Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

2174 words

A writer’s plea for bilingualism

31 July 2020

Books | Are the limits of our language the limits of our world?

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Spy country? Bilingual street signs in Mulhouse, in France’s Alsace region near the Swiss and German borders. PjrTravel/Alamy

Spy country? Bilingual street signs in Mulhouse, in France’s Alsace region near the Swiss and German borders. PjrTravel/Alamy

Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever
By Marek Kohn | Yale University Press | $34.99 | 264 pages


In their book The Story of French, Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow describe the results of the world’s first language survey, which was commissioned under the French Revolution. The project was undertaken by the Abbé Grégoire, who found that “of a population of twenty-eight million, only three million French citizens spoke French well, and even fewer wrote it. Another six million could carry on a conversation, and at least six million didn’t speak French at all.” Thirty dialects were spoken across the country, making France “in effect multilingual.” Napoleon learned French only when he was fifteen and thus was “typically French.”

In the post-revolutionary period the function of French “changed radically.” It became a “tool that the French government would use to centralise the country,” and “through this process the French language became, for the first time, the foundation of a French national identity.” Nadeau and Barlow recount not only the birth of “French” but also the beginnings of language policy; they tell of the values attaching to linguistic homogeneity and of the means at the disposal of the state to outlaw the use of local languages — principally a state-run education system working towards universal literacy, and the standardisation of the language taught.

The rationale was Johann Gottfried Herder’s doctrine of a national culture embedded in a national language and rooted in the national soil: Frenchness was defined by France, and France by its national borders. (Hence, by the way, the distrust of bilinguals, such as those living in Alsace and Lorraine; they could talk to foreigners, they might be spies. But that would take me on a tangent to Alfred Dreyfus, and I must return to my onions, or, as the French say, to my sheep — or my “muttons” in the joking interlanguage of a friend of mine.)

I expect at least some of my readers to be astonished by this story. That astonishment, and the fact that Nadeau and Barlow need to evoke the pre-history of French in their engaging book tell us a great deal about how our conception of language, and languages, has changed over the past two centuries.

They also tell us something of the presuppositions of Marek Kohn’s fine book about “using more than one language”: that many of us use only one language, that the language communities of many countries are homogeneous and monolingual, and that identity is often based on some such language. Notably, these presuppositions are right for the anglophone world; given the rise of global English, English speakers might think learning other languages would be a futile exercise.

The bets I am hedging in my choice of “many” and “often” in the previous paragraph are the ones that Kohn sets out to demonstrate: many people across the world use at least two, even several languages; many societies are collectively bi- or multilingual; identity is not necessarily rooted in a language. Less demonstrably, the future may reveal the limitations of global English and hence the need for other languages, not only a “mother tongue” but also the tongues of friends both near and far afield.

Given the subtitle of this book, we are led to expect that its chapters will answer the question of why using more than one language matters now more than ever. That answer might take the form of case studies of situations in which monolingualism has wrought demonstrable damage, or of problems solved by bi- or plurilingualism. Kohn gives a brief example of each — a British xenophobe fetishising “foreign” languages as the reason for her hatred, and an Indian mother guaranteeing a harmonious relationship with her mother-in-law by learning her language and teaching it to her own child. But most of the book is written on different principles.

Structured in broadly two halves, the first of Four Words for Friend is devoted to debates in cognitive linguistics about bilingualism; the second is devoted to language policies and local practices in societies where a variety of languages coexist. This structure is explained at the very end of the book, when Kohn concludes that “a world in which people are able to make the most of using more than one language is possible… [T]he model and the basis for that world is the mind that has become a home for more than one language.”

Kohn does not make any attempt to demonstrate this analogy; nor, in my view, is there any possibility of doing so. Certainly, we could invoke Wittgenstein — “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” — to the effect that one’s world is expanded by learning a second language, or more. But note the possessive: this is not “the” world — this is the world of the speaker’s experience. By contrast, Kohn’s claim is that, since bilingualism is possible in individuals and is demonstrable in certain societies, the mind of a bilingual individual is a model for “a world” in which bilingualism is the norm. It would have been safer for him to claim that these specific societies provide “models” for other societies to follow. Naturally, “following” would have to be inflected for local conditions.


Kohn starts with “questions about individuals’ encounters with language,” canvassing debates in “the science of bilingualism” that cover the loss and acquisition of languages, the relation between bilingualism and mental function, the loss of heritage languages in migrant communities, and the effects of bilingualism on identity. All this is thorough, judicious and presented with admirable clarity. There is a great deal to be learnt here, in particular, I think, for parents and teachers who are obliged to calculate learning outcomes for children from bilingual backgrounds, or for those learning a second language in schools. Ill-informed debate concerning the feared disadvantages of language learning for other areas of learning has long been evident in the Australian setting. I recommend the book highly for parents and teachers for whom these questions are of immediate concern.

Following this, he moves to the sociology and politics of bilingualism, and considers some exemplary cases. The most fascinating (because unfamiliar) for me is that of Latvia, where “Russian speakers add up to more than a third of [the] population.” Yet for many of them, “Latvian is no more than a tool for use in everyday transactions… they do not live in it themselves.” “State language policy is intended to ensure the competitiveness of Latvian” alongside Russian and English, yet “the most remarkable effect of this system is that Russian is heard but not seen: [Riga] is bilingual in speech, monolingual in writing.” Kohn analyses the policies, then illustrates their outcomes with engaging anecdotes.

For the purposes of comparison, he considers Singapore, whose government “regards English as an asset and Asian languages as vessels of identity.” The latter are Mandarin, Malay and Tamil; English is regarded as a “first language” because of its utility internationally, while the Asian languages are “mother tongues.” Here, as in the Latvian case, Kohn is careful to point out contradictions and incoherencies in the daily outcomes of the language laws. He also shows that Singaporeans demonstrate a “grass-roots openness and exchange” in the way they adapt their use of English to its multilingual environment. The emergence of Singlish — Singaporean English, with its blending of English with the variety of languages it lives among — is just one example of many hybrid formations one could adduce. Another is English itself, a rich brew of Celtic languages, Germanic languages, and Norman French. A third is the diverse range of the modern romance languages, all creolised forms of Latin. Languages are porous. We would do well to remember this when we speak of “language barriers,” or when, as Kohn insists, “languages exist both to enable communication and to obstruct it.”

Why, in view of such hybrid formations, do we think of languages as having “perimeters inside which information is free to circulate, but across which it is unable to pass”? Evidently, this idea is modelled on national boundaries and on the notion of national languages, a conception we owe to Herder, whose “ghost,” writes Kohn, haunts “extensive tracts of this book.” Herder preached the integral connection between a “national character, and the national character of each language” while cautioning against being “sealed off” from other languages. For Kohn, these views show “the two great contradictory impulses of language use: on the one hand the urge to draw inward and to draw a circle around one’s own; on the other, the awareness that one cannot really flourish without entering into other languages.”

Herder’s views represent the Romantic backlash against Enlightenment universalism. Kohn himself insists on the value of linguistic diversity, and hence rejects universalism; he also pushes back against the assumption of rigid “perimeters,” instead arguing in favour of “mutual comprehension” between speakers of different languages. If we were to cleave to the notion of belonging in a language and a national soil, we would cease to have a sense of belonging if we became bilingual. But this “fear of rootlessness” is the “worst reason” for avoiding “other languages.”


Four Words for Friend is in effect a plea for bi- and multilingualism. The value of using more than one language is variously formulated: that it “favours openness, interconnection, inclusion, mutual exchange and the sharing of knowledge” and also “awareness of others”; that “bilinguals will enjoy the advantage of understanding idiom, grasping nuance, and being able to make themselves at home in the language”; that bilinguals “can put [themselves] in the other person’s place” and equally that “learning another language may also change the place you are in”; and that other languages give access to the “knowledge of other cultures.”

These are commonly held convictions among proponents of bilingualism, including my colleagues who teach modern or foreign languages professionally. Yet if we investigate the view of language inherent in the research on bilingualism he cites, we find that it cannot sustain these claims. In Kohn’s representation, a language is “an assembly of elements which individuals are free to use as they wish” — but it is also “more than the sum of [its] parts.” These elements are discernible units such as “sounds, words or phrases.” But language ability involves more than knowing the simplest units; we need to grasp the principles of the “formation, modification and combination of words into strings of meaning.”

Here we might be reading a page of the great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure: a language is a system in which use rests on selection of items and their combination. The Saussurian (and post-Saussurian) system presumes a self-consistent “tongue,” as understood after a century of Herderism, and is a theory for analysing it. It has perimeters. It is hard to see how a language conceived on this model “supports its culture” except on Herderian assumptions.

What is a “culture,” that it might be supported by, or embedded in, a language? Kohn’s general claim concerning culture is that “each language has its own way of organising thought and communication.” Culture provides the rules for “matching language to context” in, for instance, the matter of register (formality/informality and so on); it is the “meaning” contained in the language and perhaps — with all due caveats — its “world-view.” Moreover, “culture helps to shape personality” as well as relationships. The lexicon of a given language may, as in the case of the Russian “four words for friend,” provide a choice of levels of familiarity, or a greater or smaller range of colour names. It is everything left out by Chomsky, whose “understanding of science excludes not only social sciences but the entire shared human experience of which language is a part… To separate his science from his politics he separated language from society.”

Alternative conceptions of culture exist. Some of them investigate how language interrelates with other semiotic and manual practices, using the term “culture” to name the outcome. But in view of the baggage it carries, it’s useful to demystify the term. Cultures are simply shared habits, of behaviour, of ways of doing things, of engaging in symbolic and physical action; they may be local — say corporate or institutional — or transnational; their settings may be the schoolyard or the cinema. Yes, language is a “part” of any culture, but only a part, and we should focus on practice, not on the “use” of a “system.” Kohn’s book is written according to the paradigm of twentieth-century linguistics — impressively informed by its sub-disciplines, such as cognitive and sociolinguistics, but inevitably confined by it. This paradigm cannot support its claims regarding the value of knowing more than one language; albeit eloquent, its plea to us to do so remains unpersuasive.

Let me insist: the difficulties I have pointed to are far from being Kohn’s alone. They traverse the varied enterprise of foreign language teaching; as such, they underpin the modern language disciplines in institutions of higher education in Australia and beyond. To those problems can be attributed the grave crisis in which those disciplines are presently enmired. •

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