Multilingualism : for global citizenship and cultural understanding

download-2In today’s world it is almost impossible to find a person who is not competent in at least two languages inclusive or exclusive of his/her mother-tongue. In fact, fluency in more than one language is no longer an option in this globalized world. On the one hand, learning a new language has become a prerequisite for career advancement and on the other hand, eloquence in foreign languages create cultural awareness in this multicultural, globally interconnected and interdependent world. The most obvious advantages of being a multilingual include being able to communicate with people of other nationalities when travelling to other countries or when they visit the individual’s country, being able to aspire for better careers and migration. However, the advantages that multilinguals exhibit over monoglots are not restricted to academic linguistic knowledge, personal and professional benefits only. There are plenty of long-lived cognitive, social and economic advantages as well.

The process of globalization, has brought the world together and learning other languages enhances communications and understanding between cultures and nations. Globalization has increased economic, social and cultural exchanges across the planet and has made it essential for people around the world, particularly young people , to possess more innovative thinking skills and sophisticated communication and collaboration skills than ever before. Hence, global citizenship requires individuals to be culturally sophisticated and be prepared to work in an international environment. Especially the younger generation of the world exchanges ideas with their peers in faraway places, all thanks to their multilingual ability. A person in Asia will immediately start following a new clothing trend in Europe or will start following the music of a popular singer in America because of their ability to understand other cultures and their readiness to accept good things that come along with that foreign culture. It amplifies the respect an individual has towards that particular country. Therefore, being able to communicate in multiple languages is imperative in today’s global context.

One of the ideal examples which demonstrates the importance of multilingualism is Europe. Almost all the European countries have their own language. However, the physical proximity of countries push people to learn several languages from a very young age. It helps them to learn about each other’s cultures and respect the diversity. Hence, they are able to successfully co-exist in the same continent because they are able to go beyond simple conversations on weather. Their multilingual ability makes them capable of building deep and meaningful conversations which enhance their understanding of each other. This might probably be the reason why we find a minimum number of conflicts in the European region.

Multilinguals are not restricted to a single world view. They are very much open-minded when compared to monolinguals who find it difficult to accept the variety of cultures around the world. The best example to prove the importance of being multilingual is India. India, the country with the second largest population of the world and a country where people speak hundreds of languages, people live harmoniously as a result of their multilingual ability and their capability of understanding the differences in each community. Hence they develop mutual respect for each other’s ethnic group while avoiding ethnocentrism. Moreover, the Indian education system has been reformed in such a way that although people speak a great variety of languages, the medium of instruction remains the same for any person in any corner of the country. English being the medium of instruction in Indian schools, makes every individual in the country at least a bilingual who is competent in at least one of the internationally recognized languages. Therefore, whether it is inside the country or not, the individual is capable of communicating with anyone.

Similarly, in Sri Lanka also being multilingual is extremely important when communicating with people of other communities and people within the same ethnic group as well. Although Sinhala is the most commonly spoken language in Sri Lanka, most people are fluent in at least one other language because it makes life easy in their multicultural society which comprises of Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Christians. Today, a handful of politicians, who represent these communities try to create disharmony among the ethnic groups to achieve their selfish political motives. Recently Sri Lankans put an end to the thirty year war which affected people all over the country due to the politically driven motives of a group of Tamil minority, who called themselves Liberated Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE), against the Sri Lankan government. During the conflict, it was observed that a lot of Sinhala and Tamil people started to hate the whole Sinhala and Tamil communities without even attempting to understand the reality behind the situation. At the time the war commenced, many people in Sri Lanka were monoglots. As a result of that, people were unable to communicate, understand and respect the cultural disparities in their communities. Hence, the politicians could easily manipulate and inculcate hatred in the minds of the people. In my opinion, this is what led to the Tamils’ demand of a separate state. This gruesome conflict resulted in the loss of thousands of lives in both parties involved in the war.

Even today, there are groups that attempt to create such ethnic problems in the country. To our dismay, these groups have been able to influence the uneducated monoglots of the country. This has led to the emergence of a new movement called “Sinha Le”, which emphasizes the superiority of the Sinhalese over the other communities that live in Sri Lanka. However, it is not an easy task for these extremist groups to manipulate the educated multilingual community who are rational and open in their way of thought.

When taking these incidents into consideration, it is evident that it is the cultural disparities that have led to the intra-state and inter-state conflicts in the world. Being multilingual helps people to understand and accept the different cultures and respect them while tolerating the cultural ambiguities. This leads to the harmonious existence of people all around the world. Due to their open-mindedness, individuals are able to become insiders and outsiders of a culture simultaneously. They are able to see their own culture from a new perspective and they are capable of comparing and contrasting different ethnic backgrounds and understand their cultural concepts. This is what truly makes people global citizens. Hence the ability to communicate with people of other nationalities and the ability to accept their cultures help to lessen issues like racism, xenophobia and apartheid. This can put an end to a lot of problems that prevail in the world at the moment.

In addition to these, reading publications of other languages too enhances the cultural understanding among people. Sometimes people translate books and articles of other languages to their native language. However, there are several expressions and phrases that cannot be directly translated from one language to another. In such situations, the cultural context which underlies the story or the piece of writing must be understood. Hence, a multilingual notices these subtle nuances and appreciates the things that are sometimes lost in the process of translating.

Usually when a person from a foreign country finds out that an individual from another country speaks and understands the language that he/she speaks, that person realizes that people around the world give importance to his/her country. Moreover, the speaker of the foreign language is treated with great respect by the natives of the country. This is important in the process of convincing people that everyone in the world is equal and no one is discriminated due to their language or culture.

Therefore, I think the system of education in all countries should be reformed in a way that allows each student to learn a foreign language, apart from their native language and the medium of instruction at schools, from a very young age. When a child gets the chance to learn a new language simultaneously with his/her mother-tongue, the chances of being eloquent in both languages equally is very high. Moreover, when teaching a new language, the instructors should make sure that the students get an insight into the culture of the country of language origin i.e. the teaching and learning process should move beyond the walls of the classroom. This makes the students gain a wider insight into the different cultures that prevail in the world and develop their own perspective of looking at the diversity in the world. This makes them capable of switching their thought patterns and hence possess flexible minds.

When looking at the above examples, it is evident that encouraging multilingualism is one of the most plausible solutions to the problems that affect the whole world at present. Becoming a global citizen helps us to understand issues we face as a global culture. Hence, it can also help to foster sustainable development as we become more aware of our interconnectedness as a species. If everyone can communicate with each other and work together, we can make the world a better place. Therefore, necessary attention should be given to enhance the linguistic abilities of citizens all around the world to assist them to acquire global citizenship in the real sense of the term by understanding the cultural diversities in the world.

Paradowski, Michal B. “The Benefits of Multilingualism-Full Article”. Multilingual Living. Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw. 1 May 2010. Web. 23 March 2016.
Kruschewsky, Gabriela. “6 Multilingual Benefits That You Only Get If You Speak Another Language”.Huffpost. 2 June 2014. Web. 26 March 2016.


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