Thought Leadership

The Italian cuckoo

By Colin Walls

I have just returned from a short vacation. We have been to Italy. We visited Padua, where my daughter is living for a year, and Bologna, where we have some friends. It was a good trip in lots of ways. A little sunshine was nice. In the UK, we had a scorching March, that made us think that Summer had come early, followed by the wettest April on record, and the rain continues.

I always feel that traveling around Europe is a rich experience, as every country is different. We traveled less than 1000 miles and found ourselves in a place with a different climate, culture, architecture, cuisine and language. The last of these got me thinking about the whole nature of human communication …

As I have talked about before, I only really speak one language. And, as an English speaker, there are no particularly strong incentives to learn another specific language. So, I have dabbled a bit. I did French and German at school and I have had a couple of bouts of Italian classes – one back in the 1990s and again more recently. The recent classes in Italian piqued my interest for a while, but of course that waned with no exposure to the language.

However, being in Italy meant that I was continuously exposed to spoken and written Italian. Could I hold a conversation? No. Could I even understand that much? Not really. But it did inspire me to have a go from time to time. I have picked up some new words and I am sure that my pronunciation is improving. But, of course, a few days in the country, even with the help of long-suffering friends, who do their best to answer my endless stream of language questions, is not really going to help. I have a vague plan, which is far from being scheduled, to make an extended [perhaps 3 months] visit, which would include formal tuition, along with as many opportunities to practice as possible. One day.

I was discussing this idea with our host on Saturday evening. We were in their garden in the countryside outside of Bologna. He was endeavoring to coax the barbecue into life and I was providing moral support – chatting and keeping his glass topped up. Suddenly, our discussion was interrupted by a sound. To me, it was a sound that is totally evocative of Summer in England [unlike our current weather!]: a cuckoo. There are few bird songs that everyone knows, but I would bet this is one of them. But this was not England; I was in Emilia-Romagna. But the cuckoo sounded exactly the same.

This reminded me of some interesting research. Language is not unique to humans. A number of other creatures have quite sophisticated means of communication. However, the idea of a foreign language does seem to be special to us. It is not just cuckoos that sound the same everywhere, but just about every other species, that has anything resembling a language, does not create a wide range of variations. Typically two animals, born and raised on different continents, can understand one another with no learning required.

I guess that it is obvious. Our ability to communicate very complex ideas is intrinsic to our intelligence and has become central to our society. So, it is no surprise that numerous diverging communication systems have evolved in a few hundred thousand years. The research I read suggested that there are about 7000 distinctly different communication systems [or languages] in use today.

I had a worrying thought. If the diversity in language is tightly coupled to our intellect, what will be the effect of the increasing universality of English, which is driven very strongly by the Internet? Will our thoughts and creativity become more limited? I think that I [maybe everyone] should learn another language without delay …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at