“Talk Bajan, speak English.” I have adopted and adapted that motto to the thrust by the Prime Minister to encourage all Barbadians to be versatile in their language abilities. She has brought to the fore the issue of language skills and the ability to communicate effectively. The Prime Minister rightly pointed out that while there is an important role for the Bajan dialect, we must never destroy our ability to speak and communicate in proper English. That skill set is especially vital when Barbadians are required to speak and negotiate either for their own needs or for the nation.
In my last article, I commended the Government’s initiative to encourage Barbadians to learn a second language; and I pointed out that considering our Latin American neighbours, Spanish would be a good choice. In fact, it is regarded as a global language and the world’s second-most spoken native language, after Mandarin Chinese. Spanish as a language has been taught in our schools for many years. I did it as a student at the Christ Church Foundation School all the way to CXC. While I didn’t pursue it after that, some words and phrases remained with me and have been rekindled as I get the opportunity now to travel to Spanish-speaking countries. I also understand that Mandarin is being widely promoted and is being taught in some schools and at the University of the West Indies.
The desire to have all Barbadians pay attention to their language and communications skills and the recommendation to learn more than one language are commendable initiatives that must be fully supported and further encouraged and developed. As the world gets even smaller with technology, and as we interact more and more with people of differing cultures, languages and backgrounds, we will appreciate greatly how important it is for our skill sets to be enhanced and broadened. This is so even in language abilities. This point is further strengthened by our economic realities which compel us to be able to multitask and to have several skills and abilities to enable us to compete effectively at the global level.
Persons who have the ability to speak more than one language certainly have an advantage and more opportunities. Multinational corporations, governments and institutions like the United Nations and its agencies will always be on the lookout for such persons.
I come from a community whose roots are in India. Many among us have the ability to speak their mother or father tongue in addition to English. That language is primarily Gujarati. My father came from India to Barbados in his early 20s. He still can speak Gujarati and Urdu—the language used by Muslims in India. As a young man, I didn’t recognize the importance of knowing my father’s language and stuck with English. However, as I got older I regretted never having learnt it. There are advantages in knowing the languages of others. It makes for better communication; it also allows for an appreciation of what is being said without the variances that can occur with translations.
Lost in translation (not the movie) comes to mind when we speak of having to rely on persons to explain what another is saying. I have always admired those who have mastered the art of translating, who can, with immediacy, convey exactly what the other person is saying in another language. These jobs are highly paid and sought after and can be an additional source of income for persons with these skill sets. The opportunities, I argue, are limitless in having the ability to speak more than one language.
As a young man at the Cave Hill Campus, I took two years’ leave from my first-degree programme to take advantage of an opportunity given to me to study the Arabic language. It was a two-year programme at the Arabic Language Institute of King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As a Muslim, understanding the Arabic language is important as our scriptures and prayers are primarily performed in that language. Many Muslims outside the Arab world can read the Holy Quran in Arabic but may not be able to understand the meaning of what they read, and rely on translations. Going back to the original language and understanding it allows for much greater appreciation and value of what is being read and recited. Further to understanding clearer my faith, knowledge of the Arabic language also allowed me over the years to communicate with others, especially those from the Middle East, and to help out where it was necessary for those who needed someone to translate.
In a recent conversation with the Principal of Codrington College, Reverend Michael Clarke, he was also highlighting the need to have persons with knowledge of the ancient Biblical languages like Aramaic and Hebrew. Jesus spoke these languages, and while Aramaic is not widely spoken it is still present among some tribes in the world today. Semitic languages are wonderful languages offering a beauty of speech unparalleled in languages of Latin origin.
Some may argue that with today’s technology, learning another language is redundant and unnecessary as many phone apps allow for the user to type in a word or phrase and voila! you have that word or phrase in almost every language on earth. And that may be true, but effective communication makes it important that one can speak to and with the other person using all the necessary tones and intonations necessary to get one’s message across. Again, relying on apps can mean that the message gets lost in translation.
The ability to communicate in one’s own language is as important as well, and that brings me back to where I started. Many of our young people are now influenced by the abbreviated way in which they communicate via social media. It has certainly lessened their vocabulary skills and English language abilities. The formalities of greetings in settings that require such are now replaced with the “hi” and the “bye”. In my job, I interact regularly with job seekers and I witness among many, an inability to communicate effectively and appropriately in the formal setting they are in. This certainly puts them at a disadvantage. These are all characteristics that require our attention and correction.
To help Barbados regain that position of punching above its weight, we all must heed the call of the Prime Minister and her Government to focus on our communication abilities and seek to enhance them even more.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)