Monday, April 21, 2014

Importance of Linguality

I speak four and a half languages (the half being that I'm still learning French). This was never much of a big deal to me in Kenya, but coming to a place like Sewanee, speaking more than two seemed to be a sort of miracle.

For those of us who grow up in Kenya but are of an Indian background, we are automatically trilingual. We speak English, which is our primary language. We speak Swahili, which we pick up from the indigenous Kenyans around us. We also speak whatever our mother tongue happens to be, which in my case is Punjabi. My fourth language, Hindi, is very closely related to Punjabi, and was reinforced by the watching of shows and movies in the language, as well as interactions with those of my extended family who live in India.
Growing up multilingual makes it much easier to pick up new languages, especially at a young age. However, I never really appreciated the importance of languages until very recently.

I remember back in one of the schools I attended when I was younger, when I was reprimanded for using a language other than English. To be fair, I was referring to my grandfather, who we call 'Dadaji,' a term used in Punjabi and Hindi for a paternal grandfather. At that time, I never really questioned why we weren't allowed to speak and celebrate other languages at that particular school. At home, when my parents encouraged me to speak Punjabi so that I could keep up with it, I would whine and complain and speak it as badly as I could in some form of weak rebellion.

I think my real appreciation of language started when I came to Sewanee; confronted by many peers who weren't bilingual, much less trilingual, I found that I celebrated the part of me that could understand and converse in more than just English. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with knowing just one language, as not everyone has the desire or even need to know more, just that there are many benefits to be enjoyed from understanding more than one.

For starters, speaking more than one language does give one the ability to interact with many different sorts of people, and bridge many gaps. I remember when I was younger, and staying at a hotel down at the coast with my family. I was sent to return the beach towels for the day, and met a French lady who didn't speak any English, and a hotel worker who didn't speak any French. I was able to act as an interpreter (although I don't know how well I did...), and that seemed really cool at the time. Over time, I've realised that being able to speak more than one language has given me the ability to transcend cultures and understand different sorts of people, pick up on contextual clues, and be able to learn more from the people around me.

Another thing that learning languages helps enable is the learning of other things. I've always been a voracious reader (I finished the LOTR trilogy in three days when I was younger), and I wonder if part of this is just that being multilingual increased my ability to understand material faster when I was younger. Psychologists have done research on the effects multilinguality has on the brain and neural pathways; in this respect, a Google search or a conversation with someone trained in this field may yield more information than I could provide in a simple post.

I think one of the things I love best about languages is that they help to preserve and maintain cultures, and many of these cultures are so historically rich.
As soon as I have time to, I intend on finishing French and then picking up a sixth... I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any!
Celebrate linguality today, won't you!

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