A customer came into work the other day and asked me in stilted, albeit understandable broken English if anybody in the branch spoke Bengali. As my own knowledge of language outside English consists of asking (in French) for directions to the station and a ham sandwich, I didn't feel I could offer him a great deal of help, so I trotted off to ask my colleagues.
And it was rather amazing, one colleague offered Urdu and Punjabi, another Russian, German and Armenian and the last one Hindi and Bengali (so the customer was delighted and conducted his business cheerfully in our branch.)
But... What?? They all seemed so matter of fact about their ability to speak so many languages. When I think of the blood sweat and tears of my GCSE french classes (and my terrible attempt at the accent, ooh la la...!) Its just mind boggling to me that I seem to be working among a team of geniuses. But they don't see it like that, one of them just said he was brought up bilingual and that's how he speaks two languages so fluently.
Well I thought I was doing well when I could read in one language at three years old. Imagine the confusion of being brought up in two languages. Except it wasn't confusion at all, it seems to be an eminently sensible way of doing things and its given him an excellent multilingual grounding. The linguist Noam Chomsky talks of a system in our brains called innate grammar and believes that we need to be exposed to language in our formative years if we are ever to speak it fluently. Apparently after a certain age our ability to learn a language reduces sharply... (is a second language on the primary school syllabus these days Mr Cameron?).
But it still doesn't explain why so many people are proficient in so many languages. Some of it is the parents. The non British parents have a much more enlightened view of language. A Muslim friend told me recently that she speaks two languages at home and English (her third language) outside the home. I think that's good parenting. Not that I'm criticising my own parents for not giving me a solid grounding in Urdu or Latin before I started school. It just doesn't seem to be a big thing in western culture. I didn't even start a second language until secondary school and even then it was only two hours a week. Mind you two hours of listening to Jean Pierre ask Marie Claire the way to the bibliotheque was more than enough for me. But there was no impetus, no expectation to pick the language up beyond the basics and certainly we were not helped to understand what an advantage numerous languages could be in the wider community.
I dropped all the languages I could at college and even shunned studying Theology at uni because I couldn't face the thought of studying Greek, Latin or Hebrew. Shame and in retrospect a bit of a mistake, Looking back I should have put the work in and studied where my passion was.
So now with my pitiful solitary language I'm starting to feel something of a dinosaur in a world and a community where having three or even four languages isn't considered all that unusual. And I'm feeling a bit outclassed by all these brilliant young people who can communicate so much more effectively with the diversity of the customers who come into the bank.
But you know what, my own limitations aside, I think its all rather wonderful. I think a world where a man speaking Bengali can walk into his local branch and find somebody who can comfortably speak the language with him is a pretty good world to belong to. And the sooner we catch on to the whole multi lingual thing and start making it a priority for the next generation, the better. Because you don't want your kids ending up like the Degu Witch, lost in a random French train station with nothing but a ham sandwich to her name....
Image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1131421 (Robby_m)
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