Nowadays, it is very uncommon to hear the use of a single language in daily conversations. Most of us find ourselves inadvertently switching between different languages during our chats with friends and family in both oral and written forms of communication. Thanks to the effectiveness of education policies implemented in most schools which encourages bilingualism, the majority of students in Singapore can speak two languages, or at least a smattering of both. For us, the learning of languages has been rather utilitarian- merely for the practical use of languages in communication. While that may be deemed essential, the purpose of studying languages could go beyond mere practicality and develops into an appreciation and love for the languages themselves.
The origin of language has been quite largely dependent on the interpretations of different cultures spread across the world, its development has been rather synonymous with the evolution of the human being. Beginning from the ancient cave paintings left by our prehistoric ancestors to the complexities of creole and pidgin languages used in today’s world, languages have surpassed its primary use as a tool of communication. It is indicative of the culture and society where it is used. For example, the creole languages of Oceanic countries such as Hawaiian Pidgin was born from the need for a common form of communication between plantation owners and workers, which hail from a diverse mix of countries, ranging from Asian countries such as Korea and Japan. From the other side of the world, we can still see the influence of ex-colonial European countries such as England and Portugal in other languages such as Tagalog and Kristang. Some of us would argue that Singlish is a unique part of the Singapore identity, with the amalgamation of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil- representative of the multi-cultural society on this island.
Languages do not only allow us to interpret historical linkages to a specific society but also to facilitate our understanding of the plethora of cultures we encounter. Informal and formal forms of languages in countries such as Japan and Korea are the embodiment of societal values in these relatively conservative societies such as respect and filial piety. In Western America, the tonal fluctuations of the Navajo language used by the American Indians are synonymous to the oral traditions that were observed in these tribes, where stories of long-gone ancestors are passed down from one generation to the other through word-of-mouth. Languages capture the essence of the society’s beliefs and practices and our inability to understand the languages used by these societies impairs our appreciation of their culture. From examining the roots and distinctive features of some languages, we are able to determine the forces that facilitate the creation of these novel and unique forms of communication, which in turn allows us to develop a greater understanding of the smorgasbord of cultures scattered across the globe.
Ironically, the idiosyncrasies of certain languages which makes them fascinating often deter us from studying them. Certain features such as pitch intonations and non-Roman alphabets presents obstacles in our effort to learn a language. It took me a few years to understand the intricacies of Mandarin Chinese with its tonal variations and the baffling written form. Nonetheless, my struggles with the Chinese language allowed me to appreciate the intelligent design of the variation of intonation, as the pattern of intonation indicates the nature of sentences. An example would be how questions generally begin and end in a higher pitch than declarative sentences. Isn’t it fascinating to understand a language by merely listening to the pitch of the words that are spoken? In addition, for such a complicated language to be developed by our early ancestors also showed the degree of intelligence that was present at that time. Traditional method of learning languages via rote learning might make the whole process of acquiring new languages rather time consuming. However, with the advancement of technology, there is a growing number of self-learning aids available for us students that are constrained by the burden of schoolwork and other commitments. Apps like Duolingo offer great flexibility for self-learners to study languages by allowing you to customise the duration and the level of difficulty of the lessons provided. Such aids facilitate the learning of languages by making it more convenient for non-native speakers.
Taking everything into consideration, the study of languages might be done purely out of necessity: we need it to understand what others are saying. However, languages serve more than just a tool of communication. It provides us with a glimpse into the societies’ origin, which in turn enable us to appreciate the cultures that are largely specific to the communities where they belong. We have heard the use of the phrase ‘lost-in-translation’, but what is often lost in translation is more than just the meaning of words but also elements of that society itself. While the process of learning languages seems rather challenging, there are more tools available to facilitate independent learning. With our world becoming more interconnected, having the ability to speak multiple languages would go a long way in bridging the gaps between different societies. And on that note, Adieu and Auf Wiedersehen!