A – Z Challenge: M — Modern Languages

To speak another language is to possess another soul.

Conny Kaufmann
IMLR PhD Candidate

I have to confess: I love learning languages! I have always considered language lessons the purest form of cross-cultural communication, because you not only learn new ways to communicate with others, you also learn so much about that speaker’s culture. You get an insight into how respect is shown, how formal or informal the language is, what kind of idioms exist, what is considered important – all by making small talk. It’s probably fitting, then, that I ended up at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. But what exactly are Modern Languages?

Living Languages

Based on many university departments, you could get the idea that Modern Languages only encompass German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, but nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is this a very Eurocentric approach, it also neglects the majority of languages in the world. A modern language is defined as any language which is spoken by at least one person as a first language. These are considered “living languages” as they are in active use. There are currently 7,139 languages spoken in the world, but roughly 40% of them are endangered. 

When you have living languages, it follows that there are dead languages as well. These are considered extinct, as there are no native speakers left, even though a number of these dead languages can still be studied. Perhaps the best-known dead languages are Latin, Ancient Greek, Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Coptic. But languages like Old English and Middle English are classed as dead as well. 573 languages – that we know of – are considered extinct.

Studying Modern Languages

For many of us, our first encounters with modern languages happen either at home or at school. Some of us are raised bilingually or even multilingually with two or more languages spoken at home or in our the community. Others have foreign languages as compulsory school subjects. While there are over 7,000 languages, most schools focus on a combination of 23 languages, which are considered global languages. These are the most spoken languages and are taught to increase career and business opportunities. Next to English, they include Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Arabic, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Urdu, Japanese, and Turkish, among others. Which languages are offered at school largely depends on geographic location, and business or political ties. The European Union language education norm is considered “M+2” – mother tongue and two languages from (neighbouring) countries. This is certainly true for the SASiety committee: four of us are native speakers of a language other than English (or consider ourselves bilingual native speakers), and between us we’re able to hold conversations in English, German, French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, and Polish, and read some Latin, if necessary. 

Take my own language education as an example: I was raised in Germany and I’m a native German speaker, but as I attended a bilingual German-English school, English is my second native language. At school we were offered the choice between Latin and French. I chose French, because I want to be able to speak the languages I learn. A few years later, we had electives in Spanish, Russian, and Hebrew. I chose Spanish.  

Now, English is a compulsory subject in Germany anyway. But French was offered because we lived within one and a half hours driving distance of the Belgian border. In northern Germany, we may have been offered Dutch or Danish instead, in eastern Germany Russian or Polish as a nod to Soviet times, while the south might focus more on Italian due to its proximity to the Alps. 

When I’m not studying for my PhD, I work as a language teacher for English and German. And the one thing I’ve noticed is how many people choose to learn another language later in life. Some of my students have realised that they need English for their job, especially concerning business and technical applications. Some are new in Germany and want to be able to talk to the neighbours and go to the shops by themselves. Others just want to brush up their language skills for an upcoming holiday. Whenever I travel, I try to at least learn how to say hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, and thank you in the host language. Making the effort to use the language – even for such a basic exchange – can open a lot of doors. 

Modern Languages at University

Modern Language Studies at universities are often not as straight-forward as simply offering language courses from beginner to advanced level. Rather, it is expected that students already possess a certain proficiency in their chosen language. Many modern languages departments offer either a linguistic or literature focus for their students. 

Linguistics is the scientific study of language, and includes phonetics, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Linguists can focus on such fields as grammar, how a language changed over time, differences in usage, or how we acquire or translate languages, to name just a few. 

Modern language studies with a literature focus are often more concerned with literary and/or cultural aspects. This is the case at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at SAS, where my research is based. Someone who knows French might study cultural aspects in francophone literature, for example, or how cultural memory is reflected in a country’s literature.  We focus on such subjects as women’s writing, exile literature, translation, or film and culture studies, instead of studying the ins and outs of the language itself. 

Which languages are offered depends on the university itself. There has been an increase in various Indigenous (Language) Studies courses, especially in Northern America, which is a promising trend. In Europe, the focus is often still on European languages – with renewed focus on Latin America and the Caribbean for Spanish, Portuguese and French Studies – although expansion into Asian languages is increasing, especially where studies with a specific geographic focus are offered. 

"Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen. - He who does not know foreign languages, does not know anything about his own."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Written by Conny Kaufmann, IMLR PhD Candidate

Check out the other A-Z Challenge participants as well!

1 Comment

  1. I’ve loved languages since I was young, and have studied so many on my own. It’s embarrassing how many people from Anglophone countries are proudly monolingual, and how so many U.S. schools do such a bad job of teaching foreign languages. I wish more schools would use an immersion method and more practical applications of a language, instead of mindless memorization of grammar and vocab.

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