in as a closing remark to a group. That question is "What is the most important lesson that you have learned?".

In answer to this question I will give some fatherly advice based on personal experience to the teenagers around the table and then add a final remark that usually surprises the children. I must explain what I mean, which is precisely my intention, when I say:

"Be an autodidact, be multilingual, study languages!".

You may object that there are many more subjects worthwhile to study other than languages, and I would agree, but as practical advice to young students the study of languages seems a priority to me. Often I notice that people here in the Netherlands assume that most people in the world will understand English. But the fact is that only one out of five persons on this globe speaks English; the point may be that an average Dutch person is not likely to meet one of those other four. But even in Europe, English may be a lingua franca in certain circles but outside of those, it is not. Present developments in the European Union may even weaken the position of English in the future, and an ambitious student should be prepared for Aristotle's horror vacui.

The believe that it would be sufficient to find your way in the world speaking only English and Dutch, is remarkable here in the Netherlands because we used to be renowned for our dominion of foreign languages. The economy of our country depends on intensive trade with our neighbours who of course do not speak Dutch. Therefore, even today modern languages have a prominent place in the high school curriculum. But how many Dutch people do you know with professional proficiency in say, French, Spanish or even German? And by that I do not refer to people who do not need other languages in daily life, but to those who do in international companies, schools, universities …

Of course, professional proficiency requires the study of specific (technical) vocabulary, and practising whenever an opportunity presents itself. This is not feasible in a generic high school curriculum and therefore is the student's own responsibility. Being able to cite Sartre or sing along with Édith Piaf is not the language skill you need when assisting a French production manager and his crew working overtime to restart a stalled production line while all are under pressure to get production going again - not quite la vie en rose, I can tell from experience. As with many skills, what you need to know before you can do something new, you must learn by doing it. Do not be afraid! That is the message I want to convey in the information sessions for the students at my daughter's high school.

I took a detour actually - at one point in my life I had a compelling reason to learn Spanish. Later I needed to bring French up to par for work which had become rusty after not having used it for years since high school. Having learned Spanish, I recuperated French by studying Spanish textbooks on French, using one to bootstrap the other and exercising both at the same time. But the route is not important, the fact we must take responsibility for our own multilinguism is. Otherwise the reputation of the Dutch Polyglot really will pertain to the generations before us.

For work and personal reasons, I travel around Europe and meet people from diverse backgrounds. Many if not most will have taken English courses at some point. You meet persons who will converse with you in impeccable English, but also those who wish to not speak it. In my experience there are two main reasons for the latter.

First, I work for an American company where the world-wide corporate language of course is American English. When you visit a French multinational, the corporate language will understandably be French, and probably also in their affiliates outside France. So, in particular plenary meetings will likely be held in French and if you do not understand French, tant pis. Likewise, in Germany you may be expected to converse in German.

Second, quite some people do not use English on a regular basis and therefore may prefer not to speak it in business conversations. On the one hand your discussion partner may just feel insecure, on the other hand insufficient dominion may lead to fragmented or misunderstood communication. The partner with least experience in a common language simply has a disadvantage and naturally will want to avoid that.

On a side note, above paragraph relates to current discussions on several curricula at Dutch universities that are offered in English only. The intention is to accommodate a wide range of student nationalities, promoting Dutch universities qua patet orbis. Two questions come up as far as I am concerned - does this give an advantage to students whose mother tongue is English over students who are not native speakers, and when not even the lecturer is a native speaker, will students get the best possible education? However, this issue should be a subject of another post.

When I studied at the university during the 1980's, textbooks were mainly in English, Dutch (most lecture notes) or even German, depending on what the lecturer thought was the best text for a subject. At the time we were all Dutch students, and some unable to read German might protest, but the answer would be to remedy such shortcoming before the exam was taken. In other words - you are an academic student, behave like one.

The latter is another reason one should master various languages. To quote the famous philosopher Wittgenstein, Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt. Where words fail, thoughts fail as well. These philosophical considerations are for example formalised in the hypothesis of linguistic relativity that is sometimes referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although that latter term is considered a misnomer by linguists.

The question is whether you could have a thought that cannot be expressed in your language set. Every language has its own possibilities and limitations. What is, for example, an exact translation into your mother tongue of the French word ésprit or the Dutch word gezellig? Each newly acquired language gives a person a wider perspective of the world - new syntax and vocabulary to express new ideas, and a better understanding of other cultures.

And isn't that one of the pillars of personal growth?

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