The benefits of multilingual language competency is not restricted exclusively to cognitive abilities but it also extends to other spheres of life on personal, social, academic and professional levels.
By speaking several languages, we come to recognise cultural nuances and to appreciate things which sometimes go unnoticed. Access to the command of different languages gives us the possibility to see the world through a different lens, not only from an outsider perspective, but internally also, which gives us new insights and a better understanding with regards to the culture related to a certain language. Language is a social construct and therefore, through the language, we transmit culture. Our identity is constructed and negotiated through language as well. According to Weber and Horner (2012), there is an onion view of identity which is related to social constructivism, meaning that our identity is constantly changing. This is influenced in the manner in which we interact with the society we live in, as it constantly constructs and shapes our identity, resembling a natural process rather than something static. The layers of the onion represent a change which forms part of our lives and we embrace it by contouring our identity. Hence, the command of varied linguistic phenomena seems to be negotiation on our identity as well.
In this respect, each language has its own way of expressing culture through the linguistic repertoires. The choice of the words used in one language or another may differ in the way people understand our identity, it can give a different impression as different connotations to a certain word can be assigned. This occurs because in some languages there are words which simply do not exist, in a sense that that they need to be explained through another means which even then, does not guarantee to be as exact as in the original language. To transfer the meaning from one language to another is a very challenging task. For instance, the word “lagom” in Swedish does not have an exact term translation in English, which is why the meaning of the term is evoked by means of other English words, defined as the “essential and elementary basis of the Swedish national psyche, which is one of consensus and equality; it is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes”. Suggested related terms could also be “moderation, balance and the wisdom of defining the best possible course of action between two extremes” (Lexical Dictionary). Another example is seen in Tagalog, a language from the Philippines, where, according to an online definition, the word gigil is used to express teeth-gritting thrill that accompanies a strong urge to lay your hands on something (while possibly holding yourself back from doing so). It usually happens when you see something super adorable (ex. wanting to pinch a baby’s cheek), but can also be caused by something that makes you gut-wrenchingly angry.
By way of having different linguistic repertoires, it seems that acquiring a deeper understanding of the culture may be easier through the natural use of the language, perhaps since the concept is directly transmitted, results in a much deeper interaction, conversation and comprehension. According to Lakoff ,“speaking different languages means you get different frames, different metaphors, and also you’re learning the culture of the language so you get not only different words, but different types of words.” This multilingualism broadens our way of thinking and promotes empathy in social interaction. It also helps in understanding subtleties in language usage. This is especially evident when meanings are not easily interpretable, but hidden in metaphors, forms of speech, and contextual dependence.
Furthermore, Otten (2003) argues that multilingualism facilitates effective interaction among people with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds at home and abroad. He also argues that the cause of irritation, confusion with one cultural view and emotional imbalance is due to encountering differences. Therefore, multilingualism could help dealing with such variances and create cultural sensitivity, consequently becoming more competent in international contexts, essential for successful international interactions, particularly in a professional environment. Linguistic competence in several languages would allow us to learn the approaches to pragmatic appropriateness and sociolinguistic acceptability in a given language. The idea of saying something right or wrong is dependent on the culture, especially due to the fact that the language is socially constructed.
In a European context where a high percentage of linguistic diversity exists, we therefore take into account that intercultural communication occurs frequently. Hence, this might be the ideal background to continue promoting the normalization of multilingualism within Europe, as one aim of the European Union is to promote unified, peaceful, prosperous and multilingual societies, thus celebrating diversity, different cultural traditions and languages.
Ultimately, multilingualism comes with enhanced metalinguistic awareness; subjective resonances of various languages, differences in the historical symbolic value, and finally, a development of intercultural communication and social skills extremely valuable to linguistic and cultural diversity.
Written by Antoneta Cristea
Study Visit at TermCoord
Student at the University of Luxembourg