Utility versus Beauty

Cristina Mateos is our Catalan intern here at EuroTalk, working on translating and recording our maths apps. In her blog post she explores a reason for learning languages that is often forgotten.

Utility versus Beauty.

Utility: Hammers, zips, kettles, light bulbs, electricity, mobile phones.

Beauty: Handwritten postcards, dawns, coffee smell, lovers looking into each others’ eyes, handknitted scarves.

ToolsThe world where I live stores useful belongings in closed wardrobes and turns on the radio so as not to listen to the silence around. As a Spanish teacher, I sell my courses by reminding these ‘utility users’ of the fact that 500 million people speak Spanish around the world. It is therefore extremely practical to be able to communicate in this language and to display that knowledge (especially if it comes with an official certificate) on one’s résumé. And I really believe that… and I am more than pleased with zips and light bulbs. But I feel sorry for the dawns. I feel sorry for the dawns and for language learners turning into language users. I would like my students to be able to ask for directions in Sevilla, complete a business deal with a big enterprise in Buenos Aires or get a train ticket in any Spanish train station, but I also want them to be fascinated by the beauty of my language.

Los rinocerontes no pueden leer. This is probably the most pointless sentence ever, unless you meet a woman crying in disappointment because a rhino isn’t answering her love letters, and you find it necessary to clarify for her that rhinos cannot read. But the sentence itself: its sonority, the combination of the ‘e’ letters together, the way grammar is used in it, the choice of the masculine gender instead of the feminine… it moves language away from usefulness and places it closer to poetry. Don’t you find it amazing how it’s possible to play with a language and build nonsense sentences? Making up words – and this is something, as language learners, that we constantly do when trying to refer to concepts we don’t know the name for – just by using common lexical rules? (Like The mugness of a morning, or This dog is so killable when it starts barking in the middle of the night.) Have you ever fallen in love with a word in your own language just because of the way it sounds, as if it were a piece of music with no meaning at all apart from the feelings it causes for you? If not, I can suggest one in English that I love: wibble. And I can provide one in Spanish too… barítono. Beautiful as a handknitted scarf.

Let me come back to the point. As a Catalan speaker, I feel also sorry for my second first language. Catalan has been left apart so many times in the name of utility that too often I need to make a real effort to keep on using it. I have been told that Spanish is more practical. More and more parents in non-English speaking countries choose a school for their children taking into account nothing but the number of hours their children are going to be taught English, because English (and now probably also Chinese?) is the Future.

Then, in Utility’s name… we can close small shops and open more and more supermarkets. We can burn poetry books and publish more instruction manuals. We can forget about nice roasts and pies and cheesecakes, and ingest vitamins and protein pills every morning.

But if, like me, you feel sorry for the dawns, then learn another language.



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