Build bridges: learn a new language

Harbour Bridge July 2018 DSC05605.jpg

by Warren Heggarty

You’ve heard of the language barrier, but people who have learned other languages don’t think of them as barriers. They think of languages as BRIDGES to other cultures. 

Jasmin, who has travelled extensively especially in the Middle East, has acquired a smattering of Arabic. “Learning another language you get to use different parts of your brain, and it helps you to understand English better. Australia seems to be very backward with language learning. Even Americans learn Spanish.”

“It is essential if you like to travel in parts of the world where English is not spoken. It is very daunting to travel without knowing the local language. It makes it a lot less stressful if you have a smattering.”

“And once you learn one language, it’s easier to pick up others.”

Wendy was born in Malaysia. Her first language is Cantonese, but she also learned to speak Malay, English and Mandarin as well. She married an Australian, so the English came in handy and she speaks it like a native. She teaches her four year old son to speak Chinese. 

“Knowing another person’s language makes them feel closer to you,” says Wendy, “and they are more welcoming towards you.”

“My dad wanted me to learn an Indian language, too,” says Wendy, “and there was a Tamil school near where I lived in Malaya, but I never got around to it. One day I hope I might be able to learn Korean.”

How is it possible to speak so many languages? “I would start with tuition,” says Wendy, “then find someone who speaks the language and talk to them. Then watch TV shows and movies and repeat what they say so you sound just like them!”

Besides travel and migration, what motivates a person to make the effort to learn another language. Sometimes, it is economic. A lot of people learn English because it opens up job opportunities. People whose native language is English don’t feel the same economic pressure to learn other languages. 

There are other reasons, though. Religious reasons might lead you to learn Koine Greek, Hebrew, Arabic. Some people learn “dead” languages like Latin and Sanskrit. An interest in a foreign culture might lead a person to learn a language. Even war can motivate language learning.

Not all languages other than English are foreign. What about Aboriginal languages? It is now possible to take University-level courses in Aboriginal languages such as Warlpiri, Yolngu (the language of Yothu Yindi) and Wiradjuri, among others. 

Is it difficult to learn another language? Yes and no. For native English speakers, related languages like Dutch, French and Italian are going to seem easier than Arabic, Japanese or Basque. The Chinese writing system with several thousand characters seems notoriously complex, until you learn that it is really made up of combinations of a couple of hundred elements. Some languages like German and Greek have complex grammar, but many of the words are familiar to English speakers. 

At the end of the day, there is no better way to get a taste of diversity than learning another language. There are plenty of courses available through Continuing Education Centres, TAFE colleges and Universities. There are quick courses for travellers and lengthy courses for people who are really serious. 

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