Journalists Who Know Foreign Languages Uncover Hidden Stories

The 24/7 news cycle has made a race out of journalism. There are financial rewards for a publication breaking a major story and the difference can be a matter of minutes.

What are the casualties of this mad dash for eyeballs? Some say quality. It’s not easy to do great writing – let alone great research and fact-checking – on a compressed deadline. Slow journalism still exists, but columns and opinion pages are usually dedicated to the conversations everyone’s already having.

So where are the stories that can make a journalist’s career?

It’s pretty common nowadays for journalists to spend hours on X (formerly known as Twitter), scouting out new events and perspectives before they enter the public consciousness. The internet makes it feel like all the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, but is it really?

Certainly, incredible stories are being witnessed by human beings every day, but only a fraction of the world’s population actively participates in the global discourse. About half of us live in cities. More than 30% of us aren’t online at all, and the overwhelming majority of people do not speak conversational English.

An enormous amount of information is generated in the very online, very urban, very global, English-language sphere. Within 5 minutes of interesting new information appearing, there’s already a discourse. In 20 minutes there’s analysis. In less than a day, someone has appeared who can claim to speak authoritatively on the topic.

Human beings in this sphere witness incredible things, but they don’t stay incredible for long, because soon enough everyone has witnessed them.

Stories that begin outside the main arteries of communication, on the other hand, take longer to enter the central flow, if they make it in at all. Is that because they’re less interesting or important, or are there other factors at play?

In many ways, technology has broken down language barriers. It’s now easy to access content and experiences from all over the world, but that might be a double-edged sword. For the average college-educated person, perhaps there’s no longer much confidence that there’s anything new, anything outside of their model of the world.

But journalism still has the power to transport us to unknown places, challenge our preconceptions, and awaken our sense of wonder.

Journalists Who Know Foreign Languages Uncover Hidden Stories

Improving storytelling with foreign languages

Multilingual journalists, by virtue of their linguistic and cultural competencies, become mediators between different social systems. They can see nuances and layers of meaning that monolingual journalists may overlook. This ability allows them to challenge dominant narratives, deconstruct stereotypes, and offer alternative perspectives.

Journalists who work in countries with censorship or state-controlled media have to rely on their international colleagues in order to do the often dangerous job of disseminating information. Organized and white-collar crime often flies under the radar, particularly in corrupt regimes, because local journalists lack the resources or connections to flush them out.

In other words, learning a foreign language is a gateway to hidden stories.

And that’s before we even think about how linguistic skills can enrich a journalist’s storytelling capabilities.

Not only is there a wealth of research on the general cognitive benefits of learning languages, but for journalists in particular there’s the promise of being able to access different ways of seeing the world that will reveal new angles to particular events.

Journalism relies on dialogue to be effective. It’s all too easy to assume that our dialogue cannot be improved, that everything intended to be disclosed has been disclosed, and that the person we are speaking to has transmitted their knowledge to us. In reality, the search for understanding is never over.

Knowing a language is a powerful way to demonstrate a serious interest in a culture and earn the trust of its speakers. Particularly in multicultural environments, minority groups may have to navigate a maze of claimed allies and make difficult decisions about how safely they can be entrusted with information.

For example, CNN’s chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward has won awards for her reporting of conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. Her proficiency in the Arabic and Russian languages allowed her to quickly build relationships and get insider perspectives in her reporting.

Similarly, the Dutch journalist Thomas Erdbrink was able to do unprecedented reporting from Iran and Afghanistan due to his knowledge of Farsi.

Big stories like the Panama Papers have required the sifting through of enormous amounts of data in many different languages. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists developed their own process combining technology and the language skills of its members in order to identify relevant information.

Multilingual journalists have an advantage

A new language is a powerful skill

In terms of literary skill, foreign languages also open up a new world of idioms and structures, not to mention showing the learner another dimension in the relationship between sound and meaning. This alone can mean understanding people better, listening more keenly for the subtle emotional cues that tell us something outside the word itself.

Time constraints can make an undertaking like learning a new language seem infeasible to journalists. The prevailing belief is that you need countless hours of study and practice, making it a daunting task. It may appear that some individuals have a natural aptitude for foreign languages, which can be demotivating if you don’t consider yourself to be one of them.

Moreover, as more people worldwide are learning English, it might seem counterintuitive to invest time in learning other languages. It might feel almost like a step backward when communication is increasingly converging on a smaller number of global languages.

But such ideas are misleading. The rewards of language learning aren’t all crowded together toward the end of the journey. On the contrary, surprising a native speaker of a language you’re interested in with a few phrases can lead to moments of delight that are difficult to compare with any other aspect of human experience.

What’s more, the potential cognitive benefits from language learning have surprisingly little overlap with those from other “brain training” activities. You might think that solving crosswords and anagrams in your native language uses similar parts of your brain to those involved in processing a foreign language, but that’s not entirely the case.

With the wealth of resources available today, learning a new language can be incorporated into your daily routine. By taking advantage of digital resources like language apps and podcasts, it can become a coffee-break activity, no more demanding than a crossword. Lingvist, for example, is an extremely efficient way to build vocabulary, with impressive results achieved in just 10 minutes per day. 

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