To celebrate the first ever International Day of Multilingualism, I thought I’d reflect on what languages mean to me.
Travel and exposure to new cultures
My journey with languages started in the classroom. But languages go so much further than that. They lead you to new places, they show you new things and expose you to new ideas. While the desire to improve my languages took me to foreign climes, I got so much more than “just” a language. I learnt about people and different ways of life. I not only saw but I participated in traditional customs and cultural activities, doors that opened because I could speak the language.
It also made me to want to see more of the world, travelling around Eastern Europe and spending time in India. While these weren’t “my” languages, my curiosity of the world had been piqued by my experience of language.
Independence as a woman
When my children were born, I took the decision to give up employment and stay at home with the kids. There is much out there about women losing their identity once children come along and there were certainly challenges along the way. I began tutoring Spanish and German, just a few hours a week, but to me this was a life line. For those few hours a week I was Claire, not Mummy. I had always been independent, but staying at home I was reliant on my husband’s income. That small income from my tutoring meant I was earning my own money, not a lot, but when I wanted some new clothes or to buy a gift, I was able to use my money. My languages gave me back independence and identity.
Multilingualism is normal
I remember starting university and suddenly being surrounded by other language lovers who, like me, spoke more than one language. It became normal to speak more than one language. Back home and several years later, I’m more of a rarity now among my friends. Until, that is, I arrive at one of my favourite places to be: Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity. DRS collects and sorts donations from the public to be sent off to those places in need. Not only does it supply aid, but refugees and asylum seekers in Derby come and help out, providing an opportunity for them to engage with their new country and to come together with others in similar situations. And most of these people are multilingual. Often, it’s not just bilingual – they perhaps speak an African mother tongue, Arabic or Farsi, French and the English or other languages they have picked up on their journey. They’ve grown up in multilingual societies where speaking more than one language is normal and they think nothing of the skills they have. These people who are so often looked down on by our “superior” society, put our monolingualism to shame.
So teach our children about languages. Show them a language is more than just words and more than classroom walls. Encourage them to learn whichever language they fancy, to find out about the country and to start to understand the people. Languages open your eyes to the world.
To find out more about Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity or to donate, please visit www.derbyshirerefugeesolidarity.org/