In praise of unilingualism

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The Article

Is multilingualism always an unalloyed blessing? May not absolute command of a single language be preferable to mere competence in two or more?

Promotions for the new movie, The Interpreter, a thriller revolving around a UN translator, have evoked one of my adolescent career fantasies. The job of a simultaneous translator seemed especially glamorous to me because, in spite of academic exposure to many languages—Hebrew, French, German, Latin (in which I majored for two years in university)—I knew by my teens that the second-language fluency required for such a position was forever out of reach.

I so envy truly bilingual people. As you read this I am engaged in my annual spring humiliation rite: yet another immersion week in French, in my ongoing bid for entry into the Canadian Goody-Goody Hall of Fame (would that be le Salon des Modeles de Vertu in French?). In the area of language acquisition, I am living proof of the old adage, “hope springs eternal.”

I read and comprehend standard French. It’s oral fluency that remains the ungraspable brass ring. Over the 40 years of my torontoise-turned-montrealaise sojourn in Montreal, I’ve done Berlitz, worked with a private tutor, taken credit courses at university, laboured over the expensive Champs des Elysees series of audiotapes. I’ve spent weeks on end in Jonquieres and Quebec City at their excellent language centres.

Will I achieve real spoken fluency this year, instead of the graceless functionality I’m stalled at? I doubt it. For that, you need bilingual parents, early immersion, or significant time spent in a milieu with no choice but to speak the second language (Paris, yes; but in Montreal, if you’re anglo, good luck trying to get bilingual francophones to speak to you in French).

As a result of intellect-filtered rather than osmosis-acquired language training, I know many things that nobody cares about in real life, such as when to use the subjonctif in French, and the rules concerning the ablative absolute in Latin (“Word having been brought back to Caesar that the Helvetians were intending to make a march through the territory of the Sequani…”). But what do I remember of my high school German? Nichts! Could I carry on a conversation in Latin with the pope? Minime vero! Will I ever fully comprehend the plot in an argot-riddled French film? Peu de chances!

I console myself for my foreign languages deficits by reflecting on my firmly entrenched knowledge of English. I remind myself that there are many others—amongst them serial language migrants like my husband, Ronny—for whom the nuances of mother tongue as well as those acquired prove elusive. Their stories are cautionary tales that early exposure to many languages can be a burden as well as a gift.

Ronny was born in Tientsin, China, to Russian parents, so of course his mother tongue is Russian. But his ahma, to whom he was consigned a good deal of the time, and the other servants (Caucasian foreigners lived like kings in pre-WWII China) spoke to him in Chinese. In the European-run kindergarten to which the “blue-eyed devils” all sent their children, the common language was French.

After the war—Ronny was 8—his family emigrated to a francophone area of Montreal, but he was put into an English school where, at the time, they employed the sink or swim rubric of language acquisition. Finally, the day Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table at the UN at the height of Cold War tensions, Ronny informed his parents he was too embarrassed to speak Russian, and they must thenceforth speak English at home.

The result was a kind of linguistic no man’s land. Although fluent, his Russian became “frozen” in late adolescence: The deep structures spring automatically to the tongue, but his vocabulary is limited to the banalities of domestic life. On the other hand his unsystematically acquired English is only apparently seamless, and he occasionally stumbles over odd fissures.

So although I never made it to the UN, after 40 years of marriage, I am at least an experienced “translator” of my husband’s malapropisms:

“That lawyer’s the rainman in his firm.”

“You mean rainmaker, dear.”

“I see they’ve beautified Mother Teresa.”

“That would be beatified, dear.”

“Yuck. Why would they name a chocolate bar ‘Mounds’?”

“Um, you’re thinking of ‘piles’, dear.”

At such moments I am consoled for my lack of deep bilingualism, and persuaded that having one language well in hand is worth two in the blush [sic].

Barbara Kay
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