Learning a second language gives us an improved understanding the world, as much as it helps us to be understood.
Being born in Australia, but of migrant parents, my heritage has taught me the value of speaking more than one language. In fact, I had to learn English because, like the many other children of migrants, I started school with no English at all. With a little destiny and a lot of hard work I now speak an Italian dialect, Italian, English, French and a little Spanish. This is a testament to the inspiration of my high school French teachers and the excellence of their language teaching.
In the past few years, however, language learning had been regarded as a redundant pursuit, the poor second cousin of more important subjects. It was nearly at the point of relegation through curriculum revision and development, which placed the priority on literacy and numeracy, with the arts and languages - other than English - as optional extras.
Isn't English spoken everywhere? Well yes, but the breadth of understanding conferred by the rigorous study of a foreign language opens up a whole world for exploring, with the benefit of communication and an understanding not possible through the use of a translator.
Kevin Rudd's recent trip to China highlights the real benefit of being fluent in more than one language. His demonstrated a depth of knowledge of Chinese literature and history, obviously gained only through a thorough mastery of Mandarin, which certainly allowed him to critique the issue of human rights in Tibet with sensitivity and cultural understanding, and more importantly, in the language of his audience.
There was no room for misunderstanding. The subtleties in his expression allowed him to surmount the difficulty of the diplomatic hurdle that confronted him and he was heard and respected. Indeed such was the depth of his fluency and cultural knowledge that his “rhetoric” was perceived as “more tactful and less nasty”. The implicit message exemplified in all this is, that everyone needs to deepen understanding and the first step is through language learning.
To be sure, learning a second language not only expands the knowledge of the learner but also enhances the understanding of the learner's native language. This comes about through the rigorous learning of grammar that is required to achieve fluency. Those lucky enough to have studied and mastered a language in the dark ages of English grammar teaching in this country, also revised the fundamentals of English grammar. A whole generation of teachers has missed out on these fundamentals and the teaching of English is now feeling this. A deeper understanding of the grammatical structure of their native language is just one of the benefits to the learner of a second language.
These benefits apply even to the learning of Latin which is so often thought of as a “dead language”. Latin, is indeed very much alive and well and at the very core of English and the Romance languages. Studying Latin unlocks the derivation of words and this enhances understanding and the ability to decode unknown words, consequently expanding the vocabulary of the learner. Moreover, this depth of understanding enables a more concise use of language, therefore enhancing expression. Scientific terminology used in English continues to rely on Latin so, far from being an archaic language of the past, it truly underpins a living language.
And yet in spite of all this, the true worth of teaching languages is that they help to broaden our knowledge of the world, creating an outwards looking, inquisitive society by breaking down the barriers of fear and xenophobia.
It opens the possibility of sharing the literature, music, film, and history of another culture with a depth of understanding that can pick up the nuances in speech and subtleties of the humour of another people. Being understood is important but more important is the ability to understand others.
I will go further and say that by speaking another language the concept of “other” is erased altogether. This is because it is then possible to become fully immersed in a foreign culture. Acceptance and communication derive from this immersion.
Surely this has benefits for a multicultural country like Australia. Diverse communities can come together in harmony, with a mutual understanding that is facilitated through the study of languages, and this is, in itself, a reason to promote language teaching.
In fact, the importance of learning languages was recognised when language learning was elevated as an aspiration for Australia's future at the 2020 Summit. The goal proposed was that 60 per cent of the population speak a second language by 2020, as a means of securing our prosperity and identity into the future. Additionally the learning of Asian languages was given prominence with delegates realising that there was an increase in relationships and trade developing with the emerging economies in our region.
Therefore, learning a second language is no longer just a whim but an imperative. The aspiration proposed at the summit included bringing language teaching into the mainstream of education in Australia and this underscores the importance of language teaching in Australia today and into the future. This turns around previously held ideas of the value of learning other languages.
I once sat on the bus asking my mother why those I spoke to could not understand me, or I them: being understood and understanding is fundamental to a society. Language learning promotes social cohesion in a country of people who come from diverse backgrounds and moreover promotes understanding and peace in the world, underscoring the true importance of language teaching in our times.