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Foreign Languages

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Last week, I went to a concert at my son’s school. There are always concerts at my son’s school, but that’s not what this post is about. The show was organised by the MFL—the Modern Foreign Languages—department. There were songs in French, Spanish, Korean, Russian, and German.

In my previous life as an academic, I had a blog about child development, combining research with a mother’s perspective. My very first post was about bilingualism. Being an immigrant throws into sharp relief the disadvantages of not knowing the language: not understanding the jokes, frustration at the limited expressions you have at your disposal.

For me, speaking two languages (or more) has only benefits. If the languages you speak are practical, there’s the benefit of being able to communicate wherever you go. For Hebrew, that benefit is a tad limited—not many Hebrew-speaking people out there, in terms of the global population. And, as the head of the MFL had put it, it’s not just about ordering a burger or finding the washroom when you travel, but it’s about genuine communication, about putting your ideas into words and sentences.

However, the main benefit is that different languages think about things slightly differently. For instance, in Hebrew (and French and Spanish and Arabic and probably a bunch more languages), every single object is either male or female. A table is male in Hebrew (but female in Spanish, which is interesting). And coming from a gendered language, English has opened up a fascinating option for me: having no gender. Sure, society currently limits it to babies and puppies, but the possibility is there. For people who grew up in English, a table has no gender. For people who grew up in Spanish, that’s mind-blowing. There are, obviously, other examples. The point is that speaking another language opens your mind, just a little, to thinking differently.

The other thing I noticed during the concert was that many of the songs sounded the same. There were pop songs mostly, one choir and a lovely French chanson (the only piece I was familiar with). Music, it seems, connects us beyond language to a deeper, more universal thing. I’m not sure what that thing is, but you already know I always have more questions than answers.


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