Languages R Us

In the matter of languages, at this turning point in human development and our own, there is absolutely no place for linguistic chauvinism!

‘Languages R Us’ – copied from ‘Toys R Us’, the toys chain that was probably itself named after tyrannosaurus, the king of dinosaurs, to make it more attractive to its targeted clients: curious children. Dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago after a cataclysmic (meteor?) event according to the experts. From online sources we learn that ‘Toys R Us’, on its part, founded in 1967 and based in New Jersey, USA, went into liquidation in May this year.

There’s a parallel with languages, about 7000 in all in the world, and which the experts tell us are disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks. This saddens linguists, and I suppose all lovers of language as well. I guess I can count myself as one of the latter and might have gone on to take up language(s) as a professional career, were it not for that fantastic first lecture on the cell by our new teacher of biology at Royal College Curepipe, Mr Noel Asarapin, fresh from University College London, who lit the fire in me as it were for that subject on that memorable morning in 1960 that led me on to medicine.

Nevertheless, despite my altogether different career path eventually, looking back I think that my interest in languages goes back to the encouragement of two remarkable teachers in my crucial years of growth and development. The first was Dr Karl Noel, who taught me French in Forms 2-4: it was also one morning, in Form 2, when he rebuked a pupil whom he had asked to read aloud a poem whose opening line began with ‘Dans le brouillard du soir’ as far as I remember, made him sit down and asked me to read instead. No sooner had I finished than he expressed palpable satisfaction at my hesitant delivery, to my own surprise. Dr Noel had a doctorate from Sorbonne, so I am sure he must have found something good in my rendering to give me that pat on the back. And in English so did the new Rector at RCC, Mr Herbert Bullen who came in to chaperone us from 1960 onwards. He had an Honours degree in English from Oxford, and told us he had spent a year at La Sorbonne specializing in linguistics.

But what an irony life is! The friend who had been ticked off by Dr Karl Noel became very close to me as we moved up to HSC level, and went on to do a master’s in French! He came back to teach the subject at secondary level until his retirement. That’s what I call ‘karmic conjecture’ – but it’s another story!

So let’s get back to our local language landscape, which has always fascinated me. It has ever been my conviction that we are really lucky that we Mauritians are multilingual and polyglottic, and even best is the fact that we have the great opportunity to become proficient in two major international languages, namely English which is – whether we like it or not – the number one global language, and French. Besides these two, we all speak Creole – and will leave Kreol to the purists – and understand and/or speak at least one oriental language. But there are countless others who are equally proficient in some East European languages, Russian in particular, as also in some of the other European languages such as Spanish and German.

But there is more: I have come across one lady doctor whose mother comes from Punjab, so she speaks fluent Hindi and Punjabi in addition to English, French and Creole – our Mauritian linguistic ‘triad’; she studied in South India and became equally fluent in Tamil. With increasing numbers of students going to China, returning ones have added Mandarin to the local triad.

And so: Languages R Us, really, that is a richness that we must add to, not subtract from.

This is because, increasingly important in this globalizing world, there is a ‘linguanomics’ aspect, as alluded to by Tejshree Auckle in her interview to this paper last week. The term was coined by linguist Gabrielle Hogan-Brun to refer to the economic potential of languages which, ‘When utilised wisely, business flourishes. History bears testimony to the fact that languages and trade always go hand in hand, offering opportunities for expansion and development’, ‘with knowledge of English’ having ‘a higher market value’.

But Ms Auckle adds an important ‘word of caution though: the above should not be taken as a free pass towards English-only monolingualism. Hogan-Brun cites statistics published by the British government which indicate that Britain loses 3.5% of its GDP because of a lack of foreign language skills and cultural awareness in a workforce that remains, for the most part, monolingual in English. The bottom line is: being multilingual is an asset’ (italics added). So, for heaven’s sake, let us not lose our asset by becoming jingoistic and insular about language!

But there are other reasons for promoting multilingualism as studies in neuroscience have shown. Thus, it has been established that infants who are exposed to more than one language when they begin to talk have a larger sized speech area, known as Broca’s area, in their brain (in the temporal lobe as this is called). This gives them a learning advantage as they grow up.

Further, multilinguals have also been shown to have an overall lesser incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, precisely because the more languages you know the more connections develop among the cells of the brain, and this increased connectivity is also a factor in protection against the disease. In fact, one of the recommendations about Alzheimer’s is to keep your mental skills honed by practising regular reading, mathematics or Sudoku.

Ms Auckle has some valid reservations and apprehensions about the spread of Hindi and its ‘linguanomics’ impact. However, one must reckon with the economic ascension of India in the world order, which experts project will in a couple of decades be at number 2, perhaps even one.

Whatever it is, we as a country must not miss the opportunities that this will open up, as well as opportunities in China, the Arab world and Spanish speaking countries. Arabic is already in the school curriculum. As a matter of policy we must think seriously about offering the option of Spanish too, perhaps in a second phase. But in the immediate term, let us begin by redoubling our efforts to enhance the teaching of Mandarin and Hindi in our educational system, along with incentivizing parents for their promotion at grassroots level. But let us also not forget the mother of languages, Sanskrit, which can be an immense booster for the development of all other languages.

Just ask Vladimir Yatsenko, a linguist from St Petersburg who has an MA in Sanskrit and has been teaching it as well as Indian Philosophy for over two decades now. Or, for that matter, Dr David Frawley of Santa Fe in New Mexico, USA, who has also specialized in Sanskrit amongst other things. They may be just the kind of people we need to help us craft a sustainable programme for the consolidation of our multilingualism.

In the matter of languages, at this turning point in human development and our own, there is absolutely no place for linguistic chauvinism!

* Published in print edition on 24 August 2018

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