The vibrancy of multilingualism
In 2000, I left my hometown, Buenos Aires, Argentina, to begin my journey at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. Later, I enjoyed the tranquility of the Cave Hill Campus of UWI, Barbados, wrapped in its Antillean atmosphere of British reminiscences.
In Trinidad and Tobago, life was bubbling. There was so much diversity, so many colours and rhythms, religions, and perspectives of life, fashions, tastes, smells, accents, humour, and public and private lifestyles.
I graduated with a doctorate in Spanish at The UWI, St Augustine, while teaching full time, as well as conducting research and outreach activities in the field of Spanish language and Latin American Studies. Who would have imagined that this was to become the threshold of my tenure in Jamaica to further advance my academic life, nourished by the vibrant language and culture of Jamaica and its people?
My exposure to patois, and my subsequent attempt at learning it, gave me a peek into what is likely to happen to a native English speaker who travels to, perhaps, France or Spain and is clueless to the language spoken in that country. Everything, from being able to read signs, to finding addresses, to purchasing food, to taking public transportation becomes extremely difficult if not impossible.
The point is that we do not know where life will take us, and so we should prepare ourselves to maximise opportunities that may present themselves in the future. The acquisition of foreign languages is one sure step in the right direction.
A great focus of my research and every course that I teach is ensuring that others understand the pivotal role of the humanities in a developed society. The diversity and complexity that characterise today's societies make studying foreign languages almost inevitable. Communicating fluently in several languages improves job opportunities at the local and international level.
If one can understand his/her clients in their mother tongue and, more so, their idiosyncrasies, he or she will be a key person for the expansion of a company and more attractive to potential employers. The relationship between multilingualism and economic prosperity is the tangible consequence of interconnected learning processes that the study of languages triggers in the learner.
As the brain exercises - as if it were in the gymnasium - it grows because speaking activates it. Hence, the more languages you learn, the more flexible it becomes and the more information it stores (structures, tones, sounds, words). The neuronal connections proliferate. Those that already exist are strengthened, and the capacity to memorise increases.
Being multilingual develops cognitive abilities such as attention, concentration, and problem solving because the brain constantly chooses the language in which the speaker expresses himself, that is, makes decisions related to the control of that language and that "keeps it in good shape".
Being multilingual will even help you improve your mother tongue because you will pay more attention to its rules and structures. This does not mean that a monolingual speaker is less intelligent than a multilingual one, but the latter will develop a group of learning skills that are necessary for effective performance within our global environment.
Neurolinguistics is the science that studies the relationship between language and the brain, and I invite you to explore a little more about it. You will be so fascinated that you will immediately want to enrol in the courses offered by the Faculty of Humanities and Education (FHE), at The UWI, Mona. Without further delay, the teaching of foreign languages in Jamaica (and throughout the Caribbean) should be mandatory for children between kindergarten and grade 13. A student competent in languages and exposed to the arts and cultures that languages convey will better make sense of his or her major area(s) of study.
Immersed in a postmodern, plural, and multi-ethnic world, individuals of today have the unprecedented option to transform crises into equitable opportunities for growth and inclusion; opportunities that respect diversity, those distinctive traits of our own cultures, our fundamental values, our environment as the home for all living creatures.
Within the framework of a holistic and humanistic education, interculturalism as a paradigm for the teaching and learning of foreign languages and cultures will manifest diverse and unconventional ways of relating to one another, understanding and experiencing our differences as well as discovering and affirming our similarities. It will also reveal new ways of reflecting on our individual and community identities to strengthen and capitalise them in order to reposition ourselves in the Caribbean, Latin American regions, and the world.
National growth and development are not possible without external cooperation. It is, therefore imperative that we command foreign languages and accept the cultures that these languages convey. I encourage you to learn Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and their cultures in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures from the beginners to advanced levels. Students may combine their studies in foreign languages and literatures with the cultural and creative industries: film, history, archaeology, and philosophy offered in the other departments of the FHE. Those who study languages know the world because everything we do is for human beings. I guarantee you a fascinating journey of self-discovery and self-worth. Learning new languages liberates us!
- Dr Nina Bruni is head of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Humanities and Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the arts and humanities on the individual's personal development and career path. Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.