I mention this little story because it carries a valuable message for many of us today. The knowledge of a second or third language provides the owner with skills and benefits not available to those who are limited to their mother tongue. Despite the availability of language education, many young people do not appreciate the tremendous value of being able to communicate or even work in a language other than that of their birth.
Many years ago I published a research paper in which not only were the obvious benefits to career potential for a multilingual person mentioned, but also revealed was a number of other advantages. These included an improvement to one’s intellectual potential, as when learning a new language the brain actually grows additional neuropathways, enhancing how the brain can reason. In addition, measured against control groups, the multilingual student performed better than students who knew only one language in mathematics, the sciences and even in their first language. More recent research has demonstrated that being multilingual can reduce the risk of becoming afflicted with dementia.
Even beyond the benefits to the physical brain, being multilingual provides another important contribution. This is in the area of cultural understanding. The great Polish pianist of the last century, Jan Pederewski, refused to include music from Spain in his repertoire until he had travelled to Spain and learned the Spanish language and its culture. Only then did he feel that he could properly interpret the intent of the Spanish composers. He became familiar with their way of life, their way of thinking and grew to understand and respect their culture.
In many ways Hong Kong is well suited to take advantage of the benefits of being multilingual.
Due to past history there is a strong legacy of English language usage and opportunities for learning English. As well, most people are born in families with Cantonese as a first language, and now due to the present relationship with the mainland, there is growing opportunity to learn Mandarin. The benefits to the youth of Hong Kong are immense, given Hong Kong is now well placed to be a cultural bridge, with all of the scholastic, cultural and financial possibilities that brings. Hong Kong is also in a good position to bring into its schools educators who can teach a second language which is their own mother tongue – always an advantage to the learner.
It cannot be overstressed however that one of the greatest benefits is the respect for the cultures represented by language. I myself have had opportunity to visit and work in China on twenty-five occasions. These trips and the study of the culture, ancient and modern, changed my viewpoint, and hopefully helped me appreciate and respect the issues citizens and leaders face and appreciate the efforts made to address local challenges.
Learning to communicate through language and cultural understanding helps us see the humanity in each other, regardless of ethnic, linguistic, cultural or national divides.
This ability was present in a man used to write many books of the Bible, a man we know today as Paul. He had great standing among both the people and many of the rulers of the day. One of Paul’s advantages was that he spoke several languages, including at least Hebrew, Greek and Latin. His father had provided him with a very good education. He also understood the cultures and thus was able to present his message in a manner which could best be comprehended. His appreciation of people of other cultures had helped him to see that all humanity should be treated with respect, and that mankind should ideally live with harmony between the nations. He wrote instructions to a young minister named Titus in how to instruct the members of the congregations:
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.” (Titus 3:1-2)
Sometimes cultural and language barriers create walls between peoples, walls of distrust, hatred and misunderstanding. Thus Paul also wrote to a church in the Greek city of Philippi: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” (Philippians 2:3) This was to be the attitude of the ruled and the ruler. Such a condition would ensure a kind, prosperous and peaceful society.
Learning is very important, and parents need to encourage their children to become knowledgeable in many things, especially to become proficient in a language other than one’s mother tongue. This enriches the mind, and opens the door to communication, understanding and opportunity, but also creates in us a respect for those of other cultures and willingness to work with all peoples.
Universal peace will yet come to this earth, and the harmony that so many seek today will eventually become a reality.