Language and empathy, Part 1: Why learn another language?

This is the first in a short series of posts to restart my blogging for another year, and all relate to language learning and empathy. Each of the 3 posts will suggest a new year’s resolution for anybody interested in developing their connections with others through language in 2016.

Resolution #1. Appreciate how people (try to) express themselves.

While idly browsing the BBC News website the other day, this headline story from the Education section unexpectedly awakened some thoughts that had been stirring sleepily in the back of my mind for some time…
Learn a language in 2016
In the article, the actor/broadcaster Larry Lamb is quoted as offering perhaps the most frequently cited claim in favour of studying another language. It is also one of the least convincing reasons, in my view, for anybody who doesn’t already just happen to be interested in learning other languages.
“Languages, for me, are about opening the world up. It gives you another soul, it gives you another person.” – Larry Lamb
The implication appears to be that you, i.e. the learner, are granted another identity by virtue of expressing yourself in another language. Of course, the other tacit message here is that having another identity is a good thing, something we would all be glad to have.
Of course, some research suggests that people do ‘feel’ like different people when they speak different languages, but this is not necessarily the case. And why should this be, in itself, a good thing? There’s also only limited evidence that the particular linguistic forms which you use could actually shape your way of seeing the world in a particular way.
Personally, I do like the idea of ‘opening the world up’, but it doesn’t follow that having another soul would achieve this. If anything, I think it might result in some identity issues!
But I’m being facetious. I think there is a sounder argument in favour of being (becoming) multilingual, to whatever degree of proficiency, and I would like to edit Larry Lamb’s phrasing slightly here:
Language can open the world up. The processes of learning and trying to express yourself in another language can help you to empathise with other people. In this sense, language gives you another soul; it gives you another person.
By recasting Larry’s words in this light, we can see language learning – whether that means learning a language different to the one(s) you grew up with, or learning more about the language(s) you are already familiar with – more generally as a way of connecting people. By better understanding the ways in which people express themselves, we can know them (and ourselves) better. Rather than being given another version of yourself (Larry’s “other person”), you are granted access to another different person, another different soul, by means of empathising with their personality, their life and their experience.
This seems to me a much more universal message, as people express themselves by various means (including non-linguistic) and connections between us are sparked when we recognise what someone else is expressing, when we appreciate how complex or challenging it might have been for them to express, and when we have a response to either or both of these things.
Some people find common ground in their musical tastes; some people meet through mutual friends; some people like learning languages, and some people like travelling to different countries to practise them. But not everybody. Some people connect by hardly speaking at all, just by kicking a football around, or dancing together, or sharing a glance across the aisle of a train when they hear the conductor make an amusing announcement.
The point is, people connect with others in all sorts of ways.
Or at least, they can if they try…

5 thoughts on “Language and empathy, Part 1: Why learn another language?

  1. Dear Laura,
    Interesting post. Although my mother tongue is Urdu, I have always considered English my first language because I am most fluent in it. Being bilingual, I am often given to code switching and now having lived in the Middle East for a long time, it is interesting to observe the same trend developing here where earlier it was only Arabic which was spoken by the indigenous people across a vast expanse of land. One is drawn by the steady spread of the English language in countries with no history of colonisation (Braj Kachru’s Three Circles Model) giving rise to different kinds of Englishes. Interestingly, the stance that learning another language generates another identity is too far fetched. Instead one may think of the creating of a persona helping to ease one into the communicative act which entails not only the language but also an understanding of the cultural context in which it is being used.

    1. Hi Ozma
      Thanks for your comments, and for bringing up the topic of culture. This is one of the most fascinating developments, I think, in the spread of English. Because it is so often used between people who share no cultural background (and who don’t themselves come from a culture where English has long been the L1), interesting communicative practices emerge. We often talk about English as a “foreign language”, but who is the foreigner when neither person speaks it as their first language? I love exploring these issues, and will stop there before I spoil the contents of my next posts in this series… 😉

  2. A really interesting post, Laura. A couple of ideas popped up while I was reading. I don’t know for sure what Larry means by *soul*, but this was my train of thought: As you may know, I’m a Czech. We Czechs tend to speak with a rather flat and monotone intonation. I love to watch Italian movies, especially the actors, whose lively intonation and energetic gestures I really admire. If I expressed myself the same way in Czech, I’d be considered a hysterical woman. So speaking Italian would, in a way, enable me to be a different person – or maybe someone who I truly am deep inside. I also love the sound of the Japanese language. It’s as mysterious to me as the whole culture and I’d love to learn about it by being able to understand and speak it – I’d like to get another soul, so to speak. But maybe I’m missing a point here 🙂 Anyway, thanks for sharing; I’m looking forward to more posts on the topic.

    1. Ahoj Hano 🙂
      Thanks for your comment! My experience is similar to yours, and I expect many people who love learning and teaching languages feel the same. I just felt a bit desperate when reading that article because it seems that the “new soul/identity” argument is the same old argument they always give and that the only people who would be convinced are people like us! So they’re preaching to the converted, as it were. Perhaps my thoughts will become clearer in the next parts of this blog series…

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