Schadenfreude and déjà-vu: Reasons to learn languages 2

12th May 2016 at 16:34

Subject Genius, Dr Heather Martin, Schadenfreude and Déjà-Vu: Reasons to learn languages 2

So you’ve told them what the point is. And why it matters. Then some bright spark who thinks adults have made rather a mess of things says: ‘But wouldn’t it be more sensible if we all spoke the same language?’ Prompting someone else to chime in: ‘Yeah, why didn’t the people who invented language just stick with one?’

Once again, this is a gift. Not least to the biblically minded: never will there be a better opportunity to rehearse the story of Babel, and to reinforce the point that yes, had we humans been a better-behaved bunch, and not cheeked our teachers so much in our infancy, then no, maybe the nightmarish multiplicity of languages would not have been visited upon us as some kind of torturous punishment. Which is how some youngsters with a penchant for melodrama like to perceive it.

More fruitfully, there is the chance to reflect on how language works. To dispatch any notion of a benevolent deity bestowing a fully-fledged fully-functioning language upon the world (even the Book of Genesis has Adam doing the job in a rather tentative, experimental way), and to consider instead the way language evolves organically alongside the humans who use it. The writer Lee Child, who persuasively argues the case for the thriller as among the most ancient of genres, responding to the need to drum up courage in confronting the marauding sabre-tooth, says that grammar and syntax are perhaps the most powerful tools invented by homo sapiens (New Yorker, May 16). But this ‘invention’ is gradual and crucially, ongoing. As we have drifted right around the world, so language has gone forth with us, and multiplied, becoming plural. Our different languages are like different species, adapting and slotting into different landscapes.

It’s easy enough to demonstrate this in the classroom, whether by reference to the constant proliferation of new words generated by new technologies, or by checking the latest additions to the dictionary, with contenders such as ‘totes emosh', ‘innit’ and the alternative meanings of ‘like’ being brilliantly explored by Rob Drummond in a recent article for The Conversation ( Or at the level of grammar, the pervasive acceptance of the demotic ‘me and my friends’. In my experience, children of all ages love this, not only for the validation it confers upon them but also for the implied invitation to escape, for a time, the black-and-white proprieties of right vs wrong into a more energising realm of risk and laissez-faire.

Which brings me to how I would answer the original question. ‘Yes. It might well be more sensible for us all to speak the same language’ (I acknowledge with due solemnity), ‘were this to be a practical possibility, which it isn’t’ (throwing in a challenge of my own), ‘but, let’s face it: it would be so much less fun!’ 

Cue hours of fun (sorry, I know that word is frowned upon by some in education) discussing some of the beloved linguistic imports for which English is rightly lauded and to which it owes much of its greatness. English, as it happens, is one of the most accommodating of languages, embracing the other with quite un-British passion and abandon. How much poorer would we be without déjà-vu or rendezvous or toot sweet or camouflage (French), not to mention schadenfreude, zeitgeist, bildungsroman, ersatz and angst (German). Siesta, fiesta, parasol and guerrilla (Spanish); pergola, maestro, chiaroscuro and graffiti (Italian); origami, tsunami, satsuma and tycoon (Japanese); avatar, bungalow, shampoo and pyjamas (Hindi/Urdu). We can each make our own list of favourites, and when you come to think of it: almost everything has come from somewhere else.

And beyond the simple pleasures of lexis - including, in Spanish, the rampant use of the diminutive, applied even to abstract concepts (cafecito, ahorita, momentito) - and the cultural eccentricity of idiomatic expression, there await the more esoteric delights of grammar: such as the subtle shades of meaning facilitated by reflexive verbs or - again in Spanish - the poetic distinctions between ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ (the two verbs for ‘to be’).

The concept of the melting pot is not the prerogative of the United States of America. That process of intermingling and mixing and bonding and fusing has been going on throughout human history, beginning from the moment we ventured outside the cave and adopted a successful nomadic lifestyle. We are hunter-gatherers not just of meat and three veg, but of words and phrases too, and our ability to adapt linguistically is no less essential to our survival and well-being. Or should that be bien-être?


Vive la différence!


Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist and tweets @drheathermartin.