Opionion piece

Our worn-out relationship with language

Why do we never explicitly value language, but only use it?

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DUET: Bilingual couples can develop cosewords from a mixture of two languages. Ain't that cozy?
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Opinion piece

This is an opinion piece. It expresses the journalist's own opinions.

Think about languages, how they sound and what we associate with them. From my experience, people perceive French as romantic, musical and charming. German, on the other hand, sounds very harsh to international ears, overwhelms the listener.

And Italian? I would love to hear myself flirt in Italian – that would be the climax of my linguistic career.

There are about 7000 languages in the world. Each of them has its own peculiarities. Some languages are more difficult than others. For example, German and Norwegian are ranked 7th and 8th on the list of the 10 most difficult languages in the world published by UNESCO.

I’m currently learning Norwegian and I love the process. Isn't it great fun to learn a new language? And with it new people? Even though it may sometimes feel like a cage, it's wonderful to find out what kind of person you are in another language. 

One of my friends has started a family in another language area and therefore associates this new language with something very intimate, personal, familiar, which makes him more empathetic and emotional. 

A fellow student of mine hardly feels any sentimentality in other languages, which is why she swears perfectly in Spanish because her empathy is switched off. 

DIVERSITY: Imagine how many languages the students in Bergen master combined.
DIVERSITY: Imagine how many languages the students in Bergen master combined.

A very good friend I met here in Norway says that during a planned semester abroad in Italy, which she then had to spend in her home country due to covid-19, she identified the Italian language as an emotional refuge that helped her to feel happy during the pandemic. This feeling, when she listens to Italian music, which she now knows in detail, has not left her to this day. The language still gives her support and warmth. 

What we call language barriers, which is often so highly politicized, can also be beautiful. Namely, when we allow beginner-mistakes and become less stubborn about language. 

New languages can make us feel more lively. To be fair, they can also make us feel shy or inferior. But they always bring out something in us that we didn't know before. As my experience has shown me, language barriers are sometimes not just that – they can also be linguistic invitations to rediscover yourself. 

It is the first thing that connects people. Everything interpersonal is based on language, verbal as well as non-verbal. And people develop their own languages, for example in the case of bilingual couples when they develop cosewords from a mixture of two languages. 

In this way, the personal vocabulary is growing naturally and the spoken word is constantly reproducing itself. However, it also abolishes itself, or rather, is being abolished. English influences the Norwegian language deeply, for example. Whether this development should be resisted or not, is subject of a large debate here in Norway.

About half of all languages are considered endangered. They are simply displaced by other languages, forgotten at large and eventually no longer spoken. With them, important culture dies. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher, once said that where his language ends, his world ends. Do we simply want to let these worlds go?

So then, why do we celebrate language so little? And why don't we protect it more?

There should be an international day of languages and this should be a holiday. On this day, people are supposed to deal with language. You probably know this when you wonder where a certain saying comes from. Then you google it and are usually pleasantly surprised about the story behind it. The day would therefore have a linguistic-educational component, as well as an entertaining one.

The day would be to pause and question what we push to the limit every day. That which is the most important tool in human history. Everything, from our culture to our religion – everything is based on language. Without it, there would be no cohabitation, no society, no bible. 

Language really is a miracle.

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