As a former student of Modern Languages it should come as no surprise that I’m in favour of preserving so called ‘dying’ languages. I’m a firm believer that no language should be left to die and that all languages are of equal importance. Granted, languages such as Arabic, English and Mandarin for example are spoken by millions more than Catalan, Norwegian and some regional dialects but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the latter languages.
There’s so much more to learning a language than simply being able to communicate with others. It’s about being able to understand others, understanding individuals yes, but also understanding opinions, philosophies, different cultures and how these opinions, philosophies and cultures came to exist in the first place, and without a doubt the best way to truly understand is by learning to communicate in the language in question.
It’s all very well to read a translation of Madame Bovary but the phrase ‘lost in translation’ exists for a reason. It’s impossible to have as comprehensive understanding of a translated work compared to the original, translation although incredibly useful will never quite convey the intended meaning of a piece which is why learning languages is so important, new languages, old languages, ones spoken by millions and ones spoken by dozens.
More and more people hold the opinion that unless a languages is spoken by the vast majority of the population it has little value to anyone and isn’t worth learning or preserving. As a fluent Welsh speaker I’ve witnessed first hand such attitudes and the ignorance is baffling. I’ve heard people ask me ‘what’s the point in learning Welsh?’ it’s a frankly idiotic question. What’s the point in learning Spanish? Or French? ‘You’ll never use it’ people tell me, ‘everyone speaks English in Wales anyway’ some are adamant that I’ve wasted my time in learning a dying language. For a start that isn’t even true, Welsh has gone through a resurgence in the last few decades with more and more young people learning and communicating in Welsh. Secondly, thanks to being able to understand Welsh I’ve had the pleasure of being exposed to literature, music and history that had I not been able to understand the language, would have been lost on me. I’ve studied plays and novels in Welsh, I’ve watched films in Welsh and I’ve learnt things from these plays and films.
Thanks to the film Patagonia I was introduced to the Welsh community in Argentina, I learnt about Welsh settlers and how they voyaged to South America and how the two contrasting cultures intertwined and developed. The play Siwan combines Welsh history with Welsh folklore, as well as French tales. Will this be ‘useful’ to me in the future? Perhaps not. Have I been culturally enriched as a result? Most definitely. Am I pleased to have been able to read and study Patagonia and Siwan, and all the other pieces of literature and culture? Absolutely.
People need to stop being so ignorant and understand that language learning is so much more than being able to speak with others. Learning a language, any language improves so many skills that I’m at risk of sounding like a careers advisor, but it’s true you become a better listener, you have a firmer grasp of your native grammar and vocabulary, you are more likely to be open minded to other ideas, your understanding of international affairs is increased, you develop empathy, tact and diplomacy, you are exposed to different cultures and traditions and yes, you’re able to greet Mr Morioka without looking like a complete buffoon.
So to sum up, no language should be left to die out because not only would we lose the language itself but a whole wealth of culture would be lost to the world forever. Welsh is my example, but substitute Welsh for Basque, Maori, Yiddish or any other ‘less popular’ tongue and you have the exact same story. A story which, in translation, may not have a happy ending.