I went for a job interview once which happened to be language related and one of the interviewers posed the above question to me. Not sure my answer was very convincing, as I didn’t get the job-or maybe life just had better plans for me! Anyhow, if you were to ask me the same question now, my answer this time round will be much more informed than back then.
Why learn Swahili, English, French, Chinese…the list goes on and on. First of all nowadays it is no big deal to know English, believe it or not! Yes it is THE universal language of communication but that trend has been shifting the past few decades. Nowadays, you got to know your mother tongue and English (if it isn’t your mother tongue). These 2 pretty much do not count as much as other languages that you would be asked if you know. So basically if you know other languages besides English, you are better off starting your list from there. And what are these other languages? Well there’s the always in demand European languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese et al. But lately it’s all about the East particularly China, so if you don’t know Mandarin, Cantonese or any of their cousins you are well advised to give that some thought. Japanese would also be a good language to consider plus Japan being the 3rd (or is it back to 2nd?) richest country, I don’t see any harm in familiarizing oneself with the language as well.
But that hardly answers the question, why bother to learn at all? A number of reasons:
1) When you are multilingual, (note that being bilingual is so 20th century!), you can work anywhere! Am not talking about language related jobs, you do not need to be a translator, interpreter etc, no. You can still be a doctor, engineer, lawyer or whatever else and get to literally travel the world, doing your thing-if you are into discovering new cultures and that kind of thing. Think if you speak French for example, how many francophone countries are there? Your choices are endless! Especially for us in poor countries like Tanzania, I’d like to believe languages can be the gateway to greater things and not having to be stuck in this one country or getting paid a measly salary like everyone else for the rest of our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I love my country and that why ‘nimezunguka wee ila nikarudi nyumbani’, but the point is who wants to be born in and live out the rest of their life in just the one country? Be it the poorest or even richest country in the world? That’s got to be pretty boring! Go out, explore the world, learn new things and come back and make your country better! And how do you do that? Get your education (bachelors, masters, doctorate-the works), then add a few languages on top of that and see if you won’t be attracting lucrative jobs (from foreign countries especially) like bees to honey!
2) When you are multilingual you get to expand your view of the world. You get to appreciate other cultures because you don’t just learn the language, you learn the culture as well. You appreciate people who are different from you, be it color wise, continent wise etc.But you don’t just appreciate other cultures but people from those cultures will also get to appreciate you and your culture-which becomes this whole mutual appreciation thing. They may even become curious and start learning about your culture which can only be a good thing. I get so annoyed every time someone sees someone who looks a certain way and they immediately conclude that person must be Chinese! I mean really? It’s 2015 and you still think if they look ‘that way’ then surely Chinese is all they must be. Now that’s ignorance that could have been quickly taken care of if you bothered to learn about the East and the many types of people represented there.
3) When you are multilingual you are in a great position to be a good ambassador for your country. Who said only Miss Tanzania has to go out and talk about Mt Kili, Serengeti and Zanzibar? Aren’t you proud of where you come from? Don’t you want to share your culture, attractions and everything good about Tanzania with the world? You may think, I don’t get paid for it why bother? No, actually you do. Because the more tourists come in, the more money our government makes, and the better our lives become! So if not for patriotism sake at least do it because it will still benefit you in the long run.
4) Sad to say but most parents want the best education for their children and if they can afford it, no one in their right mind would let their children be educated in this great country of ours. The most preferred countries to get a good education are obviously English speaking ones like the US, UK, Canada etc and of course more and more parents are sending their kinds to the East-China, Malaysia, Singapore and the rest of their ‘tiger cousins’. So go figure how essential knowing that particular country’s language would be if you want to spend 3-7 years there as a student.
5) Networking. If you are living and working or doing business in Tanzania you know there’s plenty of opportunities to meet with people from all over the world and learn/gain a lot from them. We’re fast becoming quite metropolitan, particularly Dar es salaam, and it would put you at a huge disadvantage if English was the only foreign language you knew, because am pretty sure there’s more than just English speakers to be found in the fast growing expat population.
6) It can be a pretty good source of a side income. Just ask the multilingual students, freelancers and career men/women registered with us and they’ll tell you. If you score a nice gig, you can take home even up to 500,000/= for a 3 day language related job-easy! And you don’t even have to wait a whole month to earn it, to boot!
7) It’s fun! Especially if you like challenges. Yes we say some languages are easier to learn than others but overall learning a new language especially in your adulthood can be quite the task. But if you like a challenge, why not? In fact why would you not like a challenge in the fist place? And you’ve got much more to gain by actually knowing a foreign language, so do it. Just do it!