A few years ago, American journalist Joshua Foer went to the Republic of Congo to research some of the world’s last hunter-gatherer societies. In order to embed himself to the degree he thought necessary, he decided to learn Lingala, a language spoken by several million in the Congo basin. And in just 22 hours, spread out over ten weeks, he did it, with the assistance of an app called Memrise. He then completed his research, successfully communicating with people in ways that would not have been possible had he had to rely on an interpreter.
Quite an achievement — particularly for someone who says he was never particularly good with languages. The lessons here are that language learning bridges gaps, and anyone can do it. That’s the main point of the Council of Europe’s upcoming Day of Languages.
Each September since 2001, the Council of Europe has celebrated the continent’s linguistic diversity with this annual celebration. The Council encourages policy-makers, NGOs, associations, companies, and the public to devote the day to language-related issues. The goal: to promote language learning, bridge gaps between cultures, and celebrate diversity. Europe has over 200 languages — and that’s not without counting those spoken by people whose families originate outside the continent.
The Day of Languages was inspired by the success of the European Year of Languages 2001, organized jointly by the Council and the EU. The Council devoted that year to promoting language learning and encouraging partner organizations to do the same. It was so satisfied with the results that it launched the annual event. This year’s installment takes place on Sept. 26.
Events will take place in Italy, Slovenia, Poland, Austria, and elsewhere in Europe. And even countries outside Europe are taking part. Affiliated events outside Europe include an Esperanto conference in Japan, a celebration in Toronto, a “Speak Dating” event in Hong Kong (organized by the Goethe Institut), and an Esperanto beginners’ study group in New York City, and more.
In previous installments, professional athletes have visited elementary-school classes to talk about their native languages and home countries, cities have hosted origami and calligraphy lessons, and British newspaper The Guardian created an online multi-language picture dictionary, a resource they continue to develop.
An opportunity for educators — and everyone else
Want to get involved? Perhaps you’re a teacher who wants to seize this chance to inspire students to explore language. If so, materials abound. The BBC has gotten involved by placing a European Day of Languages landing page on its website. Here, it has included links to resources for learning and teaching various languages, as well as to official Day of Languages materials.
Plurilingualism can, of course, also enhance professional opportunities. By speaking multiple languages, individuals and organizations can branch out into places that would otherwise be prohibitive because of language barriers. Of course, some languages are generally considered more strategically advantageous — but the advantages extend beyond the ability to penetrate promising markets. For example, learning languages also has general cognitive benefits throughout life, and a nimble mind is an asset no matter what industry or location you’re in.
Broaden your horizons!
Sometimes, the ability to speak more than one language can mean the difference between an OK encounter and a resounding success.
Just ask Mr. Foer, whose determination to communicate led to conversations with people who wouldn’t be willing to talk with others present, and who couldn’t have communicated in Mr. Foer’s own language. He successfully bridged that gap, enriching his own experience as well as those of his subjects and readers — and that’s what the Day of Languages is all about.