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Why Learn Language?

Last week, a comment was posted on a previous post which challenged the importance of learning language in the modern global society and indeed of trying to learn a language that so few people speak.

The commenter stated:

If there is only 3000 people speaking it then why not let it die off naturally, until it is replaced with English. There are still far too many languages in the world and this causes mis-understanding which can often lead to bloody conflict.The way to global peace is only having one language for the entire world to speak.

Chinese is ok for badly dubbed Kung fu films but essentially its just incomprehensable gobbledlygook, so that only leaves English, which is already the most popular language by far.

Firstly, I’d like to challenge the last remark that English is the most popular language by far. How is this popularity measured? If we go by sheer number of native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most ‘popular’ language with more than 845 million speakers. Even if we add in non-native speakers, Mandarin still comes out tops with English a distant second. The only way English wins a popularity contest is if we look at countries with English as an official language. Then we get a fair proportion of this wonderful globe. But in parts of the Southern United States, more than 30% of the population speak Spanish as a first language.

Now “Chinese” as ‘incomprehensable gobbledlygook’ [sic] is such a false statement that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Not speaking “Chinese” myself, it is of course incomprehensible to me, but I’m sure the 845 million Mandarin speakers disagree. Hell, some accents in English are incomprehensible to me – I only speak Strine English. But maybe, if you are interested in hearing what English might sound like to someone who doesn’t speak it, check out this short film Skwerl, which was made to sound like the cadence of English without having a single sensical sentence in it.

“There are far too many languages in the world, and this often leads to bloody conflict.”

I’d argue that this point is highly debatable. Yes, there are wars between peoples who speak different languages, but how often is this through an oral misunderstanding. Another commenter pointed out the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian conflict of the 90s as demonstrative of a conflict where people spoke almost the same language. The Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda was between two groups who both spoke the same language. The US Civil War and Spanish Civil War were both wars of disagreement where the actors spoke the same language. And I think it would be highly tenuous to suggest that any other war in the modern era has been caused due to, in primary, a language miscommunication.

If there are only 3000 speakers of it, why not let it die off naturally”.

The death of a language or the absorption of a new one means so much more to a person than just a ‘natural death’. Language affects the way one perceives the world, how one exists within it. It can tell us the importance cultures place on different aspects, how they order themselves socially. Check this documentary out about the Piraha in South America for how different a worldview language can create.

In my country, Aboriginal languages have rarely died off naturally. They have ceased to exist through imposition, through imperialism, through the removal of children, through the banning of use in public life, not merely through its natural abandonment for a new tongue.

But this is besides the point. Why am I trying to learn Pitjantjatjara?

Because in trying to speak their language, I am able to see the world a little more from their eyes. I can better put myself in the shoes of the students I teach as they struggle with my language. I can begin to comprehend their confusion and recognise where mistakes are made. I can have a conversation with the old woman who lives next door to me, but speaks little English. I can participate in discussions that directly effect the community I live in – and I can understand frustrations when they are voiced in language. And I let go of some of my culture’s hegemony and walk a path with a people whose voice is too often ignored, forgotten or lost in the clamour of mainstream Australia.

I may not be thanked for it. I may not even master it. But it’s more fun saying let me try and speak like you than saying let me make you speak like me.

And I hope that if more of my country thought like this, perhaps we would act out more of the ideals we so often voice without action.

Plus if we didn’t have Pitjantjatjara, we wouldn’t have this song.

 

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