Benefits of knowing many languages

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

Mulichete! Wie geht es dir, Dumela! O phela joang? U hali gani? Mucwani? Mulishani? Mujibyepi?

Well, I am just from greeting you in Namwanga, German, Tswana, Sotho, Swahili, Lozi, Bemba and Kaonde respectively! By the way, how many languages do you ‘know’ … I mean, how many languages are you able to speak? If you only know one language, the technical term for people of your kind in linguistics is ‘monolingual’. Assuming you only know two languages, you are referred to as a ‘bilingual’. Lastly, if you are someone who is able to understand more than two languages, the linguistic term for people of your kind is ‘multilingual/polyglot’.

It is worth noting that although the term ‘bilingual’ strictly connotes mastery of two languages while ‘multilingual’ connotes mastery of many languages (i.e. ‘bi’– two; ‘multi’– many), for convenience, linguists usually prefer using the term ‘bilingual’ to refer to anyone who speaks more than one language while ‘multilingual(ism)’ is usually reserved for the idea of society having many languages (Francis, 1999; and Aaron, 2005). Below are the benefits of knowing many languages.

Fosters unity

Whenever I read the events of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), I jokingly imagine a Luvale-speaking builder asking a Nyanja-speaking colleague for some bread during tea break. Since the word for “bread” in Luvale is actually an insult in Nyanja, I always imagine the Luvale speaker receiving a very good slap for ‘insulting’ the Nyanja workmate (the kind of slap which makes one see not only an eclipse of the sun, but also see stars and moons of the universe in broad day light). In retaliation, the Luvale builder gave the Nyanja friend an Undertaker tombstone beating before abandoning the construction project (carrying his building tools in the process and relocating to central Africa). Had the Luvale and the Nyanja builders known each other’s languages, they would have continued building the Tower of Babel.

Undoubtedly, therefore, one of the fastest ways to flop a project or divide a nation is through poverty of linguistic knowledge of your neighbour’s language. Knowing your neighbour’s language also makes them feel part of you, the community and country. For Zambia, the survival of the national motto “One Zambia, One Nation” is dependent on unity in linguistic diversity cemented by citizens knowing each other’s language.

Reduces inferiority complex

A number of sociolinguistic researches have shown that individuals with little knowledge of other people’s languages tend to display linguistic-related paranoia compared to those with considerable knowledge of other people’s languages (Wadhaugh, 1996/2006). Being monolingual (knowing only one language) limits your scope of the world. It makes you insecure and stereotype others by attaching the language they speak to, say, their race, tribe or nationality. This leads to self-isolation and inferiority complex expressed by either fighting the people whose language you do not know or coiling to your own corner in self-denial usually expressed by an out-of-place face. On the other hand, when you know multiple languages, it boosts your self-esteem and makes you feel secure even in linguistic environments that are not your own. Ultimately, feelings like “oh gosh, there they go again with their alien language! I think they are talking about me…” naturally disappear.

Expands our view of the world

The famous Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein best summarised how knowing many languages expands our view of the world by saying that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” We think and view the world in a language because language frames our concepts. Someone who knows Bemba, Lozi, Ushi, Xhosa and Sotho is likely to have a broader view of the world than anyone who only knows, say, Ushi. “Learning another language is not only [about] learning different words for the same things, but [about] learning another way to think about things” because with language come a different perspective to reality through customs, cultures and traditions (Flora Lewis).

Therefore, when you decide to learn a new language, you are actually unconsciously changing your thoughts and this is good for your wider, objective perception of things. People who know many languages rarely stereotype. Such people understand that their language and its cultures are not the only ones in this world. They understand that there are a lot of other things that happen beyond the hills of their community, chiefdom or country. When faced with conflicting experiences from those known in their language and tribe, bilinguals tend to understand and appreciate such linguistic and cultural diversities.

You are easily embraced

Take someone who knows many languages to any part of the country or world and they will fit there with great ease and be welcomed. The easiest way to win anyone’s heart is to speak their language. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” (Nelson Mandela). Language is the window to people’s hearts. It enables you to easily socialise and connect with others.

Good for your brain

Just imagine having millions and millions of concepts in different languages, all stored in your brain! Even more, just imagine a situation where almost all the concepts you know in one language have their equivalent in two or more other languages you speak! It is like being offered an opportunity to view a movie in different dimensions (I bet you would love the 3D one!).

Well, your imaginations are not far-fetched because that is exactly what happens to your brain when you know more than one language. Speaking multiple languages sharpens your brain because you always have to retrieve that word and that experience from some storage somewhere in the brain, originally stored/coded in a particular language. This supports cognitive exercise and excites some parts of your brain (specifically the left supramarginal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus – see Decéty, 2004; Mathew and Morton, 2012; Kaisa, 2017; and Marian, 2017).

Any wonder that knowledge of multiple languages is known to also reduce memory loss in old age on basis of speakers having so many language options to process a communication! Other studies have also shown that people who know more languages tend to be mentally sharper than those who know only one language (Marian, 2017). This comes as no surprise because having millions of concepts and experiences stored in multiple languages in our brain increases our selection spectrum when communicating.

Culturally tolerant

Language and culture are inseparable because culture is conveyed through language just as language is conveyed through culture. Different people follow different cultures and they express that culture through language (e.g. through language, you would learn that word choices during marriage rites among the Nkoya people of western Zambia might be significantly different from those of the Ushi people of Milenge district. By knowing this, you will save yourself from being beaten for uttering certain words during dowry negotiations).

In fact, through knowing many languages, one appreciates the fact that the world is bigger in perspectives than they thought. They would know that their culture and tribe does not have a monopoly over wisdom. This breeds tolerance of opinion and combats prejudice especially on things that border on morality.

Economic, educational and romantic benefits

When you speak other people’s languages, they feel like you are part of them and would easily accommodate you and be economically kind to you. Apart from improving our well-being through language, some educational offers come with linguistic conditions attached. This is one other reason we tend to learn the so-called international languages (e.g. French). However, it is high time we also learnt our local neighbour’s language. Mastery of different languages that are common to the locality we are found is not only a show of politeness and mutual respect to the local people but also easily attracts warm reception with greater individual benefits. Besides, language is the window to the inner diary of the heart where only sincere statements like “I love you” come from. So why not sweep someone off their feet by speaking their language? I know of one man who attempted to learn Igbo in two days after meeting his soul mate in some remote areas of Nigeria.

This is it for today! Next week, I will look at the recovery patterns of language in a patient who had a stroke or brain damage. Do not miss this interesting and very educative topic from an area of linguistics known as clinical linguistics. Drop me your thoughts about today’s topic using my contact details below. I will publish your feedback in coming weeks.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA. Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com; 0956315380.

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