Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Importance of Languages

By Sydney Berry 

If there was one theme that repeated out throughout our entire trip through Europe, it was the huge role language plays in each region, be it political, social, religious or within the media. Each city we visited has a certain representation that I took from it, and I’m going to explore the role language played in each. In Prague, it was social.  In Paris, it was the media.  In Brussels, it was political, and in Rome, religious.
Prague was our first stop, and therefore probably the hardest to get used to not speaking the language. Also, many of us know Spanish or French, at least a little bit, but no one knows Czech. It was hard to get used to the barriers. Luckily for us, many people spoke a little English, and we were able to communicate to a reasonable extent. But everything took a little longer—we had to ask a question in a couple of different ways to be understood, and then they had to try to figure out how to answer us. I remember the first time we tried to ask for tap water and the waiter had no idea what we were saying. We tried to tell him, from the sink, but he just looked confused. In the end, we paid for sparkling bottled water, and we didn’t try to argue by that point. We did find, however, that people in many of the more touristy places spoke much better English. A lot of the people in small shops in Old Town Prague knew English well enough to have decent conversations. We all felt a little guilty for not speaking their language, but in the end it worked out pretty well.

Paris had the most media-related stops that were actually strictly in French. However, France24 is broadcast in Arabic, English and French and is broadcast throughout the world. Charlotte Edwards told us that there are employees from around 80 different countries who speak many different languages, though she said almost everyone could speak French. So, while everyone could communicate with each other using a common language, there were still 80 different geographical backgrounds with all different languages contributing to the success of the station.

Brussels is the political center of Europe, as it is the home to the European Union. This was where I saw the most emphasis put on language. The first and most obvious clue to the number of languages is the fact there are 27 EU member countries, with 23 different languages. The official EU website is written in 22 of those 23 languages, more than any other website. When we visited the European Parliament, we saw skyboxes where interpreters sit, divided by language. During Parliament sessions, the 754 Members of Parliament (MEPs), dignitaries and visitors can wear headphones to hear an interpreter translate debate into their language. So while it is not necessary for an MEP to speak multiple languages, it is helpful. If they cannot easily speak to people around them, it is hard to lobby and influence other MEPs. While the try to interpret simultaneously, there is sometimes a delay of up to 15-30 seconds. That can affect the emphasis someone is trying to put on his or her speech. For all these reasons, speaking multiple languages is a crucial part to working effectively in the European Parliament. 

We also visited Hill+Knowlton Strategies, the world's first PR agency. Collectively, employees speak 12 of the 23 official EU languages and have more than 450 correspondents. The agency focuses on EU affairs, meaning it has to be able to generate content for all 27 members. Knowing more than half of the languages is essential when it comes to being able to communicate not only with its clients and the targets of their PR campaigns. Hill+Knowlton supports its clients in influencing policy, raising company profiles, establishing contacts, and more, and in order to be successful at these jobs, strategists need to be able to reach the largest amount of people they can—meaning knowing the languages. That is why they have made it a point to know 12 of the 23 EU official languages.

When we visited the United States Media Hub for Europe, we met with the director, Maggie White. She, too, emphasized the importance of language. Prior to another foreign service assignment, she learned Spanish through a state department training program. White said she would advise anyone learn at least one other language, because it really helps to communicate, especially when she travels for the job. 
All of our stops in Rome were religious-based, and each brought up language at some point. During our session at Pontifica Universitas Sanctae Crucis, we learned students come there from from 90 countries. As we watched a short video, it was clear there are many languages spoken there. We heard some French, Chinese, Spanish and more, all translated for using English subtitles.

At Vatican Radio, we learned programs are  broadcast in 40 languages. During the tour we saw all the doors of the offices for different languages with the sign indicating which audience it serves posted above it. This diverse approach is crucial for the Vatican to get its word out to the world.

We also toured Saint Peter’s Basilica, where I admittedly did not expect to see language play a part. However, I was wrong. The confessionals around the basilica had a placard posted above it to indicate in which languages the priest could hear confession.
All of these stops made it clear that language plays as large of a role in religion as it does in politics, if not even larger. 
All in all, language played a much greater role in the four European countries than I have ever experienced in the United States. There is very rarely a time when language spoken in the US is something other than English. Whether it is social, political, religious or related to the media, English is always the primary language spoken. But in Europe, where many different countries have come together to form the EU, that just isn't the case, and in terms of religion, there are very few barriers at all. Many things changed as we traveled from country to country, but language was one thing that remained prevalent in each.

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