I’m not sure that the annual conference of the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association (ISMLA) will have featured in my readers’ calendars, but it duly took place this year at Highgate School and, as an Honorary President, I was wheeled out to welcome the delegates, and very happily so: as a Head of Modern Languages, I appreciated the opportunity to meet my peers and to hear from university experts in modern languages. ISMLA’s reach and ambition have grown since I was involved, and this year’s programme showed our embattled modern linguists are squaring up to the frankly awful reality of the UK’s monolingual dunderheadedness: we are, it appears, bottom of every international league table when it comes to speaking or understanding another language; what’s worse, our self-assessment – on which the surveys are based – probably flatters the British facility in speaking someone else’s lingo.
There are many reasons why we are so unsuccessful: faced with our native tongue being a quasi-international language, or the rapid advance in technologies which either do or will allow instant translation on the page or direct to the ear, it’s not easy to deploy languages’ usefulness, even though there are strong arguments in their favour when it comes to trading and finding new commercial markets. I’m sure, too, that would-be language-learners and their parents are just as off-put by examples of Scandinavian polyglot politicians peeling back the intricacies of immigration policy on the Today programme in English, with more fluency than many a native speaker, as others are by the sight of accomplished GCSE and A level art students, or brilliant musicians whose sight-reading, breath control and pulsing dexterity appear second nature: how could I ever do that, from where I stand now?
However, I read with interest an account of the benefits to the brain of language-learning and wondered if healthy living might lead us to re-think our habits. Researchers at the University of Reading assessed two measures of cognitive function of patients suffering from multiple sclerosis at the Gregorio Marañon hospital in Madrid. In one of these measures, known as ‘monitoring’, which is the ability to analyse and alter a way of thinking to find ways of solving problems or making decisions, it appears that MS sufferers who can speak a second language retained better monitoring skills than those without. The researchers are understandably excited at the prospect of discovering more about the human brain, and the power of an activity (learning a language in this case) may have to protect against disease and mental decline. So, learning a language is good for your brain’s health.
Now I have often argued that learning a language is good for our souls: understanding other people in their own tongue, making the empathetic jump to read them through their own literature and culture, encountering our fellow human beings face to face, these are all ways of growing one’s emotional intelligence and reach. The knowledge though that this helps the brain – no doubt, similar claims could be (and are) made for music, for art – should come as no surprise: speaking more than one language is, it seems, how we and our brains were made; most people in our world operate multilingually, and it is the exception that so many English-speaking peoples have lost this facility. I’d argue that it is about being fully human.
Where next? I argued to ISMLA delegates that they should go back to their schools with militant trenchancy and bang on any listening desk to proclaim the urgent benefits, not just to the economy and to international understanding, but to our brain health, of learning a language. And the wonderful thing is that it isn’t just something for the young: as I scooted back to my study, I happened across a Village resident of more mature years. Where had he been? Learning Italian at the local Institute. ‘I may not be fluent,’ said he, ‘but I am quite a bit better than I was when I started.’ And to judge by the sparkle in his eye and the spring in his step, he was doing his brain no end of good. Let’s untie our tongues and follow his example!