Reassessing the benefits of bilingualism

Why I’m happy to be a monoglot – or, “An American” as one joke has it.

comment1It was while waiting for a friend outside her German class that I read an article in the University Times bemoaning Ireland’s poor foreign language skills (“Breaking the language cycle”, Paul Glynn, 22 January). With my ears catching the occasional familiar word from the stream of guttural sounds emanating from the adjacent room, I sympathised with the writer’s arguments. But then I would: how I wish I could speak my mother’s mother’s mother tongue!

Benefits of learning a language

I wish I could tell people I speak German without running the risk that I’ll be found out; without being faced with the dilemma, upon being asked to demonstrate my claim, of either bailing out and losing some street cred or forging ahead to deliver my much-practised stock phrase, “Es tut mir leid dass diese Karte so spät ist – I’m sorry that this card is so late.” It sounds great to a non-speaker, but has its obvious draw-backs if the inquisitor has even the most basic fluency.

I wish when Germany scored the first of SEVEN goals against Brazil that I understood what that rather good-looking girl screamed in my ear as we hugged in celebration, she assuming my seven year old Germany jersey (bought when Podolski was good) was an indication of nationality. It wasn’t, and she soon suspected something of her mute acquaintance. Fear not, reader: her English was dangerously close to being perfect so, when she rejected me later that night, she was able to do so in my native tongue. It would appear, then, that I don’t even speak the language of love.

I wish that when employers looked at my Linkedin profile they could be impressed by someone who has focused themselves sufficiently to acquire a language and who could be expected to apply that focus in other areas. As it is, they see, “Irish: elementary proficiency. German: elementary proficiency.” And while language skills are supposedly much sought-after in the “jobs market”, there’s likely to be little demand for my elementary Germano-Gaelic speaking capabilities.

Above all, though, I wish I could think in another language. Wittgenstien said that the limits of his language are the limits of his world. Our capacity to interpret the world depends on our language. And with another language comes a new perspective; a new way of describing; a new way of thinking.

Efforts to learn German

I’ve fruitlessly tried several times to realise this wish. A few months ago I dusted off Mr Laing’s notes from my school days and set to work on the infamous “verb sheet”, a list of irregular verbs whose endings in each of the tenses are so unpredictable that not even quantum theory can be used to detect a pattern. I got as far as “to receive” – bekommen, bekommt, bekam, bekommen (I recite from memory) – but didn’t feel I was any closer to the promised land. I lost an hour to that. Another effort followed: the purchasing of Teaching-You German – “as easy as 1-2-3.” I can assure you that they misrepresented the efficacy of their product, because it is categorically not as easy as three consecutive numbers. I lost twenty-five quid to that.

In the face of these failures, I’ve largely accepted that the dream will never be realised and that I will forever be a monoglot – or “an American”, as one joke has it. And I’m fine with that. Totally cool. It doesn’t affect me. What does “doth protest too much” even mean? So what follows should not in any way be considered sour grapes.

Embracing English 

Near the end of the UT article the writer says, “the feeling that we ‘don’t need’ to learn other languages prevails” in Ireland; that because foreigners learn our language, we needn’t learn theirs. He presents that as being evidently misguided. And it got me thinking: is it really so preposterous a claim? Yes, it might be one made by the xenophobe or simpleton. But perhaps it’s also the one made by the rationalist. I need not expound on how the English language is utterly dominant: the pervasiveness of its film, literature, music, etc. speaks for itself. Perhaps, if there were to be a future rival, it would be Chinese. But while China is expanding economically, its cultural capital is not flourishing to anywhere near the same extent under its peculiar brand of socialism. Even if it were, the challenge of vanquishing the dominant lingua franca is almost impossible: there’s too much cultural and economic weight behind English. Never before has a language been so widely spoken and such inertia will mean English will still be by far the dominant language at the end of this century. If others are learning our language at an increasing rate and to a better standard than we can learn theirs, there seems little point in fighting what is a favourable tide.

On the face of it, though, the idea of Ireland being a hub of Chinese speakers in Europe is very enticing. Enda Kenny would be endlessly keen to welcome his Chinese counterpart, and there probably would be economic benefits.

But achieving that would be far from simple. The language-learning arm of the US State Department, responsible for training its diplomatic staff in foreign languages, grouped languages by how long it would take one of their students (who would receive expert tuition in small groups) to gain written and verbal fluency in them. It estimates that it takes around six-hundred classroom hours for the Romantic languages such as French and Spanish. By contrast, it estimates that the tonal Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean would take almost four times that amount. Given that only a quarter of LC students get an A or B (which I think is the minimum to be able to say you have anything more than elementary competency) in the comparatively much easier-to-learn languages of French, German and Spanish, it seems far-fetched to think that Irish students could achieve even moderate levels of fluency in one of the in-vogue but fiendishly difficult Eastern languages.

There is then another complication: the Chinese language has many dialects, the most spoken of which is Mandarin, the official language of the country. But the Cantonese dialect is the first language of those living in Honk Kong, the city which vies for the title of Asian financial centre. It’s also the primary language in Guangdong province, China’s most economically successful region. Mandarin and Cantonese are said to be largely mutually unintelligible, though they share the same alphabet. The same situation exists within Arabic, but to a much greater extent.

Happy to be a monoglot

When I was several paragraphs younger, I used to wish I could speak German. Ahh, who am I kidding, I still do wish it. But I also wish I could play the piano…and code…and draw…and do advanced maths…and juggle…and do angrywords [the cryptic ones]…and get past the first page of Finnegan’s Wake…and solve Rubick’s CubesTM. Learning a foreign language is admirable and no doubt has benefits: supposedly bilingualism bestows better memory, longer attention spans and a better ability to rapidly switch tasks. But I would rather spend the time it would take to learn a language doing something that would have an immediate and more tangible effect on my life. I’m happy that my sole language is English. And if you’ve a problem with that, you can póg mo thóin.