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The Importance of Language Leaning

In this paper summaries and analyses of the main points of five lectures dedicated to different aspects of linguistic studies will be provided. All the lectures more or less touch upon the concept of multilingualism and its involvement in our lives. They also cover various issues connected with the importance of multilingualism and language itself, including migration, heritage languages, code-switching, linguistic landscape, and educational approach to languages.

The first speech was delivered by Professor Elana Shohamy from Tel Aviv University. In her convincing and well-argumented lecture, Shohamy spoke about linguistic landscape (LL) and the importance of studying it. She insisted that LL be not only language used in public spaces (in signs, graffitis, etc.), but also include people who design these signs, read them, and react to them. The whole environment should be taken into account while speaking about linguistic landscape of a certain area. LL focuses on how people interact with space (Shohamy). There are two ways of such interaction: top-down (when it comes from the government) and bottom-up (when it comes from the people themselves). The government uses LL to create an illusion of a desired atmosphere in a state, for instance, to “make an image of a new linguistic reality” (Shohamy). That is what happened in Israel, according to Shohamy, where the government imposed a new Hebrew ideology and ignored all other cultures (Arabic, Palestinian), which existed in the country long before the establishment of the state. Professor also stated that LL is now used by the government to dominate people and impose some ideology on them. To support these ideas, the professor shows that the distribution of languages (Hebrew, English, and Arabic) in the cities has nothing to do with the number of people of some nation that live in the area. It has to do with prestige and ideology. LL is used to change people’s attitudes and behaviors and to influence their use of some language. For instance, the use of English on signs suggests some prestige, greater quality, and openness to the west. The same may be said about the Hebrew in Arabic regions, as even Arabic people seem to consider Hebrew goods to be of better quality. People, however, are not aware of where these implications come from, and that is what makes this study so important.

I agree with Professor Shohamy that people should be engaged in this topic, because it raises awareness of the order in the society, and it makes people see what is actually happening and make conclusions. Personally, I was amazed at the influence language has on our opinions, and how deeply it is interwoven with our lives. I believe that the language landscape should be considered as a notion with much broader scope of meaning than just language, as the influence of language is enormous. It spreads over people, buildings, visual signs, even smells and sounds, and it forms our thinking, while we are unaware of that.

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The second lecture was presented by Professor Terrence Wiley from the University of Maryland and was dedicated to the issues of language policy and rights in the US. The lecture was very informative and well-supported by historical and statistical data. It was stressed that it is impossible to understand language policy without looking at a broader social context. Therefore, Wiley provided listeners with historical facts and statistical data to describe different policies as vividly as possible. According to Wiley, language diversity, now considered a pressing issue in the USA, is not new to the country. It was there even before the Europeans came to the continent. Throughout the history of the US, language policies have changed according to social and political programmes the government decided to promote. For example, compulsory ignorance policy made it illegal for slaves to be literate (XVIII-XIX), and the selective immigration policy discriminated some nations, mostly the Asian ones, in terms of their immigration to the US. However, not all immigrants came to the country willingly: e.g. African people, brought there as slaves, had no other option than to learn English. English has grown to be the main language through a long process of assimilation, which was coercively imposing it on immigrants and establishing an image of the American state where everyone has to speak English to be considered a citizen. I suppose that at this point there is a correlation between this lecture and the previous one, that is, the government manipulates people through language policies, imposes some language as a leading one, and promotes it. Americanization, which boomed after the WWI, still has a major impact on educational policies (Wiley). Despite the worldwide acceptance of UN’s Declarations of Human Rights, the US government considers this declaration inferior to its national policies and ignores it. As a result, immigrants and their children are considered illegal for the most part in the US, and the word ‘bilingual’ has disappeared from names and documents. The current situation with language policies in the US shows that language rights have “weak legal basis” (Wiley) and language policies tend to become restrictive and selective. There is some support of language rights, but it is limited and usually bottom-up, which means that it is not the government that promotes it.

The lecture was interesting for me, because I believe that the issues of language rights and human right in general are urgent all around the world nowadays, as many rights are abused. A lot of states do not consider the UN Declaration binding and establish anti-immigration policies, like the US, which restricts the basic rights of human beings: the right for education and the right for being a citizen of some state.

The third lecture was presented by Professor Maria Polinsky from Harvard University. Polinsky spoke about heritage languages and heritage speakers. Namely, her lecture was dedicated to the research of recognition of the category of gender by Spanish heritage speakers. She began by stating that a heritage speaker is a person who “grew up hearing (and possibly speaking) some language, but feels more comfortable using the dominant language” (Polinsky). Due to the fact that heritage speakers use their native language only in the restricted number of situations, they are not like native speakers. Still, they are different from second language (L2) learners as well. Therefore, heritage language seems to be between first and second languages, and there is a partial overlap in lexis and grammar of the two languages. Polinsky’s research was dedicated to the category of gender in Spanish, and the results have show that while for native speakers this category is multi-valued, i.e. they recognize both genders and notice if there are violations in grammatical form, the same category appears to be single-valued for heritage and L2 speakers. Namely, they recognize only feminine gender and notice violations of this form. In terms of recognizing gender, heritage speakers are like L2 learners, but with a small difference. Heritage speakers react faster than L2 learners, but they are still slower than the native speakers. The study has proven that these peculiarities of gender recognition are also true for heritage speakers whose dominant language is not English, but Italian, Chinese, or German. The same study conducted on Russian heritage learners has shown the same results: the category of gender remains single-valued for heritage and L2 speakers, and multi-valued for the native ones.

The lecture was very well-structured. The lecturer has raised a really interesting point supported by strong arguments and presented the results of the research clearly and confidently. Even though I have never given this subject a proper consideration, I have become interested in it thanks to the lecture. There are a lot of heritage speakers due to rising immigration levels. That is why such research should be done to study how such people learn and perceive languages. It is also of great value for teachers who work with heritage and L2 learners to see the differences as well as peculiarities of their language approach and perception.

The fourth lecture was read by Professor Li Wei from the University of London, who spoke about code-switching and its role in social cognition. Code-switching is the process of switching between the languages, which is a defining feature of bilingualism (Wei). The main aim of the research was to see if code-switching affects creativity and selective attention of bilingual people. As a result of the impressive amount of research, it is possible to state that code-switching and ability to separate the languages is something only highly proficient bilinguals can do. Thus, they have higher selective attention. The analysis of the concepts of empathy and tolerance of ambiguity showed that multilingualism seems to not improve cognitive empathy, while habitual code-switching does. When it comes to tolerance, multilingualism appears to be related to the attitude towards code-switching (as an example of ambiguous situation) rather than to the proficiency and frequency of use. In terms of creativity, it has been studied that habitual code-switching used for communication purposes may hinder selective attention. This happens because this type of code-switching presupposes the deactivation of one language for the sake of another. While searching for the right word in communication, bilinguals are using all the languages, switching from one to another, and looking for the word they need. However, code-switching triggered by some emotional state aimed at saying something unusual increases originality, as it is a creative act in itself.

It was interesting for me to see how the actual process of code-switching works, as so many people are bilingual. It is also useful to know how they think and what processes happen in their brains when they produce meaningful speech. The lecture gave me some insights on the notions and processes of code-switching and bilingualism in general. It also has helped me perceive the difference between bilinguals and heritage speakers, who have been described in the previous lecture.

The last lecture presented by Professor Nigel Vincent from the University of Manchester was devoted to the research of language diversity in the USA and in the UK. To my mind, language diversity is a pressing global issue nowadays, and the lecture has proven my thoughts right. The main problems of language diversity are contained in the fact that the majority of UK and US citizens, or English speakers in general, overrely on English as the main language of international communication. As a result, there is a decline in the status of language in education and in the society – if one has a language degree only, employers are more likely to reject the application in favor of the candidates having another degree as well. As the language is not considered so important, multilingual communities within the countries under question also become neglected, which means that a valuable language resource is not being cultivated (Vincent). By providing vivid examples, Vincent makes his point clear: language is a notion of grave importance in the military (which has now been acknowledged by the governments), in diplomacy, and in communication and cooperation among the countries. The knowledge of foreign languages does not only develop one’s brain, but it also helps speakers perceive information differently. It happens because every culture has its cultural assumptions, which are contained in the language and are impossible to understand without the knowledge of the original language.

The lecture was very well-structured; Vincent actively interacted with the audience and involved people into the discussion, which made the speech more vibrant. I find this topic extremely important for the field of international communications. I have noticed that language as well as pure language degree has been neglected and has somewhat lost its status in the society. That is why it is crucial for people to understand the importance and the advantage of knowing foreign languages, especially in terms of current social unrest in different countries. It is impossible to get the right view of the situation without knowing the language and culture of the country where the particular event has taken place. Thus, the knowledge of a foreign language opens new doors and gives many more opportunities than having just one language at one’s disposal.

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