18 March 2010

Bilingual and Lovin' It

I speak two languages. Many of you do that and more.

In English, I do fine. In Italian, well, let’s just say I have the language skills of a bright four year-old, but I’m working on it. In French? Don’t ask, and for certain don’t ask in French.

Still, I would be considered bilingual by scholarly definition, and therefore by Francois Grosjean, author of the newly published book “Bilingual: Life and Reality.”

Grosjean writes, “In a bicultural’s lifetime, cultures can wax and wane, become dominant for a while before taking a secondary role. In my own case, I feel that I have changed my dominant culture four times since becoming bicultural: it was English in my teenage years, French until age twenty-eight, American until I was forty, and it has been Swiss since then.”

When I was very small, living on Wood Street in San Francisco, Yiddish was the lingua franca; everyone shouted to everyone else in that friendly hybrid of a Jewish middle-European language. Then came English, Polish, Russian, you name it.

Soon the Yiddish faded away, through attrition and a general move to less ghetto-ish neighborhoods. When I got around to reading Leo Rosten’s books “The Joys of Yiddish” and the hilarious “The Education of H*y*m*a*n  K*a*p*l*a*n” I felt somehow at home again.

There are something like 7,000 languages alive in the world today. Europe has 239 of them; there are as many as 1,310 languages spoken on various islands in the Pacific Ocean. “With so many languages in the world... a lot of contact is bound to take place between people of different language groups,” Grosjean writes.

Bilingualism can result from geographic proximity, immigration, acquisition in school, global trade, military invasions, deafness, even colonization. In fact, the person who doesn’t have some familiarity with one or more other languages is rare.

In the US after English, Spanish is the most frequently used first or second language of some 28 million speakers. After Spanish “one finds several Asian languages (Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese) as well as European languages... A number of languages that were in the top ten in the middle of the 20th century, such as Yiddish and the Scandinavian languages, had fallen off strongly by the census of 2000... Yiddish speakers had gone from 1.7 million in 1940 to fewer than 200,000 in (that census) and it was mainly being spoken by elderly individuals.”

In this book Grosjean sets out to dispel fifteen myths, among them that bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages; that bilinguals have split personalities; that knowing two languages somehow hurts the development of children.

He starts with a story that can’t fail to draw you into this interesting book:

“In the span of a few hours this Monday morning, I bought croissants in French from the baker’s wife, who then served the next client in Swiss German; I accompanied my bilingual wife into town to meet her trilingual Italian-French-German friend; I stopped by my garage to have my car checked by a mechanic of Portuguese origin, who explained to me, in French, how the cooling system worked. While going from one place to another, I listened to the radio... and heard... Roger Federer in London, talking about the final he had played at Wimbeldon. He was tired, having... given interviews in his four different languages (Swiss German, German, French, and English).

“Now, as I am settling down at my desk, accompanied by the music of George Frideric Handel, a German-Italian-English trilingual, I can hear the children in the day-care center across the street singing songs in French and Italian.  Bilingualism is indeed present in practically every country in the world, in all classes of society, in all age groups. It has been estimated that half of the world’s population, if not more, is bilingual. This book is about them.”


Bilingual: Life & Reality by Francois Grosjean. Harvard University Press hard cover $25.95. ISBN 978-0-674-04887-4.

Interested readers can contact the author by means of his Web site.

The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n by Leo Rosten. Mariner Books paperback $12.00. ISBN 0156278111. From the publisher: “The humorous adventures of Hyman Kaplan, the irrepressible student at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults, and his personal war with the English language. A classic work of American humor.”

The New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (revised in 2003 by Lawrence Bush). Three Rivers Press paperback $19.95. ISBN 0609806920.


John Bear said...

On our grand tour honeymoon trip around Europe and Asia in a Citroen 2CV (with French plates and a USA oval sticker), Marina and I pulled into a remote Romanian village, where our arrival was a big deal. A group of about 20 schoolboys--9 or 10 years old--gathered 'round the car. Observing the plates, they began speaking in French. When Marina replied in her very minimal French, one of the lads said, in perfect English, "You don't speak French very well, do you?" And they all then spoke in English, one of five languages they were learning simultaneously in 4th grade.

I coulda been a contender. At the experimental elementary school I attended (a part of Hunter College), we started learning Spanish in 1st grade, from Señorita Hopstein. The Señorita spent the summer in Europe a year later, and when she returned, she had become Madame Rigrutsky, and had vowed never to speak Spanish again. We never found out why. Madame Rigrutsky taught us French for a year and then she was gone, along with the language program. So we started Algebra in 3rd grade instead.

ktahja said...

Hi Tony...often the fun of learning a second language is the struggle to get the meaning into English. I learned a bit of the native American language of the Hupa tribe and we learned the word for buzzard. When I asked the elder for a translation of what their word meant he said "Its mouth smells bad." Katy

paul in davis said...

Hi Tony,

Even though my parents are bilingual (English, Japanese) they purposefully never attempted to teach us kids a word of Japanese, for two reasons. One, they thought that it would cloud our minds and prevent us from learning proper English. Two, they used Japanese as their secret language. Check this out – they would talk about us right in front of us, at the dinner table. You’d hear your name in the middle of something and wonder what the heck they were talking about. This would bug the crap out of us. Later on, I took six years of Japanese courses from seventh through twelfth grade in an attempt to get in touch with my heritage, but mostly so I could figure out what my parents were saying. Today, I know about five words, maybe five or six phrases. When it comes to second languages, you either use it or lose it.

Growing up in Honolulu, my second language was Pidgin English. Pidgin is a mashup of English, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Tagalog, Korean, Samoan, and any other language that exists in the western half of the Pacific Rim (except for maybe Russian). Every statement ends with a preposition. When I came to California for college, my newfound friends would always ask me, “Why does everything you say sound like you’re asking a question?” When some mainland friends came to visit me in Honolulu, they could never understand what the locals were saying. This puzzled me. I would turn to them and say, “How come? I mean, he was speaking in English. You couldn’t tell?”

When I travel abroad I make sure to learn five phrases right off the bat: please, thank you, excuse me, how much does that cost, where is the toilet. “Hello” and “bye bye” seem so universal now that I’ll try to learn the words for “good morning”, “good afternoon”, “good evening”, and “goodbye”, but those phrases are not a priority. I usually learn “do you speak English?” later on, after I’ve mastered my key phrases. After all, I would think it would be painfully obvious to people that I’m an American after having mispronounced a few words of their language. I mean, that’s what Americans do – right? After a week or two, I’d get pretty good at the basics, even the accent. After a week or two back in the US, however, the words and phrases would slip out of my consciousness.

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