Languages are often victims of politicians and society manipulations in various movements for independence and other similar formations of national identity. It may seem that the problem ether does not exist or is not relevant, but unfortunately this is not true — even in the twenty-first century populist tactics are still alive that simply distract people’s attention from pressing problems in the economy and the state to such inconsequential as the language spoken by the population.

It should be noted right away that language is just a tool for understanding other people. Let’s take a hammer as an example — if a person wants to hammer a nail, in that case he will need a tool and he will be able to complete the task.

The second point of particular importance — knowledge of a language does not automatically make a person a representative of the culture of the learned language. That is, a Russian could learn English and never leave his country for a day, but he will not become an Englishman or an US American by just learning the language. Same as the purchase or the presence of a hammer does not make a person a professional carpenter, the knowledge of a language does not turn a person into a representative of a foreign culture.

Let’s consider, for example, such countries as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. Not taking into account languages of the minorities, these countries speak one single language — English. Following the “language equals nationality” logic one can declare the US Americans are British, Australians are Canadians or even worse — say that Scots and Irish are English! I still remember a boy at a resort who was around seven years old and repeated several times in English that he was Scottish, but not English.

English is spoken not only in the above-mentioned countries: Nigerians, Gambians, Ghanaians, people from Sierra Leone, Guyana, India, Pakistan and many other countries also use English in their lives. It would be strange to claim that all these countries are absolutely identical culturally.

What does a language really give to a person? A language allows us to understand other people and creates interest to other cultures. Continuing the analogy with the instrument, as already said, the sole presence of a hammer does not make a person a carpenter, but periodic use of this tool to fix things around can create interest to study this profession (at least to the level of an amateur). The same thing happens with a language — it creates interest to a different culture, but in any case it does not replace the original one.

It seems a little strange, but European languages do not carry any cultural information for other Europeans. Probably this is because the European region and its former dependent territories (North America and other places on the planet) are initially very close culturally, despite the language differences.

Here are a few personal examples: being Russian-speaking I am fluent in English, have an average understanding of Dutch and have basic knowledge of French and German (both languages are being forgotten due to lack of practice). So, I studied four European languages and, frankly, they practically have no cultural promise. Although I am fluent in English, but until now I have never even been to an English-speaking country and my knowledge of the English-speaking culture is taken from history, books, movies and music, but what’s important — not from the language. The language itself only allowed me to study the culture — to read books and articles, watch movies and listen to the music.

Another thing is Dutch, which unlike English I do not know so well but the culture and the national identity of the Dutch is clear and understandable to me, as much as it is possible at this point. Why so? The reason is that I have lived in the Netherlands for four years in a row (and in total there are six or seven years since my first arrival). While living in the country I spoke with the Dutch, heard the language, saw emotions, habits — in general, I did really live and see what the Dutch society is, where most of the people know English but that did not stop the country from keeping its culture and national identity. The same applies to Belgium, which is neither the Netherlands, nor France, but only Belgium.

I can use Belarus as a similar example. Belarus is located on the border with Russia and the Russians like to say that Belarusians, Ukrainians and other Slavic nations are same Russians. To me, who visited Belarus every year since childhood, this sounds very wrong and is even a bit insulting. Yes, these countries speak the same language — Russian, but it does not make them “clones” of Russians or even just “Russians”. I will not go into details, but Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian and cultures of other Slavs are different and anyone who says otherwise just did not live in these societies or is just ignorant.

A great number of countries speak same languages. For example, such European countries as: Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg speak the languages of their larger neighbors. Belgium speaks Dutch, French and German; Austria speaks German; Luxembourg speaks German and French besides Luxembourgish; Switzerland speaks German, French and Italian (and also Romansh). Who would dare to say that: Belgians are simply Dutch, French and German; Swiss — “just” Germans, French and Italian; Luxembourgers — German and French; Austrians — Germans? I do not think that there are daredevils.

The language issue is very important in our times, as people are able to expand their knowledge and learn other languages are cultures, but too much hope should not be imposed on the language. As can be seen, languages, at least Europeans — are just tools for understanding each other. Of course, the national language is a piece of a puzzle, which is called the “national culture”, but not the biggest and not even the most important. The real culture is explored in everyday communication and interaction with the carriers of that culture and in the everyday life in that society. But not in a mechanical studying of the language, and in our age of the internet, movies, music and an enormous amount of material in different languages it is quite possible to do, even without the need to leave your native country.

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Stefan Vanli

Editor

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Moscow

Russia