Being able to switch between languages

When I was a 12-year old school pupil, just leaving primary school and continuing my education at a secondary school in the Netherlands, I remember the joyful anticipation of getting to learn two more foreign languages (German and French) besides the one we already started to learn in primary school (English). At the time, I assumed it was quite normal for school going pupils around the world to have to learn more than one foreign language at school. I remember it came to me as quite a shock when I found out that this is not the case for some countries in the world.

I am still very grateful to the Dutch education system and my teachers at school for providing me with what I think is a valuable asset, namely being able to converse fluently in multiple languages. Not a day goes by without me speaking two (mostly Dutch and English), or sometimes even three different languages. It has helped me in my career as well, as I’ve taught English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to postgraduate students in the UK and English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) to secondary school pupils in the Netherlands. Whilst teaching, I get great satisfaction from knowing that I will have contributed towards somebody else’s education. On top of that, I enjoy researching and understanding how people learn a second language.

I’m finding that having learned other languages in the past seems to make it easier for me to learn new languages. For example, I’m learning Frisian now as my partner is from Friesland. Friesland is a province in north west Netherlands, so you might expect the Frisian language to be closest to my native language, Dutch. What I’ve learned is that in fact Frisian often resembles English more than Dutch. If I struggle to understand the meaning of a new Frisian word or sentence, I often try to find similar sounding English words, e.g. Frisian ‘tsiis’ resembles English ‘cheese’ more than Dutch ‘kaas’ (especially when you hear it spoken). Obviously, this does not always work, as there are a few “false friends” out there, but most of the times this helps me in understanding Frisian quicker and helps me to remember things better than relying on Dutch alone. [1]

Being able to switch between languages is a skill that not only helps a person to facilitate their understanding of other languages , but also enriches their understanding of other cultures. For example, knowing a language like French, German, or Dutch could influence the way business transactions are done as there are different forms of politeness in these languages that are not present in English.

When I was a research intern at Essex University, I worked with German colleagues. Having learned German and about German culture in secondary school, I found it helped me in how I should address academic staff (especially in writing). In Germany, for example you would address a member of academic staff by their academic title and surname, whereas in the United Kingdom I have experienced this to be less formal (e.g. greeting and first name). In German you would also have the distinction between “Du” and “Sie” (of which the latter would only be the polite and appropriate manner of addressing a lecturer), but in English this is just “you”.

Most business transactions are done in English, but sometimes this is not possible due to the other party’s inability of speaking the language. Having a language to fall back on that both parties speak would certainly facilitate a business transaction, reducing the time and/or any misunderstandings considerably. So learning a foreign language (or two or three) could serve the country’s economy too.

I wish every child in every country is given the opportunity to learn more than one foreign language. The Scottish government has proposed a 1 + 2 language approach in Scottish primary schools. That is, primary schoolchildren are exposed to two foreign language on top of their native language at an early age. This is a very interesting and encouraging development in my opinion. Not only will it make children aware earlier in life that there are more different languages than English, it could even lead to children picking up on (other) foreign languages later in life.

[1] False friends are words that resemble a word in your other language in form, but mean something very different. For example, Dutch bellen means to ‘phone up’, but in German bellen means ‘barking’ (anrufen would be the translation equivalent of Dutch bellen).