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.