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Don’t (Just) Learn English!

During my recent trip to Russia I was quite surprised to see how little English was spoken and how unpopular the language was, even among people of my generation and those working in the tourism industry. I am aware of the fact that my homeland Turkey lags behind in the English as Foreign Language teaching and average scores on English language exams are tremendously low, yet this was the first time I witnessed such little effort accompanied by a lack of interest. This made me question the universality of English or more generally the potential of one language dominating the global communication.

Few years ago when China’s superpower status was confirmed and finally acknowledged by international political figures and businessmen, the question that emerged almost automatically was whether the world should start learning Chinese instead of focusing on English. Nevertheless, many columnists came to the rescue of worried English speakers (and natives) arguing that learning any other language than English will not really help in global business. Simply type “Don’t learn Chinese” to Google and you will stumble upon a great number of articles, such as this one from Forbes claiming that Chinese themselves are investing massively in English teaching and the language of Shakespeare will remain as the basis of universal workforce.

My purpose is not to offer an “English bashing” article. It would be ironic to criticize the language that allows me to convey these ideas and gathers young people from all around the world on this platform. Instead, I would like to revisit the utmost importance given to English at the expense of other languages that are ignored or left to die out. People should still not only invest in learning foreign languages but also continue to use their mother tongues. Their financial benefits may be less evident at first glance but they come with various cultural, psychological and cognitive advantages that could eventually pave the way for economic gains.

First of all, speaking different languages affect the way the think. Complex grammar rules and nuances in vocabulary often seem peculiar and unnecessary (Semitic language learners might think of omnipresent gender markers here while Latin language learners will probably reminisce how random the use of subjunctive seemed when they first encountered this tense – If you have not had the chance to learn any other language than English just remember the famous example of Eskimos having many words for snow), yet they all point out different intellectual and cultural priorities these languages (and their original speakers) have. My Turkish and Serbo-Croatian speaking friends always proudly tell how detailed the family vocabulary is in their respective languages compared to English. This simple example showing the importance of family as a concept in these cultures is one of many marks of mental diversities. Studies show that speakers of language that do not distinguish the past, present and future (e.g. Chinese) save more money than speakers of those that do (e.g. English). Economist Keith Chen argues that it is most likely because as we speak of the future that is idiomatically different than the present it seems more distant and financially less worrisome.

The more we get to discover foreign languages the more our brains function differently and break their routine, which not only reduces the risk of Alzheimer and other forms of dementia but also allows us to develop various personalities. I guess the old Turkish proverb “Bir dil bir insan, iki dil iki insan” (which roughly translates to with one language you are one man but by knowing two you become two) is quite accurate after all.  


Image source: Flickr

Bilal Müftüoğlu

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