OTTAWA (CUP) 8212; Linguistic Darwinism, or the unintentional death of languages through competition and natural selection, has dramatically reduced the number of languages spoken in the world today. Perhaps this is a good thing 8212; economically speaking, a monolingual society would be highly efficient, since there would be no communication barriers. So what are the benefits of becoming multilingual?
Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made the provocative assertion, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” In light of globalization, though, it appears this declaration may no longer be relevant. Google, for example, is currently developing speech-to-speech translation software for mobile phones that can interpret spoken words on the spot. Even with almost 7,000 languages existing worldwide, according to Ethnologue language encyclopedia, the barriers between them are being broken every day.
However, don’t drop that modern-language class just yet. Literal translation is just the tip of the linguistic iceberg, and experts are touting the benefits 8212; monetary and otherwise 8212; of multilingualism.
Jonathan Calof, an international business professor at the University of Ottawa, is a specialist in the field of competitive intelligence. He investigates what makes for successful international business practice.
While English is the lingua franca [common language] of communication today, “the [information] that’s available in English in a foreign country typically is superficial, unless you’re in an English-speaking country,” Calof explained. “I almost consider it a competitive disadvantage to only speak one [language].”
He also pointed out how successful communication can translate into a tangible asset.
“Business is based on relationships. It’s [based] more on relationships than anything else,” he continued. “If I speak your language, there’s a higher probability that a relationship is going to ensue, that we’ll understand each other, and that a transaction will occur.”
Calof gave the example of a recent trip he took to China. His business contact’s first language was Chinese, and his second language was French.
“I had an English translator, but he wouldn’t let her talk at all; he wanted to be by my side working on his French the whole time.
“We’re still in contact now and he’s giving me all sorts of great information, and we’ve started a relationship because we speak the same language, which at that point was French,” Calof continued.
There is also a certain level of cultural understanding and linguistic proficiency required to work in a different country.
“If you don’t fully understand the language, you end up making what we call “comical’-type mistakes,” said Calof. “Like [if you go] to Italy and you really want to do some trading in fish, but you say “pesche’ and you end up with peaches instead.”
Business literature is brimming with example of firms attempting to market products with an inadequate grasp of the local language.
“Like Kentucky Fried Chicken 8212; their big thing is “Finger Lickin’ Good.’ They didn’t quite translate it right, and it literally turned into “Eat your fingers off ,'” in Chinese, Calof said. “”Come alive with Pepsi’ became “Bring your ancestors back from the grave.’ In China, that’s not going to sell too well.”
Our home and native land
It’s reasonable that multilingualism is valuable on the international level, but if you reside in Canada, bilingualism is at the forefront of the language debate.
Gilles Grenier is an economics professor at the University of Ottawa. He believes that the issue is much more nuanced than it seems at first glance. According to Grenier, statistics show that bilingual people usually have higher wages, but it’s not clear whether this is a direct result of learning a second language.
“Is it because they learned a second language, or is it because people who learn a second language also have other abilities?” Grenier asked. “It’s not certain that you get higher wages because you’re bilingual.”
Danielle Blab, a fourth-year international studies and modern-languages student at the University of Ottawa, speaks four languages and finds that these skills make it easier for her to land a job.
“I’ve gotten hired for jobs on the spot, solely based on the fact that I’m fluently bilingual in English and French 8212; and having Spanish as a third language was a total asset in a lot of jobs,” she said. Blab’s fourth language is Arabic and she believes learning languages is important in today’s “global village.”
With increasing globalization and interaction between people of different linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, she believes more multilingualism should be encouraged.
Indeed, within Canada, the importance of multilingualism seems to be gaining ground.
Monica Jezak, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute, cites Canada’s growing diplomatic and commercial exchanges internationally as the driving force behind this demand for multilingual individuals.
“Since Canada entered [the North American Free Trade Agreement], there are many commercial interchanges with South America, for example, and obviously people dealing with those things need to be trilingual,” she explained.
Jezak chalks up the salary difference between monolingual and multilingual people to the linguistic demands of certain jobs.
It comes with a salary increase in the sense that it comes with an increase in your responsibilities . . . or what is required from you, so those are usually the best paid jobs,” she said.
Grenier also acknowledged the shifting reality in Canada.
“The ethnic communities, of course, we expect them to learn English and French . . . but on the other hand, we do a lot of trade with [China], and in Vancouver, for example, a lot of people learn Chinese because it is very useful for them to communicate,” he noted.
What makes Canada a linguistically unique nation is the protection of minority languages in the Multiculturalism Act, which aims to recognize and preserve cultures and languages other than English and French within Canada. It is becoming increasingly common to see banks located in Ottawa’s Chinatown, for example, providing service in Mandarin. Clearly, Canada’s linguistic repertoire is expanding.
Calof, who sits on various immigration boards and multicultural committees, also emphasized the nationwide demand for multilingual professionals.
There is “a domestic requirement for almost any profession whereby multiple languages allow you to more effectively do your job, and then an international dimension where relationships and trade really do depend on your ability to function in the other language,” he said.
It’s easier to mingle when you’re multilingual
Jezak noted the significant impact of the patriotic origins of Canadian bilingualism.
“On [a] community level, I think it’s very interesting for a society to have both French and English communities interchanging,” she said. “I bet if we didn’t have the French twist, we’d be more like Americans 8212; which is not the case.”
Culturally speaking, language is about more than just conveying a message, as it also encapsulates a particular worldview. Grenier referred to this as the dual role of language.
Language “is a means of communication, and if it was only a means of communication then there would be a benefit of using only one language,” he said. “But it is also part of a culture, and it’s important to keep that alive.”
Both Jezak and Grenier agree that multilingual people can act as cultural intermediaries and build “bridges” between communities.
Conversely, Calof argued that he found this to be a risky assumption.
“I know people that are really good in both languages . . . and so you would naturally assume [their linguistic knowledge is] culturally based, but [it’s] not,” he explained. “So what happens is that the other side expects them to behave a certain way, assuming that they’re from that region, and when they don’t do it they can actually get a little more mad than [they would] at someone who was speaking only one language.”
In this regard, Calof stresses the importance of culturally-based language acquisition.
“No one expects me when I’m in China to act Chinese 8212; they know I’m not 8212; but I better have a healthy respect for the culture,” he said. “I mean, I can blow the language, but if I blow some of the taboos culturally, there is really no going back.”
Although languages constantly evolve 8212; and sometimes even die but remain academically alive, like Latin 8212; it seems a growing number of people are learning multiple languages. And for the most part, the required proficiency to meaningfully operate in a language limits the number of languages we may acquire. A cursory knowledge of five languages, for example, may be less valuable than a mastery of just two.
According to Jezak, the resources to learn French in a culturally-based environment are fairly accessible throughout Canada, “while they do not exist in monolingual countries.” Canada’s colonial history 8212; and the country’s notorious reputation for hyper-politeness 8212; led the nation to develop countless laws and regulations aimed precisely at protecting this accessibility.
The Official Languages Act and its purported dedication to promoting the equality of English and French affirm the constitutionally protected bilingual nature of this nation. Moreover, since bilingualism is required for many jobs in Canada and around the world, this raises the question: why not learn French?
While there is not necessarily a clear, quantifiable benefit of learning an additional language, Jezak aptly summed up the benefits of multilingualism in one sentence.
“The more languages you have, the more windows open for you to the world.”