Modern Languages: Why It Matters by Katrin Kohl

The Blurb On The Back:

It might seem as if globalisation is making the whole world speak English.  But spend time in any major city and you are likely to encounter a cornucopia of languages.  Even monolingual people have different ways of speaking to their bosses or teachers, their intimate friends or their pets.  And if you live in India or Nigeria, you might use five different languages during a typical day.

Katrin Kohl makes a passionate case for why we must embrace languages in all their diversity.  When you study a language, you open a unique doorway into the world, immerse yourself in a different way of seeing, and discover new ways of communicating with people from different cultures on their terms.  Kohl argues that language diversity is of vital importance to human societies, sustaining the complexity of human nature, culture and technology.  We should care about preserving it as much as we care about preserving the diversity of our biological world. 

You can order MODERN LANGUAGES: WHY IT MATTERS by Katrin Kohl from Amazon UKWaterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at Oxford University.  This very readable book makes a convincing case for why it is important to study modern languages, how they offer a deeper means of connecting with people and thinking about culture and ideas and makes interesting points about the benefits and limits of AI translation programmes.  As universities and schools increasingly cut language programmes, this is an important counterweight.

I picked up this book because I’ve been concerned at the news at universities and schools looking to cut language programmes from their curriculum, either due to budget pressures (including lack of interest from prospective students), a perception that they are “too hard” and can therefore hurt important grade statistics or because of political pressure to focus time and resources on other subjects such as STEM.  So I figured that this book would help me to make arguments for why studying languages remains important and, for me, Kohl fully fulfilled that.

This is a short book that gives an overview of the main reasons why modern languages matter.  Although Kohl is an academic, the book is easy to read and her arguments straightforward to follow.  In essence, she draws out how language give you the ability to connect with the culture, networks and social contexts of other societies.  She talks about lane as a way to understand identity, discover new ways of thinking and living and understanding differences between societies.  She looks at how people learn languages and discusses the need to immerse yourself in a different culture and how diversity of language is important in terms of protecting minority rights, with lingua francas capable of being used to oppress minority groups.  Particularly good is a section on the impact of colonialism and globalisation on cultural identity where Kohl draws out the importance of diversification, especially in trying to decolonialise.

I was particularly interested in her comments on the use of AI in translation and how despite improvements in machine learning, translation is never just a matter of knowing what the words are.  She illustrates this by using extracts from Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Camus’s The Plague to show why translation isn’t just a matter of looking at the words, but how understanding the culture and the subtleties of the various words add new layers of meaning.  She also explains how cultural history goes into lingual idioms as well, which I found fascinating.

All in all, I found this a really interesting read where Kohl’s passion for the subject thoroughly comes through and she definitely made me think about all the benefits that studying a modern language conveys.  On that basis, I think this is well worth a couple of hours of your time because you will come away rethinking what studying a language means and the benefits it will give you.   

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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