After the pandemic, those with a second language stand to gain | Mario Pace

Multilingualism is key for national and international collaboration as we emerge from an environment of quarantine and isolation

On 26 September, the Council of Europe celebrated the European Day of Languages across Europe. The aim is to promote the rich linguistic diversity of Europe and to raise awareness about the importance of languages, hence lifelong language learning for everyone. This year marks the 19th edition of such an event, the first having been celebrated in 2001. Given the current global health situation, the celebrations, both locally and abroad, will see no invited speakers, no press involved and no planned activities for the whole school populations. Notwithstanding the health crises however, even this year a number of events will mark this date with various activities – mostly online or involving social distancing – to promote languages within schools and to make students recognise and appreciate Europe’s cultural diversity.

During the current year, the coronavirus pandemic has unfortunately left many, irrespective of age, gender or religion, stuck at home, with schools and most educational institutions across the globe forced to close their doors. As a result of decisions made by world health authorities, educational institutions around the world were obliged to temporarily close in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus, impacting hundreds of millions of learners.

As stated by UNESCO, school closures not only carried high social and economic costs which affected to a large degree the most vulnerable and marginalized students and their families but also enhanced or brought about other challenges. These include interrupted learning, stress for teachers, poor nutrition, technical and human difficulties in creating, maintaining, and improving distance learning, rise in drop-out rates, social isolation and disruptions to assessment.

The COVID-19 crisis and the unparalleled educational disruption are, unfortunately, far from over. Now that countries have started planning the reopening of schools, with all major stakeholders facing this unprecedented struggle of when and how best to approach the next phase, two very pertinent questions related to languages and language learning in time of pandemic come to mind. Is it worth investing in language learning? Should students and adult learners be encouraged to further their proficiency in languages during such difficult and challenging times?

Apart from the fact that scientific research shows how speaking other languages besides one’s own mother tongue can delay the onset of dementia and stave off cognitive decline, language teaching and learning is essential to ensure that European citizens can move, work, and learn freely throughout Europe. Language is crucial, as it not only functions as a communication device, but also inherently contains irreplaceable cultural heritage, knowledge and traditions that do not fade with age and will be just as valuable a decade from now.

When all pandemic related restrictions imposed globally are lifted, speakers of a second and a third language stand to gain. Language diversity gives them the cutting edge. Language diversity boosts employment, industrial relations and a healthy economic growth. Language diversity contributes to a mutual understanding among countries and cultures. It is essential in ensuring that language deficiencies do not serve as a barrier to participation in society.

This is precisely why universities, together with the British Academy, the British Council and the Association of School and College Leadersm formed a coalition of partners who believe that foreign language learning is vital to pandemic recovery. In fact, they have put forward a strategy to boost foreign language learning to the British Government: “Languages are vital for fostering effective international cooperation and commercial links, as well as for improving educational performance, cognitive function and skills, opportunity, intercultural understanding, and social cohesion”.           

Times and situations have changed due to the pandemic, and this has given rise to alternative methods of teaching and learning. The need to occupy oneself effectively at home during lockdown and school closures, and the desire, of many, to immerse themselves in a new language and culture, have given rise to a myriad of online and remote language learning opportunities. Apps, podcasts, online tutoring platforms, 1-on-1 online lessons, digital books, MOOCs, amongst others, now dominate independent language learning, offering flexibility and self-directed learning.

That being said, the primary concern with learning a foreign language exclusively online is the lack of interpersonal communication. Speaking a language is a social endeavour. The lack of personal interaction in both offline or virtual learning creates obstacles throughout the learning process. The best way to effectively learn any language is to practice it first-hand with a teacher/tutor, other language learners and native speakers.

Language learning is as important as ever in this time of social distancing. It is a powerful means to dismantle social barriers within our communities and to eliminate economic disparities. Language learning unites people irrespective of culture, denomination, race and colour.

At this day and age, in particular both during and post-COVID-19, students and adult learners should be not only offered opportunities, but more importantly, encouraged to learn additional languages. This will naturally broaden our horizons, enrich our values, and empower us to abandon the fears of the unknown.

Multilingualism is key for national and international collaboration as we emerge from an environment of quarantine and isolation.