The advantages of learning foreign languages are becoming increasingly apparent as the world becomes more and more globalised. We speak about the growing importance of learning a second or third language to Dr Robert Kilroy, an English lecturer in the Department of Applied Foreign Languages at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (SUAD).
Education UAE: What are the cognitive and emotional benefits of multilingualism?
Dr Kilroy: The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said that “the unconscious is structured like a language.” In other words, we see ourselves and the world around us through a linguistic lens. The basic principles of translation support this theory. In English, when we say “I looked through the window at the garden” we are presenting the facts chronologically because we perceive events as unfolding over time. A French speaker, however, might emphasize the result of the action over the process: “J’ai regardé le jardin par la fenêtre (I looked at the garden through the window)”. This suggests a more ‘logical’ perception of the world. Learning a new language can, in this very real sense, change the way we think. It is a type of re-cognition that increases emotional recognition: by understanding what it means to see the world differently we acquire a heightened sense of empathy.
Education UAE: What is the correlation between learning a new language and understanding or empathising with its culture?
Dr Kilroy: Language learning reminds us that the essence of communication is not the message, but the act. All communication requires a certain leap of faith: we must trust that another speaker knows what we mean when we say certain words. This trust establishes an important social bond, a feeling of mutual recognition that develops into a shared set of values and beliefs. Thus, by facilitating communication, a new language reveals the internal architecture of a given culture.
Education UAE: Why is it important for people to understand and empathise with other cultures?
Dr Kilroy: Unfortunately, it is easier to keep a distance from what we do not understand. For respect and tolerance to prevail over antagonism and division, active intellectual engagement with other cultures is essential. Only empathy can replace walls with bridges.
Education UAE: What changes with this understanding?
Dr Kilroy: A shift in perception occurs: what appeared foreign becomes familiar. We adapt our ways of seeing in line with what disrupts our ways of thinking. In doing so we realise that, while beliefs may differ, the capacity to believe is human.
Education UAE: Why is foreign language study important at the university level?
Dr Kilroy: University students have a naturally higher level of intellectual maturity and curiosity. What they require are methods for assimilating and applying new knowledge. Foreign language study does not just provide linguistic tools; it equips students with the analytical mindset necessary to effect social change.
Education UAE: What are the career opportunities for a linguist?
Dr Kilroy: With a second language, barriers fall and opportunities appear. In uncertain times, skilled communicators – teachers, diplomats, and interpreters – are a valued commodity. For a linguist, the globe becomes a garden. And now more than ever, the world needs gardeners.
Education UAE: Tell us about the French academic system at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. What is the biggest difference between this system and all others in the UAE?
Dr Kilroy: SUAD offers ECTS accredited, fully transferable LMD diplomas (Licence/Bachelor, Master, Doctorate) that are identical to those offered in Paris. No other university in the UAE applies the same standards of accreditation.
Dr Robert Kilroy is an English lecturer in the Department of Applied Foreign Languages as well as History of Art and Museum Studies at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. His work focuses on the overlap between languages, art, psychoanalysis, and philosophy.
Catherine O’Farrell, Group Head for Athena Group in Dubai and Director of Phase 2 for the Dubai Inclusion Network, also weighs in.
“In any given classroom in the UAE, a student from Pakistan could be sitting next to a student from the UK, across from a student from Russia and in front of a student from the Philippines. This is reflective of our increasingly globalised world and means that understanding of multiple ways of looking at things is not only desired, but required in our classrooms and in life.”