Languages are a natural resource

11/Jul/2016

By Martin Vetterli

(From "Horizons" no. 109 June 2016)​​​

​Languages are useful when you have to make yourself understood. But they're a lot more than that. Languages – especially foreign languages – also serve as an archive of important information. This was the case in the Middle Ages, for example, when most Ancient Greek texts were unreadable and had to be retranslated into Latin from the Arabic at a time when Arabic scholarship was highly advanced.

But languages also expand the way we think. This is because certain concepts only occur in specific languages and can only be understood through them. A nice example is the German word Weltanschauung, which is written thus, even when it's being used in English. And it's also often the case that physical things only exist in our perception when they're given their own word in our own language. Here, I'm thinking of the many types of bird that European naturalists discovered and named in America in the 18th century (though the birds themselves naturally existed before the Europeans and had been given local names by the local population).

Neuroscientists tell us that mother tongues and foreign languages are not processed in the same regions of the brain. The brain treats early language acquisition in a manner different from learning a language later in life. So it's no surprise that children who grow up in a bilingual environment seem to be better able to understand foreign concepts, things and even people.

Switzerland possesses four official languages. They are joined here by many other languages such as English, Serbo-Croat and Portuguese. This country has a long tradition of dealing with different languages and has found an artful manner of doing so, even on the level of federal politics, where every politician speaks his or her own language. This cosmopolitan language policy has resulted in Switzerland producing many diplomats who are respected all over the world. Languages are a kind of natural resource in Switzerland. Other countries may laboriously try to construct themselves as rainbow nations, but the Swiss are already living it.

I am firmly convinced that Switzerland should use this unique fact as an opportunity. To be sure, learning several languages is not everyone's cup of tea. Furthermore, English is becoming increasingly dominant in the world of science. But the opportunity to learn several languages exists in our country, and we should further it via inter-cantonal exchange programmes (and, later on, through international exchanges). We should also make active use of the languages of immigrants that are spoken here. Switzerland should open itself up, because its wealth of languages makes it well-nigh predestined to engage with the diverse world of ideas and languages and thereby surprise us with new theories, innovations and technological progress. In other words: linguistic diversity is part of our national DNA. And, just like in biology, a diversity of ideas can in the long term enable our country to develop a higher degree of resilience.

 

Martin Vetterli is President of the National Research Council and a computer scientist at EPFL.