If you have spent time in other cultures or traveled a lot, not in cars by yourself, but on trains, buses, and ferries where you are compelled into human interaction, or better still, on foot through bustling cities or from village to village, then you will have experienced several times the delight of having intelligent conversations with people who barely share a language with you. Solely from recognizing a few words, from being able to interpret facial expressions and gestures, and above all from being intensely interested in your interlocutor and her world, it is possible to communicate quite deeply with a stranger. I have fond menories of almost falling in love with a German girl I sat next to on a ferry; we talked for four hours in an almost nonsensical mash of German and English. When I taught in China, I noticed that many longtime students of the English language could hold only faltering, fearful conversations in English — whereas some businessmen and scientists who had never formally studied English could have interesting conversations with me about politics or philosophy, because their English had expanded through their curiosity in favorite subject areas. Their English would be far from perfect and always thickly accented, but they were capable of understanding and making themselves understood in discussions of deep, significant matters. In traveling, you also enounter shopkeepers and food-vendors who can conduct their daily business effectively in multiple languages; they have an urgent practical interest in doing so, and while they may not be able to discuss philosophical notions in all those languages, it is probably fair to claim that many of them are more confident and effective linguists than many people who have studied one of those languages formally for years.
Most people in the world are comfortably functional in two or three languages or dialects. In polyglot societies, it is common to hear multiple tongues simultaneously going at a single restaurant table. In Malaysia, among my own family, I have heard one person asking something in Cantonese to two other people who replied in Hakka and English, while interacting with the waiter in Malay; and I have also heard a sentence that began in Cantonese, continued in Hokkien, and ended in English. In such a society there is an astonishing ease and freedom with languages, a lack of anxiety coupled with a willingness to improvise. One of my uncles, who is proficient in four languages and functional in about six others, has told me his secret to learning a new language: just write down the fifty words that are most useful to you, look up how to use them, go out there and spend a few days using them, and over the weeks add to this store. This really works — but it requires not so much courage as recklessness, a deliberate abandonment of caution and an enjoyment of learning through failing.
In contrast, I think of the many years I have spent studying a language academically, through textbooks, dictionaries, tables of nouns and vetbs, drills, exercises, and tests, only to freeze up when addressed by a native speaker — or able to read a book but not a newspaper, to ask and answer questions but not have a lively conversation. This paralysis results from an excessive sense of responsibility to the language, a feeling that I have to be correct all the time and make only complete, well formed utterances. Experienced this way, a language is a thing, a defined object with fixed rules and standards that have to be conformed to; and its thingness is embodied in the grammar book and dictionary, which purport to contain the entire language. Now, there is an undeniable power to this view of a language. In the case of dead languages, which are “complete” in the sense that they are no longer evolving and are therefore “done,” it might be compelling and attractive to condense all the patterns of a language in one book; for example, it is a miracle that the whole of Sanskrit can be summarized in the 150 pages of Gonda’s Sanskrit grammar, and downright unbelievable that the great ancient grammarian Panini gave us the essential generative grammar of Sanskrit in fewer than 20 pages. Any grammar textbook of a language aims at doing something similar: grasping and presenting the underlying essence of a language in a way that makes it efficient to master, because the entire structure can be conceived theoretically by one who has studied the whole book. Classical linguists are so familiar with the deep structures of a group of languages that when faced with a new one, they can find their way quickly because they already have a map. It is like a zoologist who has spent decades working with the anatomy of rodents and mustelids: when given a cat to dissect, he will know where to find the heart or liver.
I myself am very good at the analytical study of language, but I know that only relatively few people have the aptitude for this kind of study. It requires the capacity for long hours of mental focus and retention, and an abstract, rational turn of mind that quickly and rigorously seizes underlying structures and is skilled at memorizing. People who excel in learning languages in this way pay a price for it; they tend to be socially shy or awkward, happier at desks than at human gatherings, and consequently not at ease with the flexible, fluid ways of living languages in spontaneous human interaction. The problem is that people who have advanced credentials with languages and who are good at the scholarly approach tend to be the ones who write language-learning materials. Moreover, an expert in a language generally teaches others the way he was taught (after all, why change the winning team?), and this way usually presupposes that the language is a thing with a fixed structure that can be taught through books and a classroom, independently of a living context.
However, it doesn’t work for most people. The effect of our conventional methods of learning languages is to create a monoglot — someone who is only comfortable in one language and is terrified at the prospect of having to be functional in more than one. Perhaps it is more than an effect; perhaps the intention is to create a society of monoglots. After all, the idea of a national language grew with the development of print culture, which enforced a standard range of prose for published texts. The culmination of this was the great age of philology and lexicography in the 19th century, in which authoritative reference books set down the official standards for a language. If a word isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, it isn’t English; and if you are unsure of a point of grammar, you will consult one of the standard references in grammar and usage, such as the Oxford Guide to English Grammar. The essence of a language is thus treated as something that lies outside and beyond its particular speakers in particular times and places, and that is contained in books that have authority to declare if any given utterance is English or not. When we speak English we have to be obedient to such centers of authority; and when we attempt to learn French we have to be obedient to other centers. No wonder we are paralyzed with anxiety when we are called to speak. We have been shackled by shadowy, artificial authorities. We are lucky to have learned one language as children, before we received the gift of viewing languages as things outside of us.
Official languages are nation-makers, hence also monoglot-makers. The many rules of a language — all those inflections, and then idioms and exceptions — are meant to make it hard for outsiders to join the group. If languages were solely for communication, they would have the simplicity and malleability of Esperanto. Instead, languages as we know it are used to create Us and Other, and the thorniness of the Other is reflected in the fearsome difficulty of speaking the Other language. Thus, we have succeeded in making the learning of languages hard and unpleasant. We have reified our languages, turned them into intimidating objects outside of ourselves that we now have to struggle with, instead of what they really are in our lived experience of them — dynamic, changing, growing, intimate aspects of our particular being in history.
In a recent essay in the Scientific American (“Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning,” September 7, 2016), Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello argue that over the last few decades evidence has been mounting that our capacity for language does not emanate from an underlying “universal grammar” that we all have inside us. In other words, language may not be fundamentally a thing that precedes and causes all individual instances of speech. Just as the capacity for language itself may not need a hypostatized universal language, a Platonic form of language, in the same way a given language does not require a substratum or essence that stands apart from particular utterances. Uninhibited by ideas about language, children learn languages by freely engaging them with multiple parts of the mind, which in approaching languages is like a Swiss Army Knife: a “set of general-purpose tools—such as categorization, the reading of communicative intentions, and analogy making, with which children build grammatical categories and rules from the language they hear around them.” However, as we grow up, we abandon the Swiss Army Knife and strive to rely on a single tool for everything.
We are living in an age of more complex relationships with different cultures and languages, but also of more vehement resistance to difference — hence the bigotry that manifests as nationalism, of which one face is rigid monoglottism. Listening to a group of people speaking an exotic language in a public space, how many people now become disturbed, uneasy, suspicious? — how many become even angry and indignant, and would consider reporting these strangers to the authorities? If our educational systems deliberately create a nation of monoglots, they are also tacitly creating an atmosphere of hostility towards other languages and their speakers. Reification always cripples the ability to relate.
There is a place for the scholarly approach to a language through formal grammar and lexicon; it can give a valuable analytical account of a language, but does not necessarily express what the language is. Consider Chaucer’s dazzling creation of English through the audacious assimilation of French words and syntax, Shakespeare’s many shatterings and reforgings of the language, the King James Bible’s weird and beautiful Hebrew-English, Milton’s even weirder Latinate Hebrew-English: fortunately for us, our greatest writers never experienced their language as a thing, but as a process of formation boiling with possibilities, including the possibility of being wholly permeated by other languages. This is how we should be experiencing language, and the way we learn languages should reflect this dangerous, thrilling play at the limits of expression. Can we transform the way we study languages and become more open, more creative, more free? It seems that we are already beginning to, in the various new digital language-learning programs that emphasize living interaction; many of these start from an insight that the conventional approach is “boring” and ineffectual to most people, but do not go so far as to say that they fail because they are built on fallacious ideas about language. I hope nonetheless that the new “hands-on” approaches will percolate into our classrooms and shake us up.
When we find ourselves on that train trying to explain ourselves to the attractive and interesting stranger, and reaching into the unknown to fathom what he is telling us, we find ourselves working at the very borders of what we know — and enjoying it, fuller for it. All language study should be like this — maybe even all study. A bilingual friend — who is not bilingual in the way a George Steiner is bilingual, namely as a superman-scholar type who can write polished prose in four languages, but rather is bilingual like my Malaysian relatives are multilingual, capable of rapidly ricocheting between several languages with easy functionality and no commitment to formal correctness — once remarked to me that being bilingual is “a bit like making out in the dark”: not everything is lit and seen, we struggle tentatively across spaces to make contact, and we learn to be bold and trusting in the unknown. This is indeed how we do language — venturing perilously into the new, not just memorizing and applying predetermined patterns in a safe, warm web approved by the best scholars.