Languages: your passport to an open world

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Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Wendy Ayres-Bennett is Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, and Principal Investigator on MEITS, a major interdisciplinary research project on multilingualism. As the world gets set to celebrate International Mother Language Day, Wendy reflects on the importance of languages and how they have the power to help shape and empower lives.

 On 21 February each year, we observe International Mother Language Day.  This commemorative day was first announced some 20 years ago by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. These are very much the aims of the project I am leading, Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS), funded by the AHRC under its Open World Research Initiative.

Sign written text on tiles in a restaurant, written in four different languages
Multilingualism from a London restaurant

It is of course vital to promote languages nationally and internationally. As UNESCO spells out on its website, ‘Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and the planet’. At MEITS we are working with policymakers and other stakeholders to try and place languages higher up the political agenda.

Communications experts have also told us that it is often the personal story which is more effective in getting a message across, and which speaks more powerfully and directly to readers. This is why the MEITS team has recently published How Languages Changed My Life (Archway Publishing 2019), a collection of first-person stories exploring how languages have shaped and empowered the lives of our storytellers.

Some of the storytellers are well-known – Martina Navratilova and Julia Donaldson surely need no introduction. I love the way Martina speaks of two ‘passports’ expanding her horizon and opening up the world: the game of tennis and languages. Or how Julia talks about the made-up language ‘Groilish’ in her children’s novel The Giant and the Jones. When she holds a session with children on that book, she encourages them to make up words, and writes their language out so that they chant it together. This is a simple way to get children to see the different words and sounds available to discover and enjoy.

Other subjects include people we have come across while doing our research. Some are inspiring: take the case of Linda Ervine who runs a project, fittingly called Turas, the Gaelic word for ‘journey’, which offers Irish language classes at the East Belfast Mission in the heart of the Protestant Unionist Loyalist community. As she writes in her chapter, Turas is a journey about ‘changing mindsets and softening hearts, gradually eroding long-held negative attitudes and providing a new context for Irish as a language of healing and reconciliation’.

Other stories are moving: one mother underlines the importance not just of learning new languages but of retaining home or heritage languages. She relates how she only realised the value of teaching her son her mother tongue, Chinese, when she fell ill and realised he was unable to say a single word in Chinese to his grandmother on the phone. She sums it up succinctly, ‘Chinese, my native language, is a precious legacy that I think I can give to my son’.

So many of the phrases in the book resonate with our project’s key messages. We can tell young people that languages open doors and provide career opportunities. But it is much more powerful to read Bridget Kendall’s story. It was her ability to speak Russian that made her stand out and led to a career as foreign correspondent at the BBC, interviewing presidents, celebrities and criminals! And what schoolboy wouldn’t like to follow in Tim Vickery’s steps and become a football pundit. Living in Brazil, it was his knowledge of Portuguese which gave him his big break.

Have you got your languages passport?

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