How important is language?
I have always been interested in languages. Our language is the most important part of our being. I think it is important to learn other languages besides our own because it helps us to learn about other peoples and cultures but the most important one that we can learn is our own mother tongue as this is one of the most basic parts of our identity. If we lose our own tongue, for example, when we grow up in a country which is not our own, in my opinion, we are losing a part of our self.
I lived in Germany for 15 years and during that time relearned and improved on the German that I had begun to learn at school; I also met people from many different countries. Many people are afraid of those from other countries and I realised that the main reason was not knowing the other person's language and so they could not communicate. I believe it is this lack of knowledge of the other’s language that causes them to feel threatened by someone from another land and culture but when they start to talk to each other and learn a little of their language then the fear goes. I used to think that Germans were different to me but then I discovered that there is not really much difference between nationalities when we look beyond the outward appearance and start to talk to them.
When I was first in Germany and could not read the advertising hoardings or couldn't understand what people were saying I felt like an outsider. I felt cut off and unwelcome. On beginning to learn the language and talk to people I found that all these feelings were in my head and were not real. Language is a big barrier that cuts us off from others. That is one reason why L.L. Zamenhof devised the language of Esperanto at the end of the 19th century. It was supposed to be a universal language so that all nations could speak to one another. It has had interest from time to time but most people have not heard of it, it was a fad which has really died a natural death. I think we should learn the languages that are already in the world without making up new ones. Language is something which develops and grows with time. It reflects history and grows as our knowledge of the world grows.
All languages are important to me but I must confess that I cannot imagine learning Chinese or Japanese. They look much too difficult. The thing is though, that this is the reason that we all give for not learning someone else's language. Too difficult. Too much work. Why do we need to? All excuses. Maybe sometime in the future there will be a universal language that all nations of the world speak. It is a long time away but it may not be the stuff of science fiction. It could come about.
It is the ability to communicate (or lack of it) that is the cause of so many misunderstandings in the world. Then there is the arrogance of some who think that if they go to a foreign country they do not need to learn anything of the language but expect the indigenous population to learn theirs; but expect visitors to their own country to learn their language.
Why different languages grew up is something that scholars have been pondering for centuries and the study of linguistics is something that will continue to puzzle them for centuries to come.
There is something which I found very interesting when I was researching the differences is that in mythology there is a story from various races, religions or cultures which is actually almost the same.
Here are a few examples, the Hebrew Bible tells a story of a common language spoken by all humans. The people decided to build a Tower which they called Babel which they intended would reach Heaven. God was angry at this and confused their languages so they could no longer understand each other and work together. They formed groups and moved away.
Hindu mythology has a “Knowledge Tree” which grew up to the heavens. Brahma cut off its branches and threw them to earth where they grew into separate trees and created different languages and cultures.
Native Americans talk of a deluge which swept people all over the Earth separating them from each other and developing other languages.
As you can see from this the thoughts and ideas from different nationalities are not very different at all. In fact, when you study other languages you will find that most are very similar. Often the main differences are the alphabets and the pronunciation, the syntax is the same.
What I am trying to say is that the importance of language is how we use it to communicate. We should use it to show our understanding of the cultures and lives of our fellow men in other lands. We should go behind the outer shell and see the speaker beneath.
I know that being able to communicate with anyone in the world will not get rid of all the problems there exist, but it could be a step in the right direction.
More by this Author
Shalimar Garden, Lahore, Pakistan There are three Shalimar Gardens, one in Kashmir, one in Delhi and one in Lahore. I have visited the garden in Lahore and although much of its former beauty is long gone, it is...
Series of articles about South Asian poets
In September 2005 I visited the Badshahi Mosque for the first time. It was September and for Pakistan the weather was cooler than summer, but for me newly arrived from England it was very hot. I travelled by rickshaw...