Have you ever wondered how many languages are spoken on our planet?
7 099 languages!
Yes, that’s right: seven thousand and ninety-nine different languages.
Spoken on the same planet, by individuals from the same human race. All with the same ability to learn any of those 7,099 languages.
Now, tell me honestly: What was your first thought when you read that number?
Did you think of the 7,099 amazing possibilities to access knowledge, philosophies and outlooks on life you never considered before? Or did you see 7,099 obstacles keeping us to communicate with each other? I bet it was more of the latter. Because not long ago, it was also my first feeling. And here’s my point.
For too long, we have thought of languages as something that divided us. We accepted the Babel Tower tale and set boundaries between lands where different languages were spoken. And now, here we are, speaking of ‘language barriers’ when we should rather see learning languages as our best way to promote diversity and protect humanity’s biggest wealth.
Learning languages to grow respect for diversity
Have you ever felt a special link when speaking with someone in your native language? A sense of understanding that goes beyond the simple use of words?
This feeling is the first of many reasons we should consider language learning as a powerful tool for peace. It’s a step you can make towards anyone you want to improve your communication with because speaking someone else’s language will always be considered as a sign of respect. Making this effort is showing your conversation partner you genuinely care about them.
As we already discussed here, breaking the ‘language barrier’ is more about showing people you recognize and care about their culture than making yourself understood. How could you not be helpful to a lost tourist making a lot of efforts to ask you his way around the city in your local language?
Changing your own way of communicating is valuing someone else’s culture and own essence. Because you are speaking their own language, using their own way of describing the world, this special effort will make a way to a person’s heart immediately. More than mastering a language perfectly, it’s about empathizing. And who will argue that empathy and respect cannot be powerful friends for promoting peace?
Learning languages to foster international dialogue
To simplify processes in a world that has never been so globalized, we adopted a certain uniformization of language and English has emerged as one of the dominant languages for business. Even if we can’t deny it’s pretty handy when everyone speaks English in the same meeting room, we also forget that it isn’t the only language that can facilitate local trade.
The well-known ‘Think global, act local’ phrase often used in environmental, educational or business contexts, also directly applies to language learning. In order to bring more peace and a sense of understanding in many international dialogue, learning the local language is key. This is the reason ambassadors have to be fluent in their working country’s language and why locals will always be more receptive to a foreign state’s official adapting his speech in the local language. What’s a better way to address conflicts than through cultural awareness?
The benefits of local language learning are even more relevant in multilingual countries. Having both French and Flemish as official languages, Belgium is a perfect example. Because multilingualism is at the heart of the country’s identity and therefore at the heart of its inhabitants’ identity, children are learning both languages at school. By learning Flemish, children from Wallonia (French-speaking part of Belgium) will be more likely to understand Dutch. This will allow them to understand their own country’s culture, but also the one of their Netherlands’ neighbours.
Learning languages as a way to understand one’s culture and view of the world
Because it is a direct link to our history, languages are an important part of each one of us. Not only is it the most beautiful connection we have to our ancestor and land, it’s also a part of our identity as human beings.
Learning a new language is like opening a door on new ways of seeing and understanding the world. Being curious about what stands behind each one of those 7,099 doors is understanding our world’s true wealth and respecting its diversity. We have to understand that the love of all languages is one basic condition for a more peaceful world.
Acknowledging that each language is the heritage of a distinct community will help us understand that no language should be ranked according to its importance in the world’s marketplace. The number of people speaking a language, or the way it is recognized, should not be determining its value. We should rather appreciate all the benefits language holds because of its connection to culture.
Protecting language wealth
Over 20 years ago, in his speech on Language Education for World Peace (1996), Dr Felix Marti, President of the UNESCO’s NGO Linguapax International Committee, already urged us to consider language as the most prodigious production of human creativity. Because ‘Each language expresses one of many possible human wisdoms’, he argues that all of them should be considered as a common treasure of humanity.
Today, as English has emerged as one of the ‘dominant’ languages along with Spanish, Chinese or French, we forget about the wealth every single language holds. Considering that on the 7,099, only 23 languages account for more than half of the world’s population, maybe protecting our language heritage is something we want to focus on right now.
Just like we become more aware each day of the need of protecting our environmental biodiversity, we should now make every possible effort to prevent less spoken languages from disappearing. Understanding that learning less dominant languages isn’t useless will keep us from losing a part of our world’s diversity.
For over 30 years now, protecting linguistic diversity worldwide has been at the heart of Linguapax missions. So if you are interested in the matter, this is definitely where you should kick off your reading!
Language education and peace
Language is a two-edged sword. Used wisely, it has the power to promote peace and enhance socio-economic development. Handled poorly, it can lead to misunderstanding, frustration and conflicts. And this is precisely why we should stop neglecting its importance in education.
Multilingual education is an incredible tool for peace! Because it promotes tolerance, diversity and understanding between communities, it directly fights prejudices and stereotypes. By opening our horizons through a change of attitude and mentality, it helps us empathize with other cultures.
Maybe you are feeling a bit curious about what our differences have to offer. So please make a resolution to start learning a new language today! (or tomorrow, you know, that’s also fine).
Yes, the language you want.
No matter how fast you progress and how difficult this could be. You will in any case gain a new outlook on the world, and become more aware of the wealth and beauty it offers.
So, what stops you?