Monday, 3 September 2007

Languages, Multiculturalism and Thinking

Thought for the Day – Amanullah De Sondy
BBC Radio Scotland
Monday 15th January 2006
Good Morning
The number of non-Chinese people learning Mandarin has soared to 30 million globally. Student numbers on Mandarin learning programmes has increased from 6,000 in 1998 to 50,000 in America. Many of these students believe that China will be a powerful force in the coming years and so Mandarin is essential to learn.

There are many advantages in learning a new language, be they political, economic or social. Language is for communicating thoughts and ideas, but is that all that language offers us? It’s about more than communication; language embodies a whole different culture. It’s no surprise that when we read religious scripture, such as the Hebrew Tanakh or the Arabic Qur’an, in their respective languages, our understanding of them is somehow richer and more informed. For example the Arabic language has around ten verbs and ten nouns for the word ‘love’, making it literally impossible to translate into English.

It pains me to see how the English language seems to impose itself upon the world, dictating not just the way we communicate but also western culture and values. Shilpa Shetty, the glamorous Bollywood star currently on Celebrity Big Brother, who is fluent in seven languages, is a perfect example of this. Everything about her oozes the colourful South Asian culture, but unfortunately, some house mates are oblivious to this. And I can’t help but notice that she feels the need to fit in by downplaying her foreign background.

At a time when multiculturalism is often headline news, I wonder if there’s an essential need for us all to learn different languages, in order to understand and appreciate each other. The Scottish Executive has committed itself to the learning and teaching of Mandarin across Scotland and a China-Scotland Festival is planned for the near future. This will surely enrich our culture, and improve our understanding of each other. In the words of the influential 20th century Italian film-maker, Federico Fellini, ‘learning a different language is to learn a different way of thinking’.

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