I was in Hong Kong not so long ago for a friend’s wedding. I know him from uni and a few other folks had flown out from various points around the globe. It was something of a mini-reunion and was great to catch up with them all again. It was also nice to be able to walk into Marks and Spencer and buy a slightly disappointing plastic-wrapped prawn sandwich, then complain stridently about it in English. Simple pleasures.
I got similar reactions when I described the set-up to friends and colleagues in Japan. In fact they remind me a lot of the reactions I get when we say that we’re trying to raise our sons bilingual. Lots of 「いい、ね!」with a few more skeptical voices thrown in regarding late development or that trying to learn two languages will mean not being able to speak either ‘properly’, whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. In a symmetry that I can’t help but find funny, the reactions from people in the UK are broadly similar.
Here’s the thing though, if we’re happy defining ‘most’ as anything more than 50%, then most people in the world are bilingual (which for the sake of argument let’s assume means roughly equal comfort communicating it two different languages). Speaking one language at home and another for professional purposes is both necessary and the norm across most of India, and lots of southern China. Frankly just with those two you’re encompassing a sizable proportion of the global population before you even throw in the Philippines and most of the rest of SE Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, S. America… In fact pretty much everywhere except parts of Western Europe, North America, and Japan.
Speaking one language only, that’s the unusual thing. That’s the thing policy makers and commentators blithely ignore when they make their pronouncements on the importance of a single national language. Bilingualism isn’t some sort of arcane fellowship that requires its members to swear an oath on the entrails of a sacrificed chicken, it’s just the way it is for most people around the world.
It’s only a big deal if you make it one. In the traditional prospective parent flurry of anxious reading I embarked on prior to the birth of our eldest son I went through a fair number of books titled Raising Bilingual Children or similar. A lot of the advice was vague or flat-out contradictory, and essentially boiled down to, ‘Do what feels right, but don’t make a big thing out of it.” In fact, the only consistent piece of practical advice across everything I read was not to let other people treat your child’s bilingualism as a party piece. If monolingual friends goad your kids to, ‘Say something in Japanese/English,’ then politely but firmly tell them to get fucked.
Bilingual kids are not performing monkeys. They’re not pulling rabbits from a hat. In fact, on a global scale, it’s the monoglot who’s the sideshow freak in this situation. It’s why I’ll always take a returnee or otherwise bilingual student aside after our first lesson instead of talking to him in front of this classmates; it just forestalls all the inevitable demands to know exactly what we were talking about, as though we weren’t just gauging each other’s level of ability and interest but instead exchanging the secret codewords for The Global English Conspiracy.
|Why do you think I insist on shaking hands?|
There is no conspiracy. There are no codewords.* The only ‘secrets’ to language acquisition are motivation and opportunity, and when monoglots express surprise or amazement towards bilinguals they’re saying more about their local environment than the global one. Like the caveman with the cigarette lighter or a spearfisherman in a coracle encountering a naval destroyer for the first time, it’s a self-imposed version of the Outside Context Problem. It’s a fundamentally nearsighted example of confusing the local for the global and assuming that because no-one near you does a thing that means it can’t or shouldn’t be done at all.
To bring it all back to football, when the English press were falling all over themselves to praise Arsène Wenger’s continental sophistication Alex Ferguson sneered that, “They say he’s an intelligent man? Speaks five languages? I’ve got a fifteen-year-old from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages.” For all that Fergie was a cantankerous old hypocrite who would have sworn up was down if he’d thought it would have got one of his players off a simulation charge, he’s actually right about this one.
Which reminds me, there’s this funny story about the time my brother and I went to Old Trafford…
*But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?