I did this assembly talk a few years ago. Feel free to use it or adapt it.
Today is officially the European Day of Languages.
Here is a poem by Olivia McMahon
Learning a language
Is like doing a jigsaw puzzle
Of a million pieces
With a picture that keeps changing.
It's like getting lost in a foreign city without a map.
It's like playing tennis without a ball,
like being an ant in a field of grasshoppers.
It's like being an acrobat with a broken leg,
An actor without a script,
A carpenter without a saw,
A storyteller without a middle or an end.
But then gradually
It's like being out in the early morning
with the mists lifting.
It's like a chink of light under a door,
like finding the glove you were looking for,
Catching the train you thought you were going to miss,
Getting an unlooked-for present,
Exchanging a smile.
Very fast downhill.
How many languages are there in the world? Well, it’s hard to know for sure because most languages are not written down and most are spoken by small numbers of people living in remote parts of the globe, for example tribes in the Amazon jungle. The best estimate we have is nearly 7000, of which nearly half are in danger of extinction. 7000 is a lot of languages and each one is well adapted to the culture which uses it.
As for the most widely spoken languages in the world, this depends on how you count up. But if you just measure people who speak a language as their native tongue: one table suggests that the top 10 are: Mandarin Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Malay and French. By the way, Chinese is a long way ahead with about a billion speakers.
However, if you add up the native speakers with those who speak a second language, the table changes. The top ten are: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Bengali.
If you then look at the number of countries where languages are spoken the top five are: English, French, Arabic, Spanish and Russian.
Now, a calculation has been made as to the most important languages based on number of speakers, the countries the languages are spoken in, economic influence and prestige, for example the influence of the literature in the language. The top five come out as: English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. I suspect Chinese will soon figure in that list.
Now, why bother to learn a language if English is the most important language in the world?
Here are ten reasons, with the most important left to the end.
1. When you travel abroad, for example on holiday, you’ll be able to talk with people who can’t speak English. This shows courtesy and respect. remember that only about 5% of the world population speak English. It’s a myth that you don’t have to learn other languages because everyone speaks English anyway.
2. You may need a foreign language for your job. By the way, students with languages find it easier to get jobs than students with almost any other training.
3. You may just enjoy learning a language – using the sounds, working out rules and so on
4. It will make you seem clever. People seem to be impressed when you can speak more than one language. On the other hand, you can feel hopeless when you can’t speak another person’s language.
5. You can have secret conversations which other people don’t understand
6. Research shows that learning a language can make you better at learning other subjects.
7. You can watch films and read in another language.
8. It helps you learn about other cultures. It’s hard to really get to know another country and people unless you understand their language.
9. It makes you understand your own language better.
10. Finally – and the most important – when you learn another language not only do you learn about the other country, but it also makes you look at your own country in a different way; it probably makes you a more tolerant person; it teaches you to listen to others, communicate better and it broadens your horizons. Someone once said that to learn another language is to learn another vision of life. You might not be thinking that as you do your French, German or Latin homework, but as a citizen of Europe and the world, perhaps learning language, although it can be quite hard, is not a bad thing at all. The poem by Olivia McMahon said that learning a language is like being lost in a foreign city, but if you work at it for a long time it becomes, as she put it, like riding a bike downhill.