In the past, meeting a person who spoke more than one language was a rarity; before the advent of modern transportation and communication technology, contact with other nations was limited, so knowing more than your native tongue was not, for most people, a necessity.
However, today we live in a very different world. Cell phones, the Internet, and air travel have significantly increased our connectedness to people in other countries, and as the world becomes more globalized, those connections will continue to intensify.
Much has been made about the benefits of being multilingual on the scale of the individual; after all, people who know more than one language have been shown to have greater mental agility, better job prospects, and a sharper understanding of the world around them. But increasing multilingualism around the world also confers distinct advantages on our macro-level, global society.
Take a look at the following ways that greater multilingualism provides opportunities for increased understanding between (seemingly) disparate groups:
More Clear and Open Communication Between Governments
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most national governments have recognized the importance of remaining in close contact with those of other countries around the world. Forging good relationships with other nations is a key to maintaining international stability, which is, of course, to our mutual benefit.
Multilingualism among world leaders allows governments to communicate clearly and openly with one another, and serves to break down barriers where they may exist. For example, it’s hard to forget President Kennedy’s powerful “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” (“I Am a Berliner”) speech, delivered in West Germany1963; he gave large portions of the address in German, thereby conveying his camaraderie with the citizens of the divided nation. Despite his famous mistake, in which he accidentally referred to himself as a jelly doughnut, the speech went far in establishing a relationship between the U.S. and West Germany.
It’s important for officials to be able to convey their wants and needs as directly and accurately as possible, especially in a tense situation. Multilingualism allows this, and it helps create a more tangible bond between leaders who are looking for common ground.
Easier Business Dealings and Negotiations
It’s true that the world is becoming more interconnected overall, but more specifically, business has reached international heights more rapidly than most other spheres. For the first time in world history, it’s fast and easy to conduct business transactions between distant nations, and multilingualism is the key making those deals happen.
Although it’s true that English is often the lingua franca, and thus the dominant language when it comes to business deals and negotiations, as countries in the developing world become bigger players in the world economy, multilingualism will be critical in high-stakes negotiations. This is because the nuanced nature of the back-and-forth involved in a business deal requires more than just a basic understanding of one another. Multilingualism among business professionals will allow both parties to convey their interests clearly and maintain a good working relationship. This is why major companies such as Apple, BMW, and Coca-Cola are actively recruiting leaders with the ability to speak more than one language.
Deeper Understanding of Other Cultures
It goes without saying that being multilingual will allow international travelers to interact with other cultures much more easily. For example, having an intimate understanding of Italian will make your trip to Rome a much more satisfying experience.
But the need for cultural sensitivity runs much deeper than a one-week summer vacation; as the expectation that we all become good citizens of the world increases, it’s critical to understand the ins and outs of other societies in more than just a superficial way. Increasing multilingualism provides us with the ability to understand the complexities other cultures in a genuine way. Language is complicated, and word choice means a lot in explanation and descriptions – multilingualism means that none of these fine distinctions will pass us by.
Multilingualism has the power to transform our world – consider learning a language to be a part of the movement!
This blog article was contributed by Sara Collins, writer for NerdWallet, a site that helps users stay informed about the best ways to save money on travel.