Why should we learn languages?
That is certainly the belief, seemingly, of ‘A’ level and university level students in this country, among whom what we know as Modern Languages have never been so unpopular.
But as David Bellos, Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, suggests in a recent article in the Guardian (which you can read here), in failing to learn a language you are failing to train your brain in a valuable and otherwise inaccessible skill. He suggests, in fact, that school-age children should be taught nothing except mathematics, music and languages, as these are base skills or competencies to which anything can be added later without too much trouble.
And perhaps it goes deeper still. Patricia Ryan, in a talk on TED, speculates that the global language loss which seems to correlate with the spread of globalised English is not only a cultural tragedy, but a decimation of ideas.http://ted.com/talks/view/id/1106
A language is an ecosystem for culturally specific ideas. There may be much that links us (thought patterns, in spite of what certain schools of philosophy and linguistics would have us believe, are not wholly determined by our language capacity) but there are also many incompatible fringes between languages, and it is here that things get interesting.
One of the skills which Patricia Ryan notes is sadly waning as a consequence of the Global English industry is translation. There was a time when scholars knew of each other’s work, not by learning some lingua franca, but by reading and engaging in translations. Good translation is not only an art, it is also a powerful cognitive challenge and an inter-pollination of ideas.