How language promotes history & empathy

JCU International

JCU's international events include Harmony Day and Café International.

Written By

Hannah Gray | Mathew Currie


College of Arts, Society and Education | College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

18 February 2022

Related Study Areas

Celebrating our world's languages

Communication is a vital part of human connection and communicating in one’s own language is an integral part of protecting and promoting one’s culture and heritage. JCU’s Dr Florence Boulard shares four benefits of maintaining mother languages and learning new languages.

1. Language plays an important role in culture and history.

Language, particularly a mother language, deepens our sense of place and community. For Florence, her mother language plays a key part in her past as  well as her future.

“I’ve been a language teacher for many years now and taught many language students. It’s been my privilege to teach them my mother language,” she says. “I’m also the proud mother of two beautiful children and, like all mums, I want my children to grow up happy and healthy. But in my case — being a migrant to Australia and part of the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) community — I strive for my children to grow up knowing the language of their grandparents.

“I want my children to be able to communicate with their papi and mamie, their tonton and tantine, and be able to laugh at the jokes their cousins make. That’s why events like La journée internationale de la langue maternelle [International Mother Language Day] are so important because it emphasises the value of such cultural and familial connection.”

Continuing to speak, or maintaining, one’s mother language also prevents that language from being lost. An estimated 40 per cent of the almost 7,000 existing languages are threatened, with many already disappearing. “Many of the languages spoken across the planet today are not part of the digital world, either, which makes it very hard to help them survive,” Florence explains.

“Engaging in the process of learning more than one language or maintaining your proficiency in your mother tongue is part of keeping language heritage alive.”

Discover Languages at JCU

2. Knowledge of another language gives you access to a range of personal and professional opportunities.

In terms of opportunities, Florence summarises the role of languages quite simply: the more languages you know, the more doors are open to you.

“From a professional point of view, the more languages you speak, the more resources and opportunities you have access to. From enjoying media and publications in another language to studying or working in another country, speaking another language gives you access to the cultural richness that language offers. If you speak only one of the 7,000 languages that are out there, you may miss out on such opportunities.

“From a personal point of view, engaging with another language will give you access as well as appreciation for not only another culture and way of life, but for the people who speak that language,” Florence says. “You can engage with others on a different level when you speak their native language with them.”

Florence's son browsing French-language children's books.

Supplied by Florence Boulard.

3. Engaging with language develops your cognitive abilities as well as your empathy.

Speaking as a physical action is much more complex than we tend to think, and using even basic language is much more impressive than we may realise.

“Because we use language every day without really thinking about it, we can forget that it’s actually a very complicated skill,” Florence says. “As a child, we put in a lot of effort to master language, but as we grow up, we forget the complexity of what we learnt.  Mastering a language is, in fact, a deeply intellectual and physical process.

“We use language every day without remembering the challenge it was for us to initially be able to produce a word. In the context of second language acquisition, we are reminded of the challenge it is just to be able to produce a sound with the right inflection.”

Learning a new language doesn’t just challenge our cognitive abilities; it also develops our empathy. Florence explains that when we learn a second language with another person or in a group setting, we are activating the mirror neurons in our brains. This class of neuron is active when we perform a specific motor act while observing a similar act performed by another individual. Can you remember your primary school teacher helping you sound out your reading? Your mirror neurons enabled you to master the act by practicing what your teacher demonstrated.

“When we are in a situation with others who are also learning a second language, or activating our mirror neurons, we are able to relate to each other as we learn from each other. We know the difficulty of trying and the pride of successfully forming a complete sentence in another language. The shared experience gives us greater empathy,” Florence says.

“That empathy will translate outside of that setting, too. Some people can even be frustrated by others speaking English with an accent. We tend to judge a little bit too fast when someone sounds different to us. Just because someone speaks with an accent doesn’t mean they don’t understand the language or that their brain isn’t working as well as yours. It might even be their third or fourth language. I think it takes empathy to appreciate the beauty of diverse types of people speaking the same language in unique ways.”

“Unless we are reminded of the challenge it is to process, comprehend and use another language, it can be hard for us to listen with empathy.”

JCU Senior Lecturer Dr. Florence Boulard

Florence's daughter and father reading together.
Florence's children and parents reunited.
Left: Florence's daughter and father reading together. Right: Florence's children and parents reunited after two years apart. (Supplied by Florence Boulard.)

4. Language enables us to create meaningful relationships within our communities.

Language plays a key role in human connection and has the potential to change our entire lives based on how we use it. For Florence, learning English led to the life she leads today.

“I come from a very rich cultural background. I grew up in Noumea, New Caledonia and my first language is French. When I moved to Australia as an international student, I had to learn English. If someone had told me back then that fifteen years later, I would be married to an English-speaking man and raising children in an English-speaking world, I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case. From a personal point of view, the process of learning another language — English in this case — has helped me to form strong connections with people in a different country and who speak a different language than mine.”

Florence says making such connections doesn’t have to be preceded by mastering a new language. “It’s not always about becoming proficient in a language. It’s valuable even to just open the door in another language. Even just a few words will enable you to start creating relationships with others. I’ve been in Australia for over twenty years and if someone on the street says to me, ‘bonjour’ or ‘merci’, it will always make me smile because it’s unexpected!

“French is quite commonly spoken, and I still get excited to hear it. Imagine if someone greeted you like that when your native language is spoken by less than one  per cent of the world’s population, such as the indigenous languages that exist across the Asia Pacific region. It would really make a person smile and can spark a new relationship for you in your community.”

Want to know more about the important role languages play in our everyday lives? Read more from Florence about the work of translators, studying French at JCU, and multilingualism in the Pacific context.

Discover JCU Arts and Social Science

Dig deeper into what creates our unique cultures and societies. Discover how an understanding of human systems and relations can equip you to make a difference.