When is a second language useful? Do we have a moral obligation to learn one? Can travelling be enough to achieve fluency? What exactly is fluency anyway?
Linguistically, I find myself in the rather unusual situation of having different answers to the questions “What is your first language?” and “What was your mother tongue?”. I was born in India and grew up speaking the local language Konkani, as people living on the Konkan Coast are wont to do nowadays. My mother went to an English-medium school where she learned Hindi and Marathi, later picking up Kannada when she crossed state lines for her job, while my late great-aunt spoke only Portuguese, a remnant of recent colonial days under European rule. My father was fluent in both Hindi and English, and had also studied French until he went to university.
We all spoke Konkani at home, which is a strange mix of expressions native to the Indian subcontinent as well as loan words from other languages, Portuguese being once again the most obvious European intruder. My father learned to write the intricate, elegant script at school, but it might as well have been a different language to the one my mother used casually; the former was suitable for legal documents but the latter only for day-to-day living.
When we moved to London just before my fourth birthday, learning English was a survival tactic rather than a choice; being surrounded by English speakers and living in just-a-little-bit-racist South London, I promptly shed my mother tongue and any knowledge of the scripts, accents and concepts associated with Indian languages. It is a point of eternal shame in my mind that I can now barely follow the simplest of Konkani conversations. I know small numbers, basic adjectives, simple feelings and everyday actions, but only silently; I don’t dare speak the few words I do know because my anglicised accent acts like a glaring badge of non-nativeness – and around these parts, you don’t encounter many non-native Konkani speakers to bond with.
My English, however, is stunning; I was a voracious reader, an exemplary speller and a grammar fiend as a child. It’s a trait that I like to think has continued into adulthood, although I imagine a fair number of people would also list my linguistic pedantry as a character flaw rather than a skill. I began to learn French at the age of 10 and flew through exam after exam, keen to shape up to the example set by my family. At university, a friend told me over dinner that our ideas are limited to the languages we can express them in, so I picked up Spanish as an elective during my second year.
The thing about the French is that they left their linguistic mark in almost as many places as the English. Coupled with the fact that they’re just over the Channel from England, I’ve been to l’Hexagone more times than I care to remember – mostly trips to Paris, where the common response to starting a conversation in French is a patronising (but fluent) reply in English. However, working in a restaurant in the south of France during the summer before my A-Level exams, my crushing fear of sounding like an idiot gave way to the beginnings of easy, unplanned, conversational French. On a trip to Belgium two years ago, I happened to make friends with a local – but we started our conversation in English and that is the language we still use today, so my French went unused and unloved for another year.
I was initially reluctant to even try it out in Marrakech this February, but after realising that (shock, horror) people could actually understand what I was saying, they couldn’t shut me up. I spoke to the hotel concierge, restaurant waiters, local tradesmen, the taxi driver, people on the street, anyone who would listen. As for my Spanish, picking up a language so similar to Portuguese was almost too easy; I suppose the Iberian roots were always there, in my linguistic subconscious. I hope to be conversationally fluent in Spanish in a year’s time. I’ll keep you posted on that one. But I continue not to explicitly mention which languages I study to any new acquaintances, in case they test me and realise I’m still not fluent yet, just a monolingual fraud. I’m aware of how ridiculous that fear is, and I’m learning to get over it.
When people tell me they have no interest in learning foreign languages, I am stunned. As far as I’m concerned, it’s less an academic choice and more a life skill that is both necessary and highly desirable. We need to learn languages because communicating with and relating to other people is all that matters; we want to learn languages because they are both beautiful and powerful.
A quick Facebook survey indicates that, among those who speak more than one language, my friends know on average two languages fluently and have survival skills in one or two more. It pains me to think that of those people, I know only their English-speaking personalities; the concepts and ideas in their heads that can only be expressed in foreign tongues are just that – foreign – to me. For the recent and almost-graduates out there, I would say with confidence that the monolingual among us will struggle in the global job market in 20 years’ time, competing with applicants around the world for whom multilingualism is a lifestyle rather than a choice. For those less concerned with global business, there are at least five ways to say the word “no” in Mandarin; how many levels of meaning are you missing out on?