Bilingualism, multilingualism and our values

My observation is that sometimes it is the third language one learns that allows one to see that there are also other people and not just me (us) and our important others.

At the Kone Foundation event on multilingualism in Russia and in Finland, I saw that people sometimes mean different things when speaking about bilingualism. A young participant from Russia, who spoke nearly perfect English and no Finnish, grasped one contrast nicely commenting that in Russia they often think that ‘big is beautiful’, while in Finland it seems that ‘small is beautiful’. It is good that this talented person attends events like this one, because they enable one to understand it is not all about the size and practicality. As it takes time for me to contemplate impressions, let me give you a story about another event, because I feel that by now the time is already ripe for telling it.

One summer ago I was at a seminar in Geneva, where leading international scholars came to discuss the politics of multilingualism in Europe and elsewhere. There was a scholar from Belgium (it is a bit superficial to describe someone by the country of origin, especially with internationals who move around, but just to be short) who argued somewhat provocatively that language is just a tool. There was a professor from the UK who warned about linguistic imperialism. There was a professor from the New World who mentioned in our conversation that he likes it in Europe but, when retired, would prefer to live in an English-speaking country, as this is his mother tongue. ‘You are lucky, – I said empathetically, – You can choose. My language is spoken in villages with no internet. When retired, maybe I will go there. If Putin is not in power.’

There was one scholar from the US, who found the solution to the European linguistic troubles. The European troubles are, of course, that there are too many official languages in the EU, which makes this institution function inefficiently and raises concerns about democracy. His solution was as simple as everything of genius. He advised to make it a right and an obligation of every pupil in Europe to learn English, which would presumably provide them with an equal starting position. It was a furor, because the group, which was quite in a sleepy mood after lunch, suddenly woke up and entered into a lively debate, united against the proposal.

This anecdote is illustrative to a number of things. For one thing, language is not just a tool, because people often see it as an integral part of their identity. That is why the group reacted so energetically. Of course, some scholars at the seminar were linguists, who are usually fond of learning new languages. Ordinary people are lazy and prefer to invest their time and effort into useful languages. People find it very practical to have a common language. However, scholars see the solutions like the proposed one unjust because in this situation someone would be privileged by default when English is his or her language. By the way, if Brexit happens this summer, it would raise a huge amount of political and economic issues but would add a point to the proposal, because English would become ‘more neutral’ on the continent without having ‘its own’ state. European linguists might feel a bit consoled. Just joking.

If we think about greater Europe, then the right to learn English (or Russian, for that matter) does not seem such a universal remedy anymore. At that seminar in Geneva I spoke about Russia and its languages. Only about five percent of Russian citizens report some knowledge of English. The Russian language is on the retreat especially in Eastern Europe. We witness how people’s linguistic repertoires reinforce cleavages installed by political borders. According to the Eurobarometer, more than half of all European citizens on the average are able to keep a conversation in another language. In contrast, only slightly more than twenty percent of Russian citizens report knowledge of other languages than Russian, foreign or local, and the share is decreasing. Chto delat’? (What is to be done?)

Well, I would not go, as that American scholar I mentioned, to propose some universal solutions, the implementation of which might become a disaster. Maybe I just conclude with what I started by telling a bit about my experience and my linguistic biography, instead. I was thinking, if I were born into an English-speaking family and still decided to be a scholar, then my academic career would have been more advanced by now, for sure. The foreign language I learned in school was German. But it took years and years for me to learn English properly, the language of academic research which I use for work. At the same time, grown in a bilingual environment as a child, I was good at languages later in my life and feel myself at home in Helsinki, Tallinn or Saint Petersburg and comfortable in Berlin or London. And I still have this option of going to the village, you remember. I cannot do research in that language but I feel quite attached to the people and the place. Looking around from that place, I can’t help but wonder in what unanticipated ways one’s trajectories in life depend on one’s linguistic repertoires.

Useful languages enable one to travel and to hang around with internationals. Loved languages give closer connections and the feeling of home. This could be the same language, of course, but it might take another language to see the difference and a third language to see that this difference is not at all in languages but in our heads.


Konstantin Zamyatin

Postdoctoral researcher in Finno-Ugric studies, University of Helsinki