The Lost Art of Multilingualism

Not so long ago, in a place not so far away, there was a nation of people. In this nation of people, they possessed a special trait. They spoke *gasp* two or more languages fluently. Fast forward to today, this special group of people is almost all but lost, the few remnants hiding in secret locations such as coffee shops and behind fruit stalls.

After coming across a recent article about a fruit seller who speaks not just two nor three, but four languages fluently, I can’t help wondering – what happened to us? In case you’re still lost, that nation of people was our ancestors!

While we struggle to master even one language in our school days this 21st century, there was a time when people spoke multiple languages without batting an eyelid. So, is it really that difficult?

With growing emphasis on English, the lingua franca of the world today, most of us are losing touch and interest in our mother tongues. Oh, and let’s not even discuss our national language, which for the majority of us, are limited only to the few words sung in the national anthem.

If education serves us right, we should have at minimum two to three languages at our disposal. Perhaps in our younger days, the burden of learning was impossibly heavier than its apparent usefulness.

Well, now that we’re a little older, it’s not too late to reconsider that perspective.

Multilingualism may not be a requirement at most workplaces, but unless you work isolated from the rest of the world, chances are you’ll be communicating with people on a daily basis. What better way to engage in good human relations than being able to code-switch and speak in the native tongue of others?

From personal experience, being able to engage the older generation in their language breaks the ice much faster than trying to command respect with the number of paper degrees we’ve earned. Even with our peers, it’s a great way to put someone new at ease with just a few smattering of words in their native tongue. Somehow, it adds a personal touch to an otherwise formal work setting.

Sure, most of us will be dog-tired with daily work life to bother studying a new language or relearning an old one, but here’s where we can take a leaf out of the book from our ancients.

Back in the day, languages were learnt not so much from books and papers, but from good old human interaction. People picked up bits and pieces of words and phrases from each other, and over time, developed the ability converse. Language exchange is a common practice when learning foreign languages. Now how about we try it to learn our own?

In the multi-racial society of Singapore, it’s not hard to come across a speaker of another tongue. What it comes down to is how much effort you’re willing to put in for the results. Pick up a new word every day while having lunch with your colleague, or try to make conversation in a smattering of broken language (after all, that’s how Singlish came about), and you’ll gradually find yourself picking up a new tongue.

While we may not speak a fluent second or third language this way, what’s more important is the journey of learning. There’ll be plenty of laughter and fun with the faux pas committed along the way, and the sense of satisfaction when you finally make the first perfect conversation with a stranger.

Language is all about practice, and in the almost mono-lingual society of Singapore’s workplace, it’s hard to keep touch with all the other languages out there. But if you make an effort, nobody will fault you for trying. Let’s bring back the warmth and human touch to our otherwise lifeless workplace communications.

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