Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Why study modern languages?

It's funny what you find languishing in hidden corners of your hard drive. The below began life in 2006, in response to a request from a former lecturer of mine at Leeds University. We were strolling round the Vondelpark and she was bemoaning the ever-falling number of students applying to the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies.

Seems "the youth" nowadays don't understand the point of studying foreign languages unless you plan to go abroad and speak them. I held forth a bit about how much I've got out of my foreign language skills and she said, "Brilliant! Write that down and send it to me." So I did... that is to say, I started, then forgot about it, only discovering it two years later:

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
- Mark Twain

When I chose to study languages to degree level, I had no idea of what practical use they might be to me in the real world, beyond being able to go abroad and speak the local language. I just studied languages because I was good at them, and I enjoyed the mixture of detective work / creative craft that went into each translation or essay.

With the benefit of several years hindsight, I now realise that learning foreign languages clued me into the basics of communication - concision, precision, tone, rhythm, and knowing when to stop being careful and blurt out whatever's on your mind.

I don't use the languages I can speak very much in my day to day work - I'm a copywriter and creative director for internet stuff - but the background I have in manipulating language is behind pretty much everything I do, every day: boiling down wordy briefs into concise and informative documents, distinguishing sense from nonsense, picking the right word, tweaking sentences to make a paragraph flow properly etc.

Modern communications like the internet are making the world seem smaller every day. Clarity of self-expression, the ability to understand other cultures and different ways of doing things are more important than ever. A modern language is one of the best skills you could have.
So there you have it. Learn Russian - or French... or any foreign language - and become better at communicating in your own. And if you're lucky, you get to enjoy weird stuff like this all by yourself:

Here, Hitler and Stalin are preparing to do battle, starting with a bit of bragging about just how damn tough they are, ending with Hitler doing a bad guy / maniacal laugh. This must have been before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, then...

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