The rise of the Polyglots
2/11/2014

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Like many other kids in Ottawa, I started learning a second language at age 4, when I was enrolled in French immersion school. I studied French throughout school and learned Italian during a semester abroad. Speaking Italian has been fruitful for me, even in Hong Kong where I live now. Job opportunities have arisen because I have an understanding of and an interest in Italy and Italians.

While I never learned Chinese growing up - which some might argue would be most useful in my current situation. I've started studying both Cantonese and Mandarin. People often talk about the practical upsides to learning a second (a third, a fourth) language, like employability in this global economy. But learning a new tongue is important beyond that. A foreign language helps with the understanding of one’s native language. The process of learning to communicate in a foreign language often forces us to learn how to listen. Language provides insight into another way of thinking, another mind-set.

This is not to say that everyone must be fluent in multiple languages, just as not everyone is “fluent” in statistics. There is a difference between functionality and fluency; it may be enough to be proficient.

And although English is common around the world, it is far from universal. A little while ago I asked a friend of mine from mainland China — an affluent person who moved to Hong Kong a year ago — if she would be interested in helping me with my Chinese, and in return I would teach her English. She said she would help me, but replied that she had no interest in learning English. If someone wanted to speak with her, she said, they could learn Chinese.

Melanie Ho, writer living in Hong Kong now.

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