On Becoming Bilingual

"If you call someone who knows two languages "bilingual" and someone who knows three languages "trilingual," what do you call someone who knows only one language? ---- An American."

This is a joke Europeans like a lot. A couple of years ago, when it looked like Europe was going to be an economically united politically coordinated colossus and Europeans were regaining that little spring in their step that disappeared around 1914, the visiting American heard it a lot. Even now, when Europe has reverted to form, the language issue remains something about which the visiting American is expected to be embarrassed. Most Americans have a good grasp on at most one language, which apparently we should call American, since leading British scholars don't like it to be called English.

However, in defense of Americans, a couple of points can be made. First, the language we know is a very nice one. For one thing, it has words for all the major ideas, which can't be said of other languages. Consider, for example, the word "get" and the associated simple straightforward idea. It is very important, as one can see from the following description of my morning:

"I got out of bed, got the paper, got myself some breakfast, got some coffee, and began to get dressed and to get ready for work. I got in the car, got to the office, and got to work. I got a lot done, and still had time to get some money at the bank and get a sandwich at the deli for lunch."

Now I think one can see how essential and important the idea of getting is, and how fortunate we are to have a word for it in English. Would you believe that some languages just leave this word out! They don't have it at all. French, for example. To describe my morning in French I would need at least half a dozen verbs to convey what I was able to convey with our good English word get.

Now there is no reason French could not have the word get. It could be a perfectly regular verb: gueter. One could say,

J'ai gueté de lit, j'ai gueté le journal, j'ai me gueté le petit dejeuner, ...

Now the amazing thing is that the French don't even want to have this useful verb. I have suggested adding it to their language to many Frenchmen, and they just sneer. They have the temerity to suggest that this good American verb is ambiguous. They actually prefer to have to come up with half a dozen different words to express the simple, clear and unambiguous concept of getting. Well, really.

Another thing to keep in mind, when you get to feeling bad about being monolingual, is that the fair question is not "how many languages do you know?" It is, "of the languages spoken by five million people or more within a thousand miles or so of where you live, what percentage do you know?" This is a better question, because it is a practical question. No one criticizes a French person for not knowing Burmese (too far away) or Catalan (not enough people speak it). It just wouldn't be very practical for Frenchman to learn Burmese or Catalan, in most cases. But it is practical for a Frenchman to know German, English and Italian, because in the normal course of their lives they will interact with a lot of Germans, English and Italians, because there are millions and millions of them that live not far away.

Of the hundred or so languages spoken by people in California, where I live, only two are spoken by millions of people within a thousand miles of me, Spanish and English. I know one of them, so I score 50% How many Europeans do that well? You might think that our Frenchman could tie me, just by knowing Spanish or English as well as French, giving him 50% of the languages I listed. But a glance at the map shows that this is not enough. By the thousand mile /five million people test, a number of languages need to be counted in: Portuguese, Flemish, Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian and Greek and maybe more. Unless our Frenchman is an accomplished linguist, I have him beat by a mile.

Maybe a fairer test would be that one should include all of the languages on the continent on which one lives that are spoken by a five million or so people. Then in my case we would have to include French, because of the French speaking Canadians, even if most of them live in Quebec which is a long way from Northern Californian. But this change in the test would be disastrous for our Frenchman, who now gets Bulgarian, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and maybe even Turkish added to his list. Besides, I speak some French, maybe enough to get half credit. So I get 1.5 out of 3 or 50% on the whole continent test, a score that virtually no European can match who is not a professional linguist.

One final point is this. If American is really not English, then, arguably all Americans are bilingual. We can speak and understand English, even if we don't do it very well. We speak English with an accent and understand it with some difficulty--- particularly the last few words of English sentences, which are supposed to be mumbled or omitted entirely when the language is spoken with care--- but this is true of Frenchmen who claim to know English, too. As a matter of fact, we are all multi-lingual, because we can also speak and understand Canadian and even, with considerable effort, Australian.

So next time you hear a European start that old joke, "If you call someone who knows two languages "bilingual" ... ," hold your head up and say, "That's aboot the stupidest bloody joke I've ever heard and [mutter mutter]." You will instantly establish that you are in fact at least tri-lingual, and get the respect you deserve.