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Around Europe in Sixty Languages

20th November 2019

The more we understand of the language and culture of our neighbours, the better equipped we are to work productively with them.

Language doesn’t wait passively for our attention between the pages of books or the screens of mobile devices. It's alive. Languages grow, breathe, evolve and sometimes die. It’s a subject that Gaston Dorren understands very well. His book “Lingo” takes us on a tour of sixty European languages that challenges us, entertains us and reminds of the value of multilingualism.

Did you know that one of the languages spoken on the border between Russia and Georgia is actually Iranian? Half a million Ossetian speakers around the Caucus mountain region are keeping their ethnic identity alive and adding their own distinctive flavour to European culture.

Did you know that Monégasque, a subdialect of Italian with only a handful of remaining native speakers, is a compulsory language in Monaco’s schools?

Dorren darts between languages and dialects, offering snippets of information that even the most ardent linguaphile may not have seen before. This keeps the narrative fresh and it’s also an appropriate way to tell the story, as the rise and fall of Europe’s languages and cultures doesn’t follow a conventional path. War, invasion and even good or bad weather all have a part to play in the way we communicate. Would English be the lingua franca it is today if various attempted invasions of the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries had been successful?

In recent years we’ve seen many attempts to keep endangered languages alive, with modern technology offering valuable preservation tools. In some cases, though, all was lost long ago. Dorren’s account of the death of Dalmatian is particularly poignant. Antonio Udina, its last surviving speaker, learned the dialect from his parents but didn’t pass it on to a new generation and no audio recordings of it were ever made. In June 1898 Udina was killed by an explosion at road works near his home, and the language died with him. At least for Dalmatian the end came with a bang, not a whimper.

The book carries a warning for English speakers. While English remains a global business language, the linguistic skill and appetite for knowledge of our European neighbours puts us to shame. While language learning in UK schools is in decline, many children in Spain and Belgium learn a second language from the age of three. And German children will typically reach a level of proficiency in two new languages before those in Britain can navigate one.

Multilingual children are generally more confident and more organised. The act of juggling the priorities of one language while absorbing information in another automatically makes linguists better multitaskers. In the same way, businesses that present themselves to the world in more than one language show a confidence, a cultural awareness and a receptiveness that makes them stand out from the crowd. As we leave 20th century cultural stereotypes far behind us, the modern business leader will typically have a sophisticated understanding of their overseas target markets. And they certainly need it to gain the attention of an increasingly sophisticated global audience.

If Dorren’s book proves anything, it’s that the more we understand of the language and culture of our neighbours, the better equipped we are to work productively with them. That’s not a surprise, of course, and nor is it a surprise that taking an interest in different languages gives us a lot of good stories to tell. Gaston Dorren tells us his share of good stories in “Lingo” but, more than that, he invites us to write our own. He invites us to reach out across borders and cultures and tell our story to an eager audience in language they can understand and embrace. It’s an invitation we should gratefully accept.


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