Today I’m talking to Thomas Bak about his favourite places to visit and their attitude towards languages.
Where is your favourite place to visit?
I really love remote places, giving me a feeling of being “at the end of the world”: little-visited countries like Paraguay or Mongolia, walking 100 miles through a Namibian desert or sailing 24 hours in a small boat to reach a research station on Spitsbergen/Svalbard
Where do you most want to visit next?
My dream destinations are Greenland, Ethiopia and Georgia (in the Caucasus, not the one in the US)
Is there anywhere you’ve visited which is particularly important to your research?
A lot of my research is about identifying populations which are of particular interest to answer specific questions and conducting research with them. The most important place is certainly Hyderabad in India, where thanks to collaboration with my Indian colleague Suvarna Alladi I did some of my most interesting studies on the influence of bilingualism on dementia and stroke; Hyderabad is a place which has been predominantly multilingual for centuries, so it is a perfect environment to study bilingualism which is not associated with recent migration, as it is for instance in Canada and the USA.
In Scotland, the most important place is the Gaelic college of Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye, where we did studies of the cognitive effects of intensive language learning.
Does the importance of knowing multiple languages vary in different places you’ve visited?
Enormously. In many parts of India or Africa multilingualism is the rule, with people speaking two, three, four or even five languages on a regular basis. When I say in the UK that I can teach in 7 languages, people look at me like at an extra-terrestrial; in India or Namibia, this is perceived as normal.
But the difference is not only in knowing different languages, but also in the importance attached to knowing them. In Japan, many people find it difficult to speak English (or any language other than Japanese), but they make an effort to learn it. It is mainly in the UK and US that you can encounter a disinterest, sometimes even hostility against learning languages. On the other hand, if you go to the annual international polyglot conference (last year in Reykjavik, this year in Ljubljana), you will find many Brits and their knowledge of other languages is amazing!
How much importance do you think we should give to knowing multiple languages here in the UK?
I think many people assume that the fact that English became a global language means that if you speak English, you do not need to learn any other languages. In reality, the opposite is true: speaking English is nowadays a basic skill, like reading, writing and counting. It is a prerequisite to participate in the social, cultural and economic life of our world, but it is not enough. You will not impress future employers by being able to read and write, you will need more. Similarly, knowing just English won’t impress anybody. The British Chamber of Commerce is very much aware of this; it argues that the lack of knowledge of foreign languages costs British companies millions in lost business and is actively promoting language learning.