The Language Barrier

As part of its strategy to counter extremism, the British Government has today announced its intention to fund a plan to help all migrants to this country learn English. For once, I think that this is a plan to applaud.

For the inability to speak and understand the language of others around you fosters fear, misunderstanding and distrust.

Having lived in an ex-patriot community myself, I remember how easy it is to become persuaded by others that you are somehow surrounded by ‘enemies’, and to develop a laager mentality. This mindset takes it as a given that everyone outside of the circle does not understand you, they are somehow ‘against’ you, and forever plotting to attack or undermine you, so you sit there muttering darkly about these ‘outsiders’, and voicing your dislike and prejudices against them…it becomes a cycle of mistrust that can possibly become violent.

It is another example of the saying that we hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. And when someone is trapped in a limited social circle because they cannot understand anyone outside of that circle, their chances of becoming a full member of the wider community are severely limited.

Having travelled in non-English speaking countries, I realise how much easier life becomes for me when I make the effort to learn even a small amount of the language.

There will be some who refuse to learn the language on the grounds that they feel that they are there temporarily, possibly working on a short term contract, and can get away with using their own language in a limited circle of work, shopping and socialising.

And there will be some for whom it is a matter of pride to use only their birth language.

I think that both of these viewpoints are mistaken.

Writers understand only too well the importance of language. We worry over whether to use this or that word or phrase to get our meaning across; we worry over whether the way we have worded something may be misunderstood. But when you are attempting to communicate with others in a language that you only vaguely understand, every single conversation is full of these fears.

And when that is the norm, it becomes easier just to avoid any situations where you have to try to use that language.

But it does not actually take much to overcome these fears. Perhaps accepting an invitation to visit to someone’s home, or their place of worship, will lead naturally to conversations where people can learn about each other. But the essential thing is to be able to communicate, which becomes next to impossible without at least a few words of a language in common.

We need to talk

I want to continue the thread that I explored in my previous post; in that, I wrote in favour of reasoned discussion as opposed to bigoted diatribe.

As an exercise, one could take a topic on which one holds strong views, and then honestly attempt to find arguments that support the opposing view.

As an example, let’s look at the ‘little local difficulties’ currently occurring in the Ukraine. The narrative in the west appears to be that the Russians are entirely to blame for both the tensions and the conflict there, and it is difficult to find much sensible consideration of the Russian view of the matter.

So here goes.

In 1945, at the end of WWII, Western Europe was divided from Communist Eastern Europe by a border that ran between what was then West and East Germany, giving the then Soviet Union a large protective buffer from what it viewed as the aggressive Western powers. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, virtually all of the eastern European countries joined both the EU and NATO. Gradually, Russia then began again to make threatening noises, feeling that it was all but encircled and under attack. When the Ukraine applied for a pathway membership of NATO, strongly encouraged by the West, many in Russia felt that this was the last straw. The Ukraine has a long and complicated historical relationship with Russia, and about a quarter of its population see itself as Russian. The Crimea, which Russia effectively sized in 2014, had been historically part of Russia since 1783, only given to the Ukraine in 1954, and the vast majority of its inhabitants wanted to return to Russian rule.

So the Crimea, then, was viewed both by Russians, and also by many in the Ukraine, as historically Russian territory. The west was regarded as an enemy who was attempting to drive its tanks right up to the Russian border, and who had already subverted most of the old Soviet states.

This was the situation when hostilities began to escalate. Does it justify Russian actions in the Ukraine? Probably not. Does it help to explain them? Certainly. Might there have been a different narrative if the Western powers had understood the Russian point of view? Probably.

(There is, of course, the possibility that the Western Powers understood it only too well, but felt that it might be in their interests to foment unrest. But let’s assume that’s not the case.)

It may be that after looking at these arguments, or ones that you might come up with when interrogating another question, you decide yes, these other folk do have a point. Or you might think well, I can see why they say that, but I’m not impressed with the argument. Or even, who knows, you might be convinced by their point of view. But whatever the outcome, at least you should feel that you have thought about the problem in an honest and intelligent manner. And I think that discussion then is more likely to reasoned and civil.

It must be especially important to do this when one is exploring emotive issues such as US gun laws, euthanasia, or immigration, otherwise we just end up adding to the massive amounts of vitriol being sloshed around by all sides in these situations. It can then become the basis of conflict resolution.