Translation as a key to plurilingualism

Posted by Astrid Guillaume on January 24, 2011

Astrid Guillaume is vice-president of the European Observatory for Plurilingualism and Senior Lecturer at the Sorbonne, Paris.

Astrid Guillaume

The world nowadays counts around 6,800 languages: there is no way to master 6,800 languages, not even a hundred for that matter, 10 human lives would not be enough. But invariably learning only one (i.e. English) becomes a danger, if other languages end up being less taught and therefore less visible, and if the all-English logic ends up standardizing the planet on a linguistic and cultural level. Thus the challenge, in the same way we protect living organisms, is to protect all the languages and cultures of the world by promoting plurilingualism.

Yet plurilingualism implies a necessity to translate. And indeed, right behind language itself, translation is the first universal tool for communication. In all periods of history, in various civilizational contexts, translation has helped man improve their understanding of the Other while enabling their own language to live on.

Throughout the history of mankind, translators and interpreters have always played a highly diplomatic and strategic part, as well as that of a conveyor of knowledge. Translation has deeply marked the history of human exchanges, be it in the constitution of States, religious mutations, worldwide diffusion of culture, or the safeguard of lesser-diffused languages.

The Oaths of Strasbourg (842)

On a political level, for example, translation played a significant role in the 9th century during Charlemagne’s division of the empire: his two grandsons, Louis the German and Charles the Bald, agreed to make a deal to claim their share of inheritance before their brother Lothair. So in 842, they commissioned the Oaths of Strasbourg to be drafted in both languages of both of their respective people: Tudesque for the people of Louis the German, Roman for that of Charles the Bald. Evidently, addressing and writing in the language of the other was already understood then as a strong political act that could contribute a peace process.

The Rosetta Stone

On a more cultural level, glosses have helped decipher and decode a good number of forgotten languages at various periods. Translation was already essential during the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians 3,000 years BC. Which is precisely how Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone in the 19th century: carved in three languages, the stone made possible the comprehension of the greatest Egyptian edifices, unveiling deep through the grooves of Hieroglyphs, Demotic and Greek, the recent position acquired by a so-called Ptolemy called out to reign over Upper and Lower Egypt in 196 BC.

Hence translation has greatly contributed to the creation and diffusion of humanity’s historical, cultural and scientific heritage.

These are the reasons and issues driving the European Observatory for Plurilingualism to watch over and act in favour of the representativeness of languages in society and official entities, the command of two, three languages or even more, and the systematic use of translation. Because when a language ceases to be translated and spoken, it dies, and with it, some of the history of humanity disappears forever.

Plurilingualism and its corollary, translation, are yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s transdisciplinary tools for communication, those with the most respect for the world’s languages and cultures.

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A plea for multilingualism among the children of immigration

Posted by Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer on January 18, 2011

By Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer, author of « Le Défi des enfants bilingues. Grandir et vivre en parlant plusieurs langues » (« The Challenge of bilingual children. From childhood to adulthood speaking more than one language »), La Découverte, 2008.

Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer

Speaking foreign languages is an unquestionable asset anywhere in Europe, and mastering at least one in addition to a mother tongue has even become mandatory. Thus public opinion acknowledges the command of a prestigious language like English as an achievement to be pursued, but what about the languages of immigration?

In France, nurseries and schools include a large number of children whose mother tongue is not French. Despite this significant linguistic potential (with over 200 languages spoken there thanks to the migration influx), bilingualism within these structures stems both worry and enthusiasm. The multilingual backgrounds of these children are clearly undervalued, and sometimes even rejected on the pretence of a so-called « linguistic handicap ». In fact, unless they speak a language that is socially valued, any non-French-speaking parent is exposed to the negative stereotypes their home language and culture remain saddled with.

The French society has yet to give up old myths regarding a certain type of bilingualism:

First of all, according to a well-spread notion among education professionals, the time children spend studying their language of origin is time they won’t spend studying French, the only language essential to academic success. Only a full immersion into French (at home and school) insures a proper-paced education. The practice of a mother tongue prevents improvements in French, and as a result, children grow unable to fully master neither. They are considered « semi-lingual » instead of bi-lingual. And despite numerous recent studies showing that the so-called linguistic handicap leading to « semilingualism » can only originate in circumstances of extreme withdrawal, beliefs of the past have a hard time disappearing.

The country of monolingualism is also home to the very naive theory according to which the human brain is only meant to develop one language at the time, and the simultaneous acquisition of two different languages leadsto overload. Yet it is no secret that the human brain is well capable of processing and memorizing several linguistic systems at the same time, such that nowadays some researchers even claim the human brain is actually meant to be multilingual.

The outcome speaks for itself: all these myths come as a « justification » for non-French-speaking parents being advised to give up their mother tongue to the benefit of French. Which reveals theunawareness that linguistic and cultural heritage have an impact on children and their family’s psychic well-being.

Speaking with her child, a mother hands down universal as well as specific linguistic knowledge. Children must be able to find out where they fit within the history of their parents, language and culture. They need both the knowledge and acknowledgment of their parents’ language.

Besides, early immersion into a second language at the expense of the – stigmatized – mother tongue causes weaker skills in the second language, as proven along numerous studies. Nowadays it is accepted that education programs allowing pupils to develop their skills in mother tongue as they learn the local language of education are the only ones to bear positive results on the command of the latter.

So long as the value of any language spoken within families as a structuring element of a child’s identity remains unrecognized, so long as education policies fail to take the chances offered by such presence of living languages to benefit young pupils « of migrant background », thousands of children will remain forbidden to be bilingual or multilingual, and stereotypes will keep giving a hard time to anyone wishing to promote multilingualism in France.

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The benefits of multilingualism

Posted by Rozenn Milin on January 10, 2011

Rozenn MilinFollowing a captivating first series of articles on mother tongue-based education, we open this year with a new cycle devoted to the virtues of multilingualism.

While Westerners usually consider monolingualism as standard and polyglots a rare species, the reality experienced by the rest of the world is in fact quite different. It doesn’t take much of one’s curiosity or attention to find out that in numerous places of the planet, not only people are bilingual; they’re also actually multilingual.

No secret to those who have travelled through certain parts of Africa or Central Asia: in areas where distinct ethnic groups live next to each other, where cultural trends encounter, it is common to come across people who casually speak half a dozen languages simply because working, selling and buying implies mastering the language of others.

In other places of high linguistic density such as Vanuatu or Papua New Guinea, it can even become a domestic necessity: a father speaks one language, the mother another, the neighbors yet another, not to mention the national lingua franca… and all end up being able to communicate in 5 or 6 languages.

In Europe and North America, however, a large majority of the population is brought up as monolingual. No big deal, you might hear: you get by with English pretty much everywhere… Yet multilingualism, especially early multilingualism, bears virtues one should not ignore.

Science has published an outstanding account on the whole subject last October 15. The article reports recent studies revealing that a bilingual education for children triggers early mechanisms to become a cognitive asset, while for the elders, being bilingual provides protection against certain Alzheimer symptoms!

Researchers Kovacs and Mehler developed a number of games and exercises during which the rules were regularly changed in order to test toddlers’ abilities of adaptation to newer codes. The experiment clearly showed that frequent and unexpected change left monolingual children helpless and incapable of adapting, while the children use to hearing two homely languages had no problem following up.

As one moves on along the years, other studies revealed that a lifetime of active bilingualism could stand as a protection against degeneration due to Alzheimer’s disease. These studies, conducted mainly in Canada, show that the appearance of the disease for bilingual subjects happens in average five years later than for monolinguals. Sportspeople train their muscles to improve performance, likewise, brain cells should be trained to prevent decline. Exercises such as sudoku or bridge are often recommended to elderly people to maintain ability, though bilingualism is considered much more efficient as the mental gym it imposes is permanent.

Discussion is open, all comments and contributions are welcome!

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