Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mother Tongues

I came across this YouTube clip yesterday (they post anything these days) showing two braindead rednecks performing a country-&-western song about how everyone in the US must speak English. The hilarious aspect of that performance was that their own use of American English is to the original (UK) English as Mandarin Chinese is to Japanese (at least some Englishman told me once so). Anyways...

The purpose of me commenting on this clip is not so much their performance but rather the series of reader comments on the clip, posted in a well known Californian blog. Somebody mentions a cheap joke first... Question: what do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Answer: Trilingual. Question: what do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Answer: Bilingual. Question: what do you call someone who speaks only 1 language? Answer: An American.

They make it sound like lack of knowledge of a second language is indicative of lesser IQ. So the joke is about Americans being stupid, eh? Well, nothing could be more wrong than this. Above all, I met extremely intelligent people in my life who could speak just their mother-tongue where others could speak two or three languages with correct sounding accent and all but, sorry to say, they couldn't sell icecream to a Bedouin.

Some other reader said... I am living here in South Dakota and I am surrounded by six other states... I am sure if my neigbors spoke their own native languages, I'd have to speak more than one languages to survive... so where's the big deal? Right on the money!

This is it. In Belgium modern middle class people need to speak more than 2 languages to survive. That's French and Dutch for starters and English as the International language. At school they learn thoroughly four languages, the three national languages, French, Dutch and German, and of course English. Some even learn ancient Greek and Latin as well. They've got to. If they wanna make any chance at all to get a job later they have to. Because if they don't, others do and it's those others who get the job. Traditionally economies of small countries surrounded by large depend more than 80% from the trade with their neigbors. Belgium is surrounded by France, Germany, the UK and The Netherlands... what'd you expect then?

Does this make Belgians smarter? I doubt it as the first thing I learned when I immigrated here were "Belgian jokes" about notorious national stupidity (which is not fair either... but just to make the point).

It's quite convenient when you understand other people's languages... it's much easier if we all spoke the same; what's the need for so many tongues on such a small planet? But that's the way it is. We can't change that anymore. It is true though that the more languages you speak the shorter vocabulary you possess in any of these languages. Our brain is a finite container. Smart people, authors of books, news reporters, literature scholars often speak one language, their mother's, but possess vocabularies of tens of thousands of words.

I can speak for myself. I used to speak native Greek well and some broken English 30 years ago when I came here. I can speak good English, French and Dutch and average Greek today. I reckon, in each of these languages I might have a vocabulary of a few thousand words each, where by, thirty years ago, in Greek alone (due to my studies) I knew more than 10 thousand words I bet you. Time heals though and my brain wiped away those extra thousands of Greek words from my neurons to replace them with French, Dutch, etc... in other words, it can happen to any of you that you forget large parts of your mother tongue under certain conditions. It can happen to the smart and stupid alike.

Conclusion then... those rednecks were stupid alright, not because of their lack of knowledge of anything else than redneck English but because of the intent of their Neocon message (the blonde looks a bit like Ann Coulter, now I come to think of it...). But to call American stupid because of only speaking one language, then you'd have to call stupid the rest of the world, starting with the Chineze, the Latinos, the Germans, the French, the Italians and the... Greeks.

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