Learning languages to learn cultures

by Terence MacNamee

Learning languages is good for you, they say, it broadens your mind ; but how exactly? The humanistic ideal of education in Europe, until recent times, was to know the major languages and their literatures, just as in previous centuries people had known the classics. But this is no longer a popular reason for learning languages. In an era of European integration and mobility of people, languages are learned for practical reasons – to communicate, to do business.

It is often said, too, that that learning another language is good for your brain – it gives you a new sort of mental agility which helps your personal development. But if the truth were told, the real mental agility comes not so much from the language learning as from the cultural learning which goes along with it. If you really learn a language and use it, you will be dealing with another culture too. And that really broadens your mind like nothing else can.

Today there seems to be a growing crisis in language learning. As we saw, the old humanist faith which regarded the learning of the major languages as an enrichment, a Bildung, no longer obtains. At the same time, the rise of English as a vehicular language has changed the situation. In the English-speaking countries, learning of foreign languages seems to be in free fall, and in continental Europe, the learning of the language of neighbouring countries is more and more neglected in favour of English, regarded as more useful.

In the meantime, language teaching, now oriented toward practical communication, has necessarily become more aware of the cultural aspects of language, which are essential to communication. Could one not envisage a future where the old priorities are turned upside down and cultures rather than languages are taught, and the languages are learned as a part of the cultures? Personal development fostered by cultural learning would become the new Bildung, a new humanistic ideal that would justify the study of languages. In this perspective, people would learn foreign languages explicitly as a key to foreign cultures. I think this is an idea whose time has come.

NEW! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMc33Mka0zE for a video version of this post.