Learning languages is a defining feature of Europe, benefits both business and society, and should be valued as a key characteristic of European citizenship
It is often said that multilingualism, embedded in our continent's linguistic and cultural diversity, is a defining feature of Europe. The preservation of the many living languages that are used across the continent at national or regional levels, including those present within societies due to migration and mobility, is key to integration, social inclusion and cohesion across the continent.
Nevertheless, it is often argued that using a lingua franca in international contexts, with English being a favourite in most suggestions of this kind, might be easier and more cost-effective than encouraging people to learn and use a multitude of languages. As a result, it is sometimes a challenge to put into practice the political aim of maintaining European multilingualism and motivate people to learn languages other than English.
Furthermore, decision-makers in education – when considering language curricula and choice of languages at school – sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that the European Union proposes a language policy that encourages European citizens to become plurilingual and learn at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue. In business and commerce, where the bottom line often seems to be what counts most, the immeasurable benefits of learning languages occasionally also need to be made more transparent.
At an abstract level, applied linguists and other sciences have established that language and identity are closely related. Language is part of our identity and the social fabric of a nation or region, providing people with a sense of belonging. Learning other languages, for example the language of another country or linguistic community within one's own, is not simply an act of respect or a means to more effective communication; language learning also supports cognitive development and the acquisition of competences and skills valuable in a globalised world.
A number of aspects concerning the discourse on linguistic diversity within the applied linguistics community were discussed in the two previous issues of Public Service Review: European Union
by Daniel Perrin
and Antje Wilton
. It is now important to consider how and why the learning of foreign languages truly benefits not just business but, in fact, society in general, and should be valued as a key characteristic of European citizenship. Moreover, a further issue to be briefly addressed is how one might establish the proper framework for language learning to encourage those hesitant to make the effort of learning foreign languages.
Applied linguistics, with language acquisition and learning as one of its core fields of study, has been redefining the aims of language learning, drawing on deliberations in a number of reference disciplines. Research into language learning and acquisition processes suggests that merely training in grammatical and vocabulary knowledge will not result in real agency in terms of linguistic competence and language proficiency. The communicative classroom of the 1980s focused mainly on basic communicative competences. However, the discourse on language acquisition processes, linguistic diversity as well as language and contexts of use, has resulted in a more diversified view as to the aims and outcomes of language learning.
Traditional form and function focused classrooms were neither leading to satisfactory results nor a great source of motivation. We now know that learners need to be put into a position where they can develop a deeper understanding of the linguistic, pragmatic and cultural specifics underlying a target language. Simple transmission models of learning cannot foster the kinds of skills and competences needed to successfully communicate in a target language context. Such deliberations, amongst others, have for example contributed to the development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, leading to distinctly competence-oriented approaches to aims definition, curriculum design and classroom practice. Competences are discussed at the linguistic, communicative, inter-cultural, and also strategic and methodological levels.
One of the major aims of language learning is the development of Intercultural Communicative Competence. This is often defined as the ability to interact appropriately and effectively in intercultural encounters. Various models define attitudes, cultural knowledge at the materials and practices levels, and skills of interpreting and interaction, as well as critical reflection as the main ingredients of ICC. Main features of ICC can be described as the ability to change perspectives: to look at issues from the points of view of other cultures in addition to one's own, and to look at yourself and your own culture from an outside perspective.
As Rita Mae Brown once wrote: "Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going." Language learning, with its current focus on intercultural competence, will ideally lead students to a better understanding of people and, in general, foster attitudes of openness, as well as willingness to properly consider other views.
Consequently, one might argue that a major gain of learning another language at a personal, social and economic level goes way beyond the utilitarian aspect of simply being able to talk with members of a target language community. Language learning also contributes to a person's willingness to appreciate and cherish cultural diversity, thus weaving a general attitude of tolerance and mutual understanding into the fabric of Europe. With the continent becoming a more closely knit community, and globalisation and mobility being distinct features of the 21st century, such competences and skills are of benefit to both business and society. Those who learn languages will be much better equipped to act, adapt and cope in intercultural contexts. In economic terms: language learning is value added to citizenship, as well as to social inclusion and cohesion.
A further aspect to be considered in terms of the outcomes of language learning includes fostering strategies of language processing and language learning competence, that is, learning to learn a language. In addition to this, processes of knowledge perception and knowledge construction are regarded as essential for the successful outcome of any language curriculum. Learning is regarded as a process of, for example, information gathering and of discerning patterns, drawing connections, hypothesising, testing truth, critiquing reliability, as well as interacting and knowledge processing.
As such approaches are becoming more common in language teaching, the development of overall strategic and problem-solving competences through language learning should also be considered as an important gain and valuable outcome. After all, strategic awareness and a general perception of language and its role in a given societal context and linguistic community is also an important contribution to the kinds of skills needed in today's globalised word. Research, particularly in the area of bilingualism, suggests that those who learn or acquire more than one language often show greater cognitive growth and mental flexibility, with creativity, problem-solving, conceptualising and reasoning skills developed to higher degrees.
When rethinking the aims and didactic principles of language learning, the issue of considering what some refer to as a 'didactics of multilingualism' is becoming a major concern in applied linguistics. Such approaches are rooted in the idea that one should, in general terms, also 'think multilingualism' when teaching a particular foreign language. This is seen as an important contribution to empowering learners to learn how to learn a language by making them aware of how much they already know about language and how they can draw on languages already acquired when learning a new one.
This can also be seen as an important contribution to motivating learners to actually learn another language, as such levels of awareness make language learning seem less challenging. Being able to relate to the way language works and developing an understanding of one's individual options for handling a particular challenge can become helpful when being faced with the need or wish to learn another language.
Fostering language learning related skills and thinking multilingualism in language curricula might, in effect, be considered as a key ingredient in 'recipes' for putting a policy of multilingualism into practice. If learning another language is seen less as a difficult struggle but rather as something one feels well prepared for by previous learning experiences, then more people might be willing to become engaged in such initiatives.
Finally, making learning fun and engaging is an important step towards motivating people to learn another language. It might be somewhat bold to say that changes in classroom practice and approaches to teaching languages are simply due to the fun principle. Research into human language and cognitive development has led to more interactive, socially contextualised and participation-oriented practices in language learning. Concepts of task-based learning, content and language integrated learning are rooted in cognitivist-constructivist theories, as well as in research into effective language learning.
It should also be mentioned that language learning has taken the step from simply relying on presenting and practising learnable input in order to lead to production towards modes of learning that encourage more authentic interaction. Authenticity and task-orientation are becoming common principles. Real-world materials plus genuine task authenticity, that is, contexts in which 'learners engage in tasks in ways and for reasons they would in the real world' are also key to successful language learning. What better way to promote multilingualism than by offering engaging and fruitful learning experiences?
Ultimately, the most important step towards fostering European plurilingual citizenship is to accept and cherish what psycholinguist Frank Smith said: "One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way." The next step, apart from convincing decision-makers of the benefits and gains of learning foreign languages, is to make Europeans aware of the fact that trying to understand the other through language and language learning is a manageable task, and a valuable thing to do.Professor Dr Bernd Rüschoff is president of the International Association for Applied Linguistics. This first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: European Union