Yesterday marked the seventeenth year of European Language Day, first started by the EU and the Council of Europe to promote language diversity across the continent. There are some 200 languages spoken in Europe. If this figure seems a bit high, it’s because it includes some 60 regional and minority languages, such as Manx (the Celtic language spoken on the Isle of Man), Aragonese (a Romance language spoken in the Pyrenees region of Spain) and Maltese (a Semitic language based on Sicilian Arabic).
I’ve been studying foreign languages since I was about seven and fortunate to be placed in French classes in my primary school – a state school no less. Classes only met once a week, and I can’t say that I learned much as we mostly played games and sang folk and Christmas songs. Yet, there were things that I absorbed then which I still draw from today, retaining the original childhood context like a backdrop to a stage. In addition to French, over the years, I’ve studied Italian (naturally) and Spanish and have dipped into Danish, Korean and Arabic. Much to my shame, I can’t say that I’m fluent in any of these languages, being more of a theoretical English language linguist than a polyglot.
European Language Day is one of these awareness days which is about encouraging people to study European languages and to celebrate the diversity of languages and cultures across Europe. At first glance, this appears innocuous – and perhaps it was five years ago. But with Brexit and the rise of populism, xenophobic rhetoric has been empowered and multiculturalism and world citizenship have been relegated to being little more than liberal snowflake ideas.
Having said this, I’m encouraged by today’s vote in Switzerland to retain free movement between their country and the EU. A welcomed nationalists’ defeat.
I’m also hopeful that interest in foreign languages, and therefore other cultures, will not succumb to populist trends thanks to the Corona Virus. This pandemic has been a boon to language learning apps, such as Duolingo, Babel and my personal favourite Memrise. Although the way governments, as in the UK and the US, have handle the pandemic has sharpened the divide between rich and poor and between competing countries, the lockdown pastime of language learning could in its own subtle ways lead us towards more unity and cultural tolerance.
On that positive note – and arguably a snowdrift of wokeness – bonne soirée, buona serata…