Friday 24 May 2013

Indistinguishable from Magic

3.    The Third Law

Close enough

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.

We got a fair few taxis around the place and lots of them had a similar phone/ translator set-up to the one in Ulsan, given that Hong Kong as a territory is at least bilingual (and probably tri- if you count Mandarin). It’s less of a novelty for me now, but all of the Brits remarked upon it. It was, if nothing else, a safe topic of conversation when thrown together with people who are probably very nice but you don’t really know all that well, as is so often the way at weddings.

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?


  1. Though a North American, I actually know who Ferguson is! Can't say I know much or care about him, but that's a fine put down, and a truly sophisticated understanding of where his player comes from. Well played.

    Yes, unlingualism is aberrant. Jared Diamond in "The World until Yesterday" points out that in PNG children learn several languages from their family and playmates as a matter of course, and that conversations in larger groups happen with several languages in use at the same time. He admits this was a bugger for him. We've had bilingual drinking sessions in Japan, but imagine if we had European and African friends with us, and English didn't become the default (or even Japanese).

    Never mind that 10% of the kids here have other DNA than just Japanese, whatever 'Japanese' is, their teachers being stamped off the 'ware-ware' assembly line cannot compute how to deal with different: even though they have terms like 'kikokushijo', or the less thoughtful, 'hafu' (I prefer 'hybrid' for mine). 'Outside context Problem':

    "most civilizations would encounter just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop."

    That sounds like Japan's demographic, economic and ecological future.

    1. A bit off topic this, but would you reccomend The World Until Yesterday? I've read a couple of his others; Guns, Germs, and Steel is obviously somethign of a classic, and Collapse was thought provoking but more uneven. I've seen fairly mixed reviews for his latest, so would be interested in your take.

      Other than that, yes.

    2. I agree about "Collapse", and you will feel the same about "The World...". However, "Guns, Germs..." is a hell of an act to follow. I'd be quite proud of myself if I had managed to write either of the other two books. "Guns, Germs..." is a profoundly convincing piece of historical revision: 'the West ' is ascendant for reasons of luck, which are due to location, for the most part. It's so convincing that all other broad historical points of view look asinine (as do all of the academics who've argued against it trying to protect their wee fiefdoms - 'The reason that academic fights are so vicious is because the stakes are so SMALL.').

  2. You hear it sometimes from the older salaryman crowd... "Would be nice to get back to when we were on top. For one thing, we wouldn't have to worry so much about speaking English..." I'd say the same is true for Americans, but having grown up in California, from the time I was a kid people were saying, "you need to learn Spanish, son. The times they are a changin'..."

    New Yorkers and New Englanders had a hard enough time with English so who was gonna ask them to learn another language...

    1. Sometimes when I do my 'Introduction to Debate' class I play devil's advocate and argue that Japanese students shouldn't learn English, because Chinese would be much more useful for them in the future. They responses are predictably depressing, but the more often I make the arguments, the less I feel I'm having to force them.

  3. I remain happy that, despite living in the US, I at least live in a city where multiethnic, multilingual kids are, if still a minority, common enough to be unremarkable. I have yet to hear a skeptical voice about raising my kids bilingual, only envy. What continually surprises me though are the parents who emigrate to the US, but don't bother to teach their kids the parental native tongue. WHY ARE YOU HANDICAPPING YOUR CHILDREN??? I can understand this a generation or two ago, but now? My big worry is that the kids' second language will be as useful as Latin once they're older.

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    1. Such glowing praise! In a way, Anonymous is 100% right....
      Also, late props for the Culture reference.

    2. I dunno, that 'could' is almost insultingly ambiguous. "Well you could help them, you know, instead of churning out this useless pap."

      As for your kids' L2, I reckon Japan has, almost despite itself, a good few decades of pop-cultural capital left in its tanks yet. If nothing else they can set themselves up as manga experts or something. Though if either of my boys wanted to go down that route I imagine we'd end up having one or two fairly serious conversations...