Can multilingualism save the world? The notion sounds farfetched, but if an organisation such as the United Nations, no less, cites multilingual education as a way to help achieve their Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, then maybe its not such an outlandish claim.
Readers will not need to be reminded that we are living in confusing and even dangerous times. Opposing world views are debated every second, whether in our world’s mighty seats of power or on the social media we access via our handheld devices, clutched semi-permanently in the palms of our hands.
So how can we help our students first to navigate this new reality and second to fight against intolerance and for a just and peaceful world? After all, the development of “global citizens” is a trope of many a school mission statement. A multilingual education can help move students towards that goal through increased intercultural awareness and greater ease of communication between nations. But some people still need to be convinced of this.
Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, has devoted much of his adult life to fighting for the UK to leave the European Union. Ironically, Farage is an elected member of the European Parliament. Just last week, Farage made a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the United States. He told the assembled crowds: “Our real friends in the world speak English…”
How far removed his world view seems from that of Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett, who recently said, “I would like to see more opportunities for British people to learn some of the community languages of the UK, such as Polish, Punjabi and Urdu, particularly in areas where there are high numbers of those speakers, so that there is some mutual effort in understanding the others’ language and culture.” Ayres-Bennett is Principal Investigator of the MEITS research project based at the University of Cambridge in the UK, which is seeking to transform attitudes to multilingualism. Those collaborating on the project, whose acronym stands for Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies, would surely be in agreement with the UN when it comes to the many benefits of multilingual education, not just for the students, but the world as a whole.