The need of teaching and learning more languages

Posted on Thu 07 November 2019 in languages, meta, teaching

For a second, stop to think about how many languages you know. With languages, I do not mean verbal languages: rather, any means of expressing thoughts and feelings, or of expressing a dialogue. I am here do advocate for the learning and teaching of more than just one.

Our western culture is based on the verbal language - the one you can speak with your friends, read in novels, and write in essays. We educate kids in that, and yet I would argue that very few of them end up being proficient in the verbal language. Speaking a language does not make you proficient in it: that skill is a much higher level one, and involves deep knowledge of the structure of the language, exposure to thousands examples of both good and bad usage of the language, and effortful practice throughout years. Often, people who venture in learning a new language (a verbal one) do not even ever get comfortable with their mother-tongue. What I mean is that although everybody can talk in their own language, few of them have a real mastery of it. Few people, for example, are able to tell a story (and not because of lack of ideas, but for inability of structuring it), and even fewer are able to read one out loud in a way that is vaguely engaging (for example, they cannot look away from the book to the audience, and fill in any gaps in their reading my making up appropriate fill-ups).

But even if people were proficient in the verbal language, this is just one means of expression. It is barely minimum. And even though we study several different subjects at school, they are all taken across through the same verbal language. But what about other, different languages?

Musicians, on the other hand, can rarely express the feelings and the moods of a musical piece through words. They have a different alphabet, one that does not have translation to the verbal one. The fact that sometimes, some situation reminds them of a tune, or inspires them a tune, rather than words, is a clear example that the musical language is different altogether. It is incredible that we are still studying Latin and we are not all studying music.

Sports is another example where a different language is in place. The main difference between experienced and beginners in table tennis, for example, is in how they frame/live the unfolding of a point. Experienced players see a dialog in it, a conversation that ultimately leads to scoring a point. But it is exactly this sense of structure, this ability to realize how each stroke is connected and what each of them can have as consequence, that gives experienced players an unmatchable advantage. They know what is going to happen, and they know it because they are building something with that language.

Mathematics is another, different form of expression, albeit this may be questioned. For sure, I would not classify programming languages as different languages, as they are after all a bridge between the verbal language and computers, but they are still thought to be as close to verbal as possible. Mathematics on the other hand, especially when it gets abstract enough, can venture pretty far from verbal expression, especially in its syntax. However, most of the formalism has been introduced to make the reasoning swifter, by avoiding long and cumbersome verbal sentences.

My final example is Go, the ancient Chinese strategy board game. Perhaps more than in any other game, a game of Go is a dialogue between two people in a language which is completely foreign to any usual form of expression. Each move says something, to the point that experienced players can re-trace the full game after the end, starting from the beginning. And they do so not out of memory, but like the act of recalling a conversation, where each line comes after the previous one in a sensible way. Here again, Go masters can see the dialogue unfold in their head, while beginners are at a loss and seem to play kind of randomly from the perspectives of experienced players, similarly to a kid who does not really reply on topic.

And yet, I am sure there are many other examples of different forms of expressions that would be worth pursuing. But still, we keep focusing more and more on just the verbal side.