Saturday 30 April 2016

On a multilingual library

I really want to head this post 'on multilingual libraries', plural, but I don't know of any others apart from the one I visited last Thursday in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There ought to be one in every city where there are multilingual communities - which means all of them. (So if you know of another, do say.)

I was there because I'd agreed to become patron of the library, which was set up by the Kittiwake Trust and which opened last August. I gave a short talk about the need for libraries in general and for multilingual libraries in particular. I paste it below. It includes some of the points I made in an earlier post (January 2011) about the need to save libraries, and adds a summary of the research into the benefits of bilingualism. (For those especially interested in bilingual myths and realities, there's no better place than François Grosjean's blog, 'Life as a bilingual' .)

I paste below a couple of pictures Hilary took while we were there, which I hope hint at the scale of the project and the diversity it contains. They have books in over 60 languages so far, aimed at all ages. Many can be loaned out. Membership is a fiver a year - and for those who would find even that cost too much, they operate the beautiful 'pay it forward' system, where those who can afford it pay in advance for those who can't, such as people belonging to local refugee support groups. Parents with children are welcome to drop in, and there's plenty of space to sit, read, and play, That was one of the most noticeable things about the library: its welcoming, colourful, playful atmosphere. There's more than just books here. Artefacts from other cultures are sprinkled about, and I imagine these will grow as the project develops.

A particular delight was to see that the library doesn't restrict itself to language diversity but to dialect diversity as well. The Newcastle project has books on Tyneside dialects and other varieties of English, as well as local history - an important piece of PR, as many people unfortunately still can't see the point of bilingualism, but they begin to get an inkling when they realise that their own local dialect raises precisely the same issues of identity, pride, and cultural history.

The library is on the upper floor of the Eldon Garden shopping centre, in the centre of Newcastle. If you travel by car, the entrance is on the seventh floor. That sounds like a long way up, but from the inside it's just an escalator ride up, round the corner from John Lewis. Its phone number is 07776 684940. Its website is here , and it's on Facebook. So, if you're in or around Newcastle, my recommendation is to call in and become a member or a volunteer. And if you have any spare books in other languages taking up space at home, a donation is very welcome.

Why multilingual libraries matter

I spy, with my little eye, two words beginning with ... L.
It's a languages library.

L proves to be an interesting letter in English, because it introduces so many words strongly associated with the venture you have launched here: Literature. Languages. Living. Loving. Lending. Learning. Leisure. Legacy ...

How best to capture the spirit, the ethos, the value of libraries? Over the centuries, people have marvelled at them. They have been called a temple, a refuge, a second home, a leisure centre, a discovery channel, an advice bureau. It is a place where you can sit and draw the shelves around you like a warm cloak. When we gain a library we gain a source of wellbeing. The inscription over the door of the library at the ancient city of Thebes read (in classical Greek): 'The medicine chest of the soul'.

The lauding of libraries crosses centuries and cultures. First and foremost they are seen as repositories of knowledge, windows into history. 'A great library', said Canadian scientist George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901), 'contains the diary of the human race.' And especially when it is multilingual.

The metaphor of a library as a treasure trove is a recurrent figure. Let's bring together some famous personalities, and see what they have to say. Here is British poet and journalist John Alfred Langford (1823-1903): 'The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library.' And Malcolm Forbes (1919-90), the publisher of Forbes magazine, is in no doubt about the appropriateness of the wealth metaphor: 'The richest person in the world - in fact all the riches in the world - couldn't provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.' And this is writer Germaine Greer (1939- ): 'libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy'. For Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) it transcends life itself: 'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library'.

I like the reservoir metaphor - a library as a source of knowledge, waiting for us to simply turn on a tap. Like water, libraries are essential to our wellbeing, whatever our language background. As the American social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) said, 'A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.' It is a means of self-improvement, of advancement. Or, as poet and humorist Richard Armour (1906-89) put it in 1954:

Here is where people,
One frequently finds,
Lower their voice
And raise their minds.

And it brings together people from all walks of life.

Listen to the claim made by American cardinal Terence Cooke (1921-83): 'America's greatness is not only recorded in books, but it is also dependent upon each and every citizen being able to utilize public libraries.' Listen to American astronomer Carl Sagan:

'The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.'

Listen to science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92):

'I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.'

Have you noticed? I've just quoted from a Roman Catholic cardinal, a scientist, and a science fiction novelist. All sending out the same message. There can be few subjects like libraries to unite such disparate and distinguished minds.

As the British politician Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) once said: 'Libraries are not made; they grow.' That takes time. Behind each library, no matter how small, is a history of growth, watered by the professionalism of the library's caretakers and the enthusiasm of its readers. It is not an enterprise that can be measured by numbers. It is quality that counts, not quantity. No political body should fall into the trap of judging the success of a library solely in terms of the number of its visitors. That lone reader in the corner: who knows what personal potential will be realized in the future because of today's library experience? As American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said: 'What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists.' If it exists, it will be used. And French writer Victor Hugo (1802-85) sums it up: 'A library implies an act of faith'.

And a multilingual library most of all, because of all the benefits that knowing more than one language can bring.

Bilingual benefits

It's normal to be bilingual. When we look around the globe, we find that three-quarters of the world’s population use at least two languages in their everyday lives, and half use at least three. Only a few nations - chiefly those who once had powerful colonies - have stayed monolingual. To be bilingual is the usual human condition.

You will still meet people who hold old-fashioned beliefs about bilingualism. You might hear somebody say that trying to speak more than one language will make your brain tired. Or that the two languages will get mixed up. Or that knowing two languages will slow you down when you're doing your schoolwork.

None of these beliefs are true. The brain has over 100 billion connections (called neurons) that it uses to receive, store, and send information. A language doesn't take up much of that brain space. People who speak languages like English and Spanish use only a few dozen sounds, a few thousand ways of making sentences, and a vocabulary of a few tens of thousand words. That might seem like a lot, but the brain handles it all easily. The evidence lies in the millions of people around the world who speak three, four, or five languages in their everyday lives without any trouble at all. And then there are the super-language-learners, who can handle twenty or thirty languages without their brain exploding. And anyone can be a super-language-learner. You just need a really good reason for learning each new language.

Many research studies have shown that learning more than one language is good for you - and learning lots of languages is especially good for you. Seven big pluses.

Being bilingual helps you to think more powerfully
Languages make people think in different ways. When you're speaking Spanish you think in one way; when you're speaking English you think in a different way. The mental exercise of moving from one language to the other makes your brain more active. It makes you more creative. It helps you solve problems more easily. And researchers have found out that being bilingual helps your brain to stay healthier when you grow old.

Being bilingual helps you to understand the world better
Language exists so that we can talk about the world to each other, and talk about ourselves and our feelings. Each language does this in its own way. The way Spanish talks about the world is different from the way English does. Every language, no matter how few speakers it has, tells us something unique about the way the world works. So, the more languages you know, the more you will come to understand what it is to be a human being on this planet.

Being bilingual helps you to feel proud of yourself
If you find yourself in a country where you don't speak the language, you're like a baby who can't talk. Learning another language, even to a limited level, removes the frustration of being unable to communicate when you find yourself in a place where it is spoken. You also feel you've really achieved something. You're right to feel proud of yourself, when you've learned another language.

Being bilingual helps you build friendships
We live in a world where a war can start because people have misunderstood each other. Learning each other's language can be an important step towards achieving cooperation among countries. Interpreters and translators are essential, but they can't replace the sense of mutual respect which comes from personal linguistic ability. Being able to speak someone else's language is the first step towards making them a friend.

Being bilingual stops you being scared of languages
The more languages you know, the more you come to understand how language works. You stop being frightened of languages and you find new languages easier to learn. You also become more aware of the characteristic features of your mother-tongue. English-speaking people often say they learned a lot about English grammar by seeing how it differs from other languages.

Being bilingual improves your social skills
Learning another language is to learn another culture and another way of behaving. As a result, bilingual people develop a broader range of social skills, and become more outward-looking. They are also likely to have a greater respect for the differences among cultures, and that can only be a good thing in a world where there is so much conflict.

Being bilingual can get you a better job
For most people, this is the best benefit of all. These days, many companies are international, and are looking out for people who can speak more than one language - and, even more important, who aren't frightened of learning new languages. These companies know they'll be more successful selling goods if they can do this in the language of the customer.

So, a multilingual library has a lot to celebrate. And perhaps at no better time than on the two big days of the year: Mother-tongue Day on 21 February and the European Day of Languages on 26 September. But the rest of the year too.


John Cowan said...

Queens, NY, is one of the most multilingual places on Earth, with about half of its 2.3 million residents born outside the U.S., and more than half of them with L1s other than English. No one race or ethnicity holds a majority position. Consequently, the Queens Public Library (administratively independent of the New York Public Library) is very much leading the way in multilingual branch public libraries. Some 12% of all its holdings are in languages other than English, for a total of about 60 languages. One branch carries substantial numbers of books in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Croatian, Russian, Portuguese, and Gujarati; another branch has a full 25% of its collection in Korean and Chinese taken together. NYPL, which is much larger (serving Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island as well as its world-class research collections) has about 8% non-English works, and the Brooklyn Public Library has about 10%. (These figures are several years old and have probably increased since then.)

By the way, the research showing the supposed cognitive advantages of bilingualism turns out to be as unreliable as the previous research showing its disadvantages (both a general part of the reproducibility crisis in the social sciences). Bilingualism is just normal, and people who have it seem to be neither better nor worse off cognitively than their monolingual counterparts. The social, cultural, and financial advantages (where there is no discrimination against it) are beyond doubt.

DC said...

Thanks for this example, John. Very interesting. I suppose several big libraries will have significant multilingual holdings. What I'd like to know is if there are any other examples of a library wholly devoted to multilingualism.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that all the recent research cognitive advantage into is unreliable, though I take your point about the pendulum swing. For readers who want to go into this further: Grosjean's review of the issue can be found on his blog ('The bilingual advantage: where do we go from here?'), along with some refs to research (in a post on 'Dementia, later-life cognition, and bilingualism') which allow him to conclude that 'bilingualism does appear to have a positive effect on later-life cognition'.

Tuulikki said...

I've assumed, in that invisible way that one assumes things and doesn't even realise it until those assumptions are proven wrong, that public libraries in most countries were multilingual, at least to some degree.

This must be because here in Finland all public libraries have books in many languages. Even the smallest local libraries serving small communities have at least a few dozen books in Swedish (second official language of Finland) and English, and a dozen in German, French and Russian as well as possibly some other languages. I think most of these languages have traditionally been 'on offer' so that Finns who have studied them at school can maintain and improve their language skills.

Big libraries, like the one in my hometown, Turku (smaller than Newcastle) have books in dozens of languages. When I read this blog post I dug up an article I remembered reading about the Turku City Library's multilingual collection (; unfortunately available only in Finnish, which is ironic considering its subject matter).

According to the article, the Turku city library has books in 118 languages. These books include also children's books, which are in fact some of the most loaned books in many languages. Of course in the case of very many of the 118 languages there's only a small number of books in each language - but the library nevertheless aims at providing at least a few books in all languages that are spoken within the city (there are 103 of those languages). The number of languages that are catered for has ballooned in recent decades as the result of immigration.

Having read this blog post about the multilingual library in Newcastle (which you mention is possibly the only one in the UK) I think it's quite admirable that Finnish libraries endeavour to offer reading material in all languages that are spoken in the respective communities, even if sourcing the books is often difficult. There's also a specialised multilingual library in Helsinki which serves the whole country - all other libraries can order books for their customers from the multilingual library's big collection.

This comment became much longer than I intended, but I hope it offers an interesting comparison to the libraries in the UK.

DC said...

A really interesting perspective. Thanks for sending such detail.

David Crosbie said...

Here in Edinburgh both the large Central Library and the small local libraries for the most part have multilingual elements. There are shelves with titles in alien alphabets, which must include — at least — Chinese, Urdu and Bengali, since these are the reading languages of large immigrant groups. I haven't spotted Polish or other East European language shelves, but I'm pretty sure they exist. Of longer standing are shelves with French, German, Italian and Spanish books — catering to indigenous learners as well as the odd expatriate.

What these books have in common seems to be that they are (mostly) for recreation. On the shelves where I can read the titles they are predominately prose fiction. On the other shelves there seem to be a lot of gaudy jackets, which suggests they're not the typical stuff you find on the non-fiction shelves in the rest of the library.

I recently performed a strange errand delivery unwanted books in Italian to a group of language learners. These were a bequest which didn't coincide with Library plans: some novels, which presumably duplicated what they already stocked, plus the books of the late owner's interest. And since that interest was i theological tracts, the Italian-learning group were a bit bemused.

This reminded me of a late friend and sometime colleague of my wife's who put in voluntary hours for a charity looking through books in Russian that had been bequeathed to a charity. He identified the books that could be sold to second-hand dealers, and the rest were sold for a pittance to pulp factories.

What these two stories point to is that a breadth of reading material is for the first generation of bilingual immigrants. If their children and grandchildren are bilingual, they're selectively so. For any interest or hobby that they take up and for all but one object of study, they can comfortably read about it in English. This can be true of the first generation. My wife lived her first thirty years in Russia, but now that she's no longer teaching she never feels a need to Russian other than recreationally.

A few years ago, she could have borrowed a range of books from the library of the Scotland-Russia Forum. But discontinued funding has caused them to downsize, until there was no room to accommodate the library and it was sold off.

Edinburgh being a capital city, there's a French Institute with what used to be called a library. But now the money goes not so much on book stock as on DVDs. And the former biblioteque is now a médiatheque. It reminds me of the British Council Library at the time that I was working in Warsaw. Despite protest, they were rapidly selling off books to make way for computer rooms and the like. And even when they were 'proper' libraries, each was sacked with books that at least in part followed a nation\'s soft-power agenda.

[I've hit the character limit, and must break off.]

David Crosbie said...

[This is, I think, the bit that i couldn't post earlier.]

To be truly bilingual, a library needs extensive storage stacks for all the books that are unlikely to be requested more than once in a blue moon. To stock such a library, there's a niche for a volunteer organisation catering for all the charities that receive book bequests, which could sell the less popular books for a better price than the pulpers will pay.

Volunteers can work wonders. I remember a delightful radio talk by a young American who spent his weekends collecting books in Yiddish from old immigrants whose children would never read them. Much of his time was spent listening to happy recollections of when the readers had in their youth located or saved up for each treasured volume.

Speaking of the French Institute, there's language course I attend in the hope of slowly rising above my intermediate plateau. It's been based on press cuttings, but the format will have to change because the Institute no longer thinks it can afford newspaper subscriptions.

Against this gloomy note, it's now possible for subscribers to Edinburgh Public Libraries to access online a huge range of newspapers and magazines from around the world.. In this area, if in nowhere else, this could be a golden age for multilingual library access.

DC said...

Fascinating, David. Thank you.

John Cowan said...

The Kittiwake library has announced that about 1/3 of their books are in English, which puts the matter at once far beyond that of large municipal libraries or even the Queens branch libraries.

Amy Thompson said...

I didn't know there were any multilingual libraries in the UK. I visited Vancouver recently and was most impressed by their multilingual collection. I have never seen so many children's books in Chinese in a library, videos, magazines as well. Adult collections too. I don't believe London, with its multilingual population, has such provision.