Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Make bilingual the beginning

I grew up in a place where being simply bilingual was borderline boring.

Speaking multiple languages was very common in this small country housing over 78 dialects. It was not at all surprising to meet a person who could speak six or seven languages. Of course, they might not be completely fluent in each one. For example, a friend of mine could just get by in Baoulé, say the greetings in Senoufo and barter for fish at the market in Guéré - this on top of speaking his native language of Bété and learning to read and write French at school.

It was essential for daily life that everyone be able to communicate, which meant that sometimes you didn't use the correct verb tense or the right gender. If a Dan speaker wanted to do business with an Abé speaker, they might do so in a mixture of French and Dioula, the Manding language spoken by traders across the region.

As globalization progresses, we assume that the use of English will only increase. It's already the language of business, science and the Internet - so if you speak English, you're all set, right? I disagree. Never underestimate the power of greeting a person in their native language. It shows respect and interest, and can often open doors. Nelson Mandela said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." We need to start looking beyond bilingual and branch out into multiple languages.

* Did you know? The bilingual population ranges from between 60% and 75% of the world’s people. It is common for most of the world’s societies to be multilingual.
Recent studies have shown that becoming bilingual makes learning new languages easier. You've already mastered your native language. Have you started on a second language or maybe a third? Keep going. Practice the greetings in the language of your great-grandparents. Brush up on your high school Spanish. Learn a proverb or saying in the language of a country you want to visit. Set a goal to make bilingual just the beginning.
Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

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