Friday, July 11, 2008

The importance of multi-lingualism

I have already written about the importance of multi-lingualism and multi-cultural living as a response to some who have written about Balkanization on the Web, the inadequacy of automatic translation and the promise of universal, artificial languages.

I walk and talk to a farmer from Vila Dara hot springs, Ardabil Province, Iran, July 2004, on the foothills of Mount Sabalan.

I accompany a farmer from Vila Dara hot springs, Ardabil Provice, Iran, July 2004, on the foothills of Mount Sabalan. Language: Azeri and Persian.

To become truly multi-cultural, you actually have to live the lives of different cultures. There are people who do that and who have no trouble crossing linguistic boundaries because they have lived both sides, if not more than two sides. Young people, children in fact, do it all the time. We just don't foster it as a society, and we should have arrangements that encourage such living at a global level. Where I live, there are already children of Western European and South Asian descent, who are going to bilingual, public-private elementary schools that cater to an already large Chinese population. Many people in California already speak Spanish.

Also, to appreciate other cultures and languages, one doesn't necessarily need to be a very competent writer in multiple languages although there are many who can do that, very proficiently.

As an example, while I know of many great multi-linguals who speak, write and read many very diverse languages (not all of which are Indo-European), I can only speak competently in three languages and quite badly in two others, read in six different languages, three of them quite competently and three with various degrees of competency, and can write competently in two and quite badly in the rest, if at all. (Competency in reading or speaking can generally be accomplished in a larger set of languages than competency in writing.) I certainly cannot speak all world languages, or all "important" world languages but I can connect with more people because I can speak, read and write in more than one language.

This expansion effect is always true, no matter how large or a small the linguistic community.

So, opportunities for diversity are much better and more rewarding than the opportunities for an invented, uniform global language, which will often lack a living culture, rich literary history and tradition. (By the "living culture" of a language, I mean the culture of communities that primarily speak that language.)

Diversity comes at a well-spent cost. It requires dedication and hard work. I doubt anyone who's neither tried to learn nor read nor written Chinese and has not learned or lived it could translate (not literally, but figuratively speaking) that living, that history, that tradition in full into some other language, whether Esperanto or English.

Poets learn other languages because they know the difficulty of translating the music of each into the other, and also because they want to boraden their poetic horizons.

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

In my view Esperanto has much to recommend itself.

Unfortunately there is still much ignorance, by which I mean, lack of knowledge, about the whole problem in general.

It is intended to be a second language for all, and not to replace ethnic languages

Esperanto is a living language, with a substantial history, and a wide original literature.

Indeed this year Baldur Ragnarrson, of Iceland, has been nominated this year for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Detail can be seen at