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From Azerbaijani to Swedish: ‘Multilingualism improves your understanding of others’

September 26 is the European Day of Languages. There are 24 official languages in Europe but some 200 languages in total are spoken on our continent. What good are all these different languages? And should we all learn Azerbaijani or Swedish? We asked Lisa Cheng, Professor of General Linguistics.

Some 200 languages are spoken in Europe but by no means all by many people. Are many languages threatened with ‘extinction’?

‘We linguists say a language is endangered when it is no longer spoken by many children as their native language. You always need the next generation to keep a language alive. Take Frisian: there are still children who speak it but very rarely as their only language: it’s always alongside Dutch. And their numbers are decreasing. So you could term Frisian an endangered language. The same is also true for Twents, Limburgs and other regional languages in the Netherlands – and probably in other countries too.’

Is it a bad thing if languages die out and fewer languages remain in Europe?

‘Languages are part of our cultural heritage, so if a language dies, we lose part of that heritage. And it’s important to realise that no one language is better than another – all languages are equal and each language has a right to exist. Moreover: diversity is good in general, for a society, country or region, and the same is true for linguistic diversity.’

The European Day of Languages came about to promote multilingualism. What are the advantages of multilingualism from a scientific perspective?

‘If we want to understand how language works as a system, we need all these different languages. The coronavirus vaccine is a good way of explaining this. The first vaccines targeted one variant of the virus. Meanwhile, the virus has mutated many times and all kinds of variants are doing the rounds. Researchers are now comparing all these variants so they can work on a universal vaccine: they can look for the “core” of the virus that is the same in all variants. We do the same as researchers in linguistics: to understand how language works we have to know all these variants and compare them to find the “core”. The more variation, the more chance we have to discover this core.’

‘Multilingualism also has advantages for society. If you know or speak more languages, you’re not surprised to hear someone speaking another language. You don’t exclude people purely because they speak another language and are familiar with situations in which other languages are spoken; you’re used to that diversity. That increases mutual understanding.’

‘Furthermore, we know from scientific research that speaking multiple languages has cognitive advantages. We sometimes say: learning a new language is training your mental muscle. You build cognitive reserves if you are multilingual. And that isn’t without effect: for instance, the onset of dementia is up to four years later in people who speak multiple languages than in people who speak just one.’

So you agree with the message of European Day of Languages and the call for people to learn more languages?

‘I like that Europe emphasises the advantages of multilingualism. But it is still the “European” languages. What about the languages that have come with the different migrant communities who have now settled in Europe? As far as I’m concerned they belong too: the children in these groups often speak this language with their parents plus the language of the country where they live. A whole generation that is automatically bilingual: that can only be a good thing. So I would say: embrace all the languages spoken here!’

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