BITS and Pieces

Get global. Get ahead.

Relevance of learning languages in a globalised world

With the government deciding to stop teaching German in Kendriya Vidyalaya Schools across the country, will our children lose out on a great opportunity?


Does learning languages early in life help us become global citizens? Whether it is a foreign language or an Indian one, will learning languages help us and our children integrate better in cultures and thereby achieve global peace?


Find out as our Guest Writer for this month Indraja Gugle takes you on a journey into the world of languages and its benefits.


Look around you. There are software engineers, doctors, businessmen and what have you. They hold enough degrees to fill up an entire room. And then, there’s that person who holds a respectable qualification and in addition, speaks more languages than the average number of rotis on one’s plate. It is probably this chap who has the advantage – not because he is better qualified than the other forlorn candidate, but because he chose to give equal importance to his linguistic skills.


By knowing more languages, this smart fellow has not only made life easier for himself but also for the people around him. Whether you agree or not, people’s eyes do grow wide with amazement when they hear that you can converse fluently in a foreign language. And if this amazed person turns out to be a potential employer, well, aren’t you in luck!


With more and more countries wanting to trade with India, the demand for professionals who know a few languages, Indian or foreign, couldn’t be greater. We are one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Additionally, with the ‘Make in India’ campaign, we are only going to attract more international companies. India’s international work portfolio is already on the rise. Globalisation along with developments in the Indian foreign policy makes for a lucrative environment for language experts.


Too young to learn a language, really?


Learning languages as early as in school can be extremely beneficial. It generates a sense of curiosity about crossing geographical boundaries, which has become so essential in order to live in a globalised world. Many schools are recognizing this need of the hour and allowing students to take up French, German or Spanish.


How should one then view the Indian government’s decision to stop teaching German in the Kendriya Vidyalayas across the country? An impasse that has not only hit Indo-German relations but might also mean fewer opportunities for their students to develop into global citizens.


While students studying in private school will get a chance to learn a foreign language and go places, students studying in the Kendriya Vidyalayas won’t get a window into the developed world at the same age. The very fruitful scholarships and cultural exchange programmes are offered to only those with the knowledge of a foreign language. Kendriya Vidyalaya students will quite simply lose out on such opportunities to explore their own aptitude and get global exposure, thus falling behind fellow students from other schools.


Then again, one might debate how relevant the knowledge obtained in school is. All the more since Indian schools regard foreign languages very theoretically. The focus is always on ‘getting good marks.’


After having studied German in school and French at the Allaince Française during my college days, I can easily relate to this dilemma – how well do I remember a foreign language taught to me in school?


There are four cornerstones to any language – speaking, reading, listening and writing. A course from a language institute such as the Alliance Française meets all of these. After just one level of French, I could have five minute long conversations, while even after three years of learning German in school I had not achieved that level of comfort.


Languages as global unifiers


Modern technology and communication channels have made it possible for languages to dissolve national boundaries and for people to find their ‘home’ thousands of miles away from where they were born. It is an emerging new world we live in where we are affected by what happens in other countries more easily.


Ebola, a deadly epidemic in Africa, has had far reaching repercussions. Charlie Hebdo made the world take a stance against attackers of freedom of speech and we are still battling terror. The level of empathy and oneness displayed would not have been possible had nations not started dealing with each other more closely. And languages play an important role in how close people of different countries can get. Finally, don’t erstwhile colonies of the British, the French or the Portuguese still have colonial hangovers from all the overdose of language and culture they received? The affinity we feel towards a country, thanks to speaking its language, goes a long way in increasing the empathy factor.


The bottom line is, we share the same problems – corruption, mafia, religious divide and terrorism. Languages are helping us better understand each other and face challenges together. Sitting around a bonfire, sharing a meal and listening to Latin American anecdotes can tell us so much more about an ethnicity than trying to find a connect through an article. It makes us more empathetic towards our global companions. Such intimate interaction is possible only through languages. They play an important role in opening a window into another culture and making us more tolerant and worldly-wise global citizens.


As the axis shifts, the truth becomes clearer that we all stand as one, as much in the face of development as during human and natural tragedies. Global peace will be achieved only through a keen understanding and acceptance of others as our own kin. Knowing a language will bring us closer to achieving this.


By learning a language, we are not only learning how to converse but we are also opening our heart and mind to a people to share our lives with. This is an attitude that needs to be cultivated. The future holds more global challenges, but also more promise for those who effectively adapt to the melting pot of cultures.


The children of today will be redefining the global community of tomorrow, and hence they need to know more about the world they shall inhabit. Languages are very well a stepping stone towards producing aware and compassionate global citizens, who would in turn work towards global peace.


And then closer home


When it comes to learning languages, we often tend to overlook our own diverse basket. India has a whopping 22 official state languages set out in the eighth schedule as of May 2008! The rules of the international community apply to India too. Every state is unique with its own set of language and traditions, hence giving rise to a completely different cultural experience as borders are crossed. A Maharashtrian may find himself working in the state of Bengal with no liking whatsoever for fish, and probably grumbling when at 5 am the sun starts streaming into his bedroom. Though there’s little he can do about that, he could definitely better integrate with Bengalis if he didn’t call out to a neighbour’s cat as “boka”. While in Marathi it refers to a male cat, in Bengali it would mean you were calling the cat a fool! And God forbid the owner happens to be walking past and thinks you said it to him!!


Looking yonder, finding within


Some say learning a new language gets you closer to your own culture. I had never completely understood this phenomenon until now. But the more I interact with people from different countries and cultures, the more I find myself constantly explaining the little things I do – like the spices I add to my food or praying to the Sun whenever it makes an appearance. In India, people go about these things in a routine fashion. But outside, I realised I was representing my country for what it is – historically as well as culturally. By looking at myself through other people’s eyes, I have come to cherish my culture even more.


Summing up


Languages quite simply translate into improved prospects for meeting new people and building a global network. The rules of the game have indeed changed. The number of languages you know has become, albeit discretely, as important as who you know, a fact you can ignore only at your own peril.


Thinking of signing up for a language course already, eh?

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Indraja Gugale A speaker of six languages, Indraja’s love for languages and travelling has taken her from Turkey to France and to the dozens of other European countries in between. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Multimedia Journalism at the University of Westminster, London. She plans on becoming a bilingual travel journalist.