One Voice? Many Languages! The value of multilingualism in our modern world (Part 1)

By Bernardette Holmes MBE
Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques
Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL)
Co-Chair of the Research in Primary Languages Network (RiPL)

As a child, I was fascinated when I first heard someone speaking French, enthralled when I tried to work out the meaning of words from a story book in German, and delighted when listening to a friend’s grandmother singing Funiculì, funiculà with gusto, as she changed the bedlinen. Other languages were intriguing, exciting and exotic, and at that time, hearing other languages in our day-to-day lives was relatively unusual.

The world has changed. For young people reaching adulthood in the early part of the 21st century, the world in which they make friends, study and work is multilingual and culturally diverse. The soundscape is different; as we walk through the park and down the high street, we hear a polyphony of many different voices from Eastern Europe, from subcontinental Asia, from the Middle East, from Hong Kong, from Asia Pacific and from Africa, in addition to the voices of British indigenous languages and those of our nearer European neighbours, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. The way we live our lives varies among different communities; there are different traditions, beliefs and cultural norms. Diversity and variety are experienced in the way we eat, dress, celebrate and socialise. This is as much a reality in rural areas as it is in our towns and cities, and our lives are richer for it.

While it is increasingly normal for individuals to live in diverse neighbourhoods and to work with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds who bring with them multiple languages and a wide range of transnational experience, as a society we still seem unsure of how to navigate our multilingual communities, and how to value and make the most of the rich range of languages, cultural knowledge and intercultural understanding that such opportunities provide for us.

Confronting hate speech
We know, and must confront, that not all members of our society share the same positive views towards linguistic and cultural diversity. Dr Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, presented a report in March 2021 at the Human Rights Council in Geneva raising awareness that in many countries, three-quarters or more of the victims of online hate speech are members of minority groups. Women from these groups are often disproportionately targeted. In November 2021, the BBC reported that online hate speech in the UK and the US had risen by 20% during the pandemic. Once a society allows online abuse to become normalised through the internet via social media, the risk that virtual disrespect may convert to physical acts of bullying and violence increases exponentially.

Fostering positive attitudes
What can we do as teachers to bring about social change? How can we foster positive attitudes towards other languages and cultures within our classrooms, our schools and in our wider community? Can we change the optics and make a compelling case that validates individual identity and recognises the true value of languages, cultural knowledge and intercultural communicative skills as cultural capital? Can we work together to create public messages about the value of all our languages, and develop a deeper acceptance and understanding of the crucial contribution that languages make to building harmonious, cohesive societies where individuals and communities benefit and thrive.

What is multilingualism? 
The first important consideration is in our use and understanding of the terminology that describes all matters relating to multilingualism. What and who are we are talking about? As teachers of languages, we are all too aware of the significance of accurate translation and the relative complexity of finding the closest and most appropriate vocabulary and idiom to convey meaning from one language to another. It stands to reason, therefore, that terminology is key in how we classify our languages, as it affects how we think about them, how we attribute social and cultural value to them, and how others perceive them.

If we explore the definition of the overarching term ‘multilingualism’, are we sure that we have a common understanding of the term and what it encompasses. Is the term multilingualism describing individuals and communities that regularly communicate in more than one language in their daily lives? Are we referring to acquired multilingualism, responding to the needs of global communication and international relations on the world stage? In other words, are we promoting ‘multilingualism as a state of being/ a desirable brand’, advocating the learning of other languages in addition to the first language for instrumental reasons related to the economy, diplomacy, security and social cohesion?

Taking an alternative perspective, are there socio-economic/socio- cultural connotations around multilingualism that suggest barriers and problems to overcome?

During the pandemic public health systems across the world acknowledged the issue of multilingual crisis communication, and struggled initially to meet the challenge of disseminating vital social resources and public health guidance to minority communities.

Hence, multilingualism was framed in the public sphere as a problem, when in actual fact, recognising that linguistic diversity requires multilingual approaches to providing information is the solution, and having such systems in place to reflect the needs of our modern world obviates any crisis from the outset.

How do our education and political systems describe the different languages we speak? Bernardette continues her look at multilingualism in Part 2 of this blog here and shares some pioneering approaches and research. 

Bernardette Holmes MBE is an education policy expert, and Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques. Bernardette is also Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) and Co-Chair of the Research in Primary Languages Network (RiPL).


Posted: 20/06/2022 10:12:31