Being multilingual helps connect well with the world: expert

Many parents approach their children’s education with a specific goal — excellence in academics. No doubt, marks, grades, medals and certificates will take a child to a higher pedestal. But what will really help him/her connect well with the world is the ability to flip between languages, according to Milton Powers, Professor of French at Alliance Francaise’s Madurai chapter.

Learning more than one language has, of course, become part of school curriculum. Many universities insist on their students learning at least one foreign language through a choice-based credit system. Nevertheless, the outcome of the academic initiative aimed at promoting languages is that the students pass with good marks, but miserably fail to pick up the language.

“Recently, I met a girl who had scored 194 out of 200 marks in French in her Plus Two examinations. Amused at her performance, I began speaking to her in French. I asked her for her name. But to my shock, she was unable to comprehend anything of what I spoke. This is the level of language teaching in educational institutions,” Mr. Powers laments.

Concurring with him, R. Raja, a tourist guide fluent in Tamil, English, Hindi, French and Italian says that languages can be learnt better in an informal environment. Striking conversations with native speakers can teach a lot more than what one can learn from being a passive receiver in a classroom where filling the blanks, matching the words and so on take precedence over communicative skills.

“My daughter has crossed many levels in learning Hindi. She has successfully completed Rashtra Bhasha examination. She can read and write the language without grammatical mistakes. But she cannot communicate as fluently as I can. What’s more, even her Hindi teacher avoids talking to me for fear of feeling embarrassed at his awful pronunciations,” he says.

Here, Mr. Powers pitches in to add that students taking up French courses at Alliance Francaise include those who have already completed their master’s degree in French and are serving as teachers. The pitiable situation is because of the wrong impression among many that teaching of languages should necessarily begin with recognition of alphabets and end with getting the grammar right.

“The best way of learning a language is to avoid standard formats and learn them the way kids learn their mother tongues. Every one of us accomplishes the great feat of learning at least one language in our lifetime and we do it with ease. We should adopt the same approach and try to learn as many languages as possible,” he recommends.

S. Suresh Kumar, a school dropout owning a handicraft shop near the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple here, can speak Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and English. He learnt the languages for the sake of his business. “Knowing a particular language serves as a bridge between me and my customers and not knowing one widens the gap between us,” he observes sagely.

Asked how he would rate the ability of Maduraiites to communicate in foreign languages, Peter, a businessman from the Netherlands and a regular visitor to India, asks with a chuckle, “Do you really need an honest opinion?” Then he goes on to say that many of them are good in English. “But I am yet to meet a single soul who can speak Dutch, my mother tongue. I would be glad to hear someone in Madurai speak that.”

Expressing similar views, Philip, a tourist from Belgium, says that he could not spot many in Madurai who could communicate in his mother tongue — French — though it is one of the most widely spoken languages across the globe. He has been touring Tamil Nadu all by himself and has been finding his way with the help of a few maps, tourism booklets and the world’s most common language — English.

R. Balakumar, parent of a ninth standard student, points out that Madurai has the distinction of having developed Tamil in the ancient times through the establishment of academies known as Sangam. “Now it is time for us to set up academies not only for Tamil but also for other languages so that our children can appreciate the value of plurality and co-existence in a globalised world,” he points out.

More In: Madurai