David Bouchier: Polyglot

Jun 18, 2018

I have always admired and envied the ability to learn languages. The English language is hard enough, with its half million words, weird grammar, and odd pronunciations. Other languages are worse. When we try to master a new language we are thrust all the way back to our inarticulate early childhood, and we feel helpless. I’ve been to many places where I couldn’t understand a word anybody said: Russia, Hungary, Greece, Scotland. It’s humiliating.

Every summer we see ads for yet another new language learning system, promising fluency within days or weeks just by gazing at your smartphone. These are, to put it mildly, not telling the exact truth. There is no magic bullet. Some people simply have the gift of tongues—we call them polyglots. The great critic Edmund Wilson was admired, if not liked, for his ability to read and write fluently in seven languages. But most of us don’t have that gift. One language is enough. Judging by some inarticulate cell phone conversations I overhear, one language can be too much. We are, for the most part, a nation of monoglots and demiglots.

I’ve been learning French for fifty years with no very impressive result. French is one of the six thousand or so languages now spoken around the world. There’s not enough time for me to start on German or Spanish, let alone the other 5,997. So when we travel we get by with a few essential phrases learned from a book: please, thank you, how much, where’s the bathroom, sorry officer we don’t have speed limits where I come from, and so on.

Just to complete this linguistic humiliation, the little phrase book is scarcely necessary. We can simply speak in English, and usually be understood, because in most of the countries of the world multiple languages are taken for granted.

How do they do it? Those wretched foreigners cheat of course. Their trick is called education. They sneakily introduce languages into the school curriculum at an early age, and keep teaching them all the way up through college. Very few children escape this regime without a working knowledge of at least one foreign language, and most graduates have two. English is always taught, and this is the downfall of the English-speaking nations. We can stumble around the world in a cloud of ignorance, unable to read menus or the local newspaper, but without suffering any real inconvenience because English-speaking locals are always there to help. Why should we bother?

Some people believe that learning languages is the best antidote to intolerance, and idealists still pursue the dream of universal peace through a universal language. Unfortunately some of the most murderous wars in history have been fought between peoples who shared the same language, so this may not be the answer to anything. But if there ever is a universal language I hope it will be English, as nature and Hollywood intended, although it is just as likely to be Chinese, or Spanish, or Arabic. It will depend on who wins the wars of numbers—economic numbers and population numbers, and it would be a shame to waste years studying the wrong language. Let’s just wait and see.

Copyright: David Bouchier