JUNE 3, 2020
UNTIL AGE 24 I lived, as many Americans do, without leaving my native continent. I first applied for a passport out of the humiliating need to go to no farther than Canada, whose entry process had recently become more stringent. But not long thereafter I went genuinely abroad, taking a 25th-birthday trip with my dad to New Zealand. The country appealed by being far enough away to necessitate my first long-haul flight and by not being overhyped as a destination (or at least it wasn’t, before the Lord of the Rings films). Best of all, it was English-speaking, and not just in the sense that its waiters, station attendants, and hostel owners could communicate with twentysomething backpackers. The de jure official Maori native language aside, New Zealanders speak almost nothing but English, and with a fascinating accent and slang as well. (Even as I came to understand the appeal of world travel, the allure of such exotic-sounding beverages as the “long black” and “flat white” convinced me of the appeal of coffee.)
A decade later I write this essay in South Korea, the decidedly non-English-speaking country where I’ve lived for years, motivated in no small part by an interest in its language (its abundance of coffee and coffee shops, so essential to the working process of the essayist, also plays a part). Not long ago I returned from a trip to Taiwan, a destination also chosen out of interest in its language, or rather in its lingua franca, Mandarin Chinese (I did consider learning Taiwanese Hokkien, its most widely spoken local language, but couldn’t find much in the way of study materials). Now and again, my Mandarin-learning project has brought to mind a local news segment I saw back in New Zealand. It told of the introduction of immersion Mandarin classes into certain primary schools. Interviewing a teacher, the reporter closed with a question asked out of seemingly genuine concern for the students: “But aren’t you afraid their little brains will explode?”
It seems New Zealanders share with Americans and other Anglophones not only the English language, but also the perception of bilingualism as an impressive, potentially life-threatening achievement. Eddie Izzard expressed this attitude best: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed.” That quote appears more than once in the work of Gaston Dorren, a Dutchman who’s made his name over the past 20 years writing books about languages. In his first, 1999’s Nieuwe tongen, he examines the languages of migrants to Benelux, the politico-economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and in the more recent Vakantie in eigen taal he focuses on his native Dutch. 2012’s Taaltoerisme (“Language Tourism”), a kind of linguistic European travelogue, came out two years later in an expanded English translation as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages. His latest book Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages takes Lingo’s concept global, considering the distinctive characteristics of the world’s 20 most spoken languages.
In Babel’s top spot is English, the language of 1.5 billion in which Dorren challenged himself to write the book itself. In 20th place, with 85 million speakers, is Vietnamese, the subject of the book’s first chapter. In it Dorren tells of a language-learning trip of his own, to Hanoi. He ultimately writes off his three weeks of practice in the Vietnamese capital as a “fiasco”; his larger “six-month struggle” to learn Vietnamese is reminiscent of the similarly fruitless project William Alexander recounts in Flirting with French. The importance of tonality — or how the meaning of a word changes with the pitch at which it’s spoken, heightening the stakes of mispronunciation-related embarrassment — takes some of the blame. “I hoped that as a native speaker of a tonal regional language (Limburgish) I would take it in my stride,” Dorren writes. “No such luck: six tones is very different from the paltry two I’m used to.” Mandarin has “only” four tones, and though I can’t yet claim to have mastered them, so far they haven’t made me throw in the towel.
The term Limburgish refers to a group of German- and Dutch-like dialects spoken mainly where the Netherlands meets Belgium. It’s Dorren’s mother tongue not just figuratively, but literally: that is, the tongue spoken by his mother, who grew up “within waving distance of Flanders — where the Dutch is markedly different from her own — and a short cycle ride away from Germany,” Dorren writes in a blog post about the geography that encouraged his becoming a polyglot. “She also spent four years under German occupation. After liberation, English was all the rage.” Dorren’s father was born in Enchede, “a mere five kilometers from the German border. He grew up speaking not only the national language but also the region’s Low Saxon dialect of the Low German language. He went on to become a French teacher, dabbling in Spanish on the side,” then picked up Limburgish and German. Dorren himself first supplemented his Dutch and Limburgish with the compulsory school-system English as well as his “wholly unremarkable” voluntary study of German and French.
Currently, Dorren speaks Dutch, Limburgish, English, German, French, and Spanish, and can read in nine other languages. This number makes him a polyglot by anyone’s definition, but not quite a hyperpolyglot, whose “accepted threshold,” as The New Yorker’s Judith Thurman writes in a piece on hyperpolyglot culture, is 11. Her descriptions of the attendees at the annual Polyglot Conference don’t quite hide their eccentricities, which are even more apparent than one would expect from people who occupy themselves by learning as many foreign languages as humanly possible. (“If speech defines us as human,” Thurman puts it, “a related faculty had eluded them: the ability to connect.”) Past a certain number, acquiring additional languages gets weird: when I discuss it with friends, language enthusiasts all, that number tends to settle at five. Dorren is a counterexample, speaking six while at the same time coming off in writing as the opposite of weird, possessed of a preternatural affability and modesty that could make him the approachable face of polyglotism in the English-speaking world.
This in contrast to the “reclusive savants who bank their languages rather than using them to communicate,” in Thurman’s words, as well as to the “bizglots” who “hawk tutorials with the dubious promise that anyone can become a prodigy” and the “broglots” throwing down in “online bragfests.” Dorren only claims for himself “something of a flair for languages, particularly in their written form,” and credits that first to having grown up in a multilingual setting, then to having put in the hours. “The only foreign languages that I’m any good at are those that I needed and had ample time to practice,” he writes in Babel. “I needed German when, back in my teens, I fell in love with a German girl, which enabled me to practice to my heart’s delight. I needed Spanish when as an undergraduate I did research in Peru, where I spoke little else for half a year. Later on, a job motivated me to improve my English.” The evidence suggests Dorren has a good command of these languages — but “given the amount of practice,” he writes, “I would have to be pretty thick for it to be otherwise.”
Dorren’s use of the word “thick” is characteristic of his unmistakably British English, studded with expressions like “a fine old mess,” “none too matey,” and “dead chuffed.” In one sense this stands to geographical reason, given that the United Kingdom lies just on the other side of the North Sea from his homeland. But in another it runs counter to expectation, given that ostensibly American English is what gets taught in so many classrooms around the world: in South Korea, where I live, people occasionally make the Freudian slip of referring to English as migukeo, literally “American language.” No few students have taken up English as a means of gaining access to the United States and its economy, but Dorren clearly has other priorities. The chumminess of Dorren’s prose makes it no surprise that, in Lingo, he references “my hero Wodehouse.”
There’s something heartening about a non-native speaker mastering English not only to distinguish himself on the job market, but also out of admiration for a writer as unfashionable as P. G. Wodehouse. A native English speaker who dedicates himself to a foreign language often does so out of cultural affinity — for Proust, for Kurosawa, for the tango — or is at least expected to profess such an affinity as justification for that otherwise unnecessary-seeming pursuit. An English-learner, however, needs no such excuse, and even absent an interest in English-speaking culture may still feel constant pressure to improve his English skills. But though such pressure can motivate a non-native speaker to achieve competence in English, propelling him out of the purgatory of business-communication classes and accent-reduction lessons, it’s no help out of the mire of bland, awkward functionality we now call “global English.”
In both Lingo and Babel, Dorren underscores the difference between mere languages and lingua francas, those “that bridge the gap between people with two different mother tongues.” However few doubt English’s current dominance as a lingua franca, it isn’t alone in the group. An English-speaker also conversant in Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi-Urdu, Dorren writes, could “smoothly navigate most of the world,” no interpreter required. The ascendancy of these languages, he argues, has little to do with their inherent characteristics: “Difficult or easy, melodious or grating, written or unwritten, any language has the potential to grow into the lingua franca of a great empire: Latin, Arabic, Russian and Quechua all proved it in their day.” English has outdone them all “in spite of its challenging pronunciation and disorderly spelling,” but it “had to wait for centuries before political, economic and cultural developments made it go viral.” Since escaping marginality in the 17th century, “English has spread in much the same way as lingua francas always spread: it has followed the power, the money and the good things in life.”
Like any lingua franca, global English has thereby undergone a deracination, losing in cultural attachments what it gains in instrumental value. “Lingua francas as a class are particularly prone to absorb their neighbors’ metaphorical colors,” Dorren writes, and “the more the second-language speakers outnumber native speakers, the more undistinctive the language will become.” Elsewhere he suggests that foreign varieties of English like “Hinglish in India, Uglish in Uganda, Konglish in Korea, and so on, may be harbingers of things to come” — a troubling prospect to someone who’s heard more than enough Konglish for one lifetime. But I suspect that Dorren would file me with “those people who worry that the English language is going to the dogs,” a group he addresses thus in Lingo: “Whatever it is that annoys you — double negatives, the demise of whom, the non-standard usage of literally — linguists will answer that a language is a living thing, and is always changing. You can’t stop the process, so you’d better get used to it.”
The relationship between polyglots and linguists is an uneasy one, though some figures manage to keep a foot on either side of the divide. Thurman profiles Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia, a Peruvian hyperpolyglot and doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics whose research involves a rainforest tribe and something called the “Flux Approach.” Together they attend an academic linguistics conference featuring presentations on “the anatomical similarities in the phonatory apparati of humans and harbor seals” and “hippocampal-dependent declarative memory.” Alexander Argüelles, an American superstar in the polyglot world (Dorren writes of once having shaken his hand) has, in addition to a daily language-learning regimen Thurman describes as “Stakhanovite,” published four books on the Korean language as well as a thesis on symbolism in Old Norse sagas. But on the whole, the priorities of linguists show little overlap with those of avid language-learners.
“When grammar pedants, semantic nit-pickers, pronunciation correctors and other idealistic language lovers protest that linguists don’t try hard enough to stop the ‘degeneration’ of English, German, French or any other language,” Dorren writes, linguists unfailingly respond that “they cannot purposefully steer language in any direction.” But how do language buffs outside of academia feel about the enshrinement of whatever native speakers say, however they say it? They surely have opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of various tongues, just as gearheads seek to understand and appreciate each automobile but also favor some models over others. But, the argument I once started at a party of linguistics graduate students about whether French “sucks” notwithstanding, how many linguists admit to such preferences? We all know what it is to speak and write well, as distinct from what it is to speak and write like a native, and if linguistics refuses to recognize a distinction between good and bad language, I’ve thought at times, so much the worse for linguistics.
Despite describing himself as a “language writer” rather than any kind of linguist, Dorren has in Lingo and Babel written linguist’s books, in that they gather and present mostly settled linguistic knowledge. Some of it is historical: in the former Roman Empire circa 1200, “no two cities shared the same language. Every last village had its own village Latin.” After Germany became “a global powerhouse of science, technology and scholarship” in the 19th century, its language enjoyed the status of “the primary language of scholarly publication” for a few years in the early twentieth. Icelandic has changed so little since the 13th century that Icelanders can and do still sit down and read that era’s sagas for pleasure. Other fun facts have to do with vocabulary: Giratutona, “literally a ‘neck turner,’ is somebody who trims their sails to every wind,” and was in 2004 voted the most beautiful word in Romansh. Cork, an English word borrowing from Spanish, goes back to the year 1300. Utepils, “a typically Norwegian word,” refers to “a lager drunk in the open air” befitting a land where “beer is of the essence” but “sunshine isn’t.”
Each essay in Lingo and Babel focuses on one aspect of the language at hand: the many suffixes usable to describe a woman in Italian; the return from near-extinction of Irish Gaelic and Manx; the rapid-fire quality of Spanish, “the Iberian machine gun”; the devotion that inspires some Tamil-speakers to pick up actual machine guns; the “linguistic gender apartheid” of Japanese. That last, referring to the different styles of speech prescribed for Japanese men and women, occasions from Dorren a faint but unmistakable tone of disapproval. He quotes from an 1893 girls’ primary-school textbook that “a woman’s good speech should not jar one’s ear, but should be soft and lovable, and should not talk reason. […] It is especially disgusting to see a woman speak knowingly and cleverly.” Japanese books still today emphasize “that a woman can improve her attractiveness by changing her way of speaking, and by speaking feminine women’s language, she can be elegant, wise, beautiful, happy and loved.” (She can also go the other direction: “Among themselves they use male language,” longtime American Japan observer Donald Richie once wrote of high-school girls on the streets of Tokyo, “mistaking this for a kind of emancipation.”)
Dorren similarly struggles with the different vocabulary used in Vietnamese to address older or younger interlocutors. “To me, as an egalitarian Western European, such linguistic etiquette is awkward and old-fashioned, and I wonder if it has any chance of surviving in a society that is rapidly modernizing,” he writes. “Don’t young Vietnamese people hate it?” Not all of them: as a young woman he meets in Hanoi puts it, “By calling you ‘uncle,’ my friend ‘sister’ and my Dad ‘father,’ I feel part of a bigger whole,” one in which “I have my own place.” Dorren also gives a chapter of Lingo to the ongoing controversy over the formality of personal pronouns in Swedish: “The informal pronoun, du, seems to be losing ground to ni, its more formal counterpart. Gradually, these two words have come to symbolize opposing visions of society.” Progressive Swedes see the rise of ni as a harbinger of “the return of the class society,” while conservatives see in the universal use of du a case of “misplaced egalitarianism.” (“In countries still bearing traces of civilization,” argues one quoted Swedish blogger, “the option always exists of varying the degree of intimacy by way of word choice.”)
On these matters, differences of opinion will naturally arise between a self-described “egalitarian Western European” and an American in east Asia who wouldn’t even call himself a similaritarian. Every day I speak Korean, a language that adheres to a system of linguistic etiquette much like the one Dorren describes as having preceded the ni–du binary in Sweden: addressing someone older or otherwise higher than myself, I must never use their given name, only their title. (Some titles, like “teacher,” “grandmother,” or “president” are obvious; others demand guesswork.) Dorren credits the beginning of Sweden’s late-1960s “du-reform” to Bror Rexed, director-general of the country’s public health board, who upon taking office announced his startling intention to deal with all employees on a first-name basis. “If Rexed had not taken his stand, his employees would have had to call him herr generaldirektör Rexed,” Dorren writes. “And not as a term of address, mind you — as we might say ‘Mr. Rexed’ — but instead of ‘you’: ‘Would herr generaldirektör Rexed like a biscuit?’”
At this point in my life in Korea, that sentence feels perfectly natural to me. In fact, I enjoy the formal aspects of the Korean language, just as I enjoy those of Japanese when I go to Japan. The two languages share broad grammatical similarities and swathes of vocabulary derived from Chinese, but the deeper one gets into both, the further they diverge. Korean doesn’t draw quite so bold a line between male and female speech, nor do its very highest levels of formality see everyday use. (This in contrast to what in Japan has been labeled baito keigo, the language used by convenience-store clerks whose ever-increasing formality has rendered it unintelligible to many non-native speakers.) Korean arguably allows a greater specificity, possessing, for example, several different future tenses where Japanese, relying more heavily on implication and context, has none. The former also boasts a vast, systematized store of ideophonic terms for sounds and sensations, which Dorren makes the subject of his Korean chapter in Babel, highlighting such terms as pak (“with a rip”), p’ak (with a strong rip), kkam-kkam (“in the pitch-dark”), and k’am-k’am (“in a spooky, desolate dark”).
Both the Korean and Japanese languages reflect the fact that their respective societies offer little formal place to the foreigner. Japanese even has a separate syllabary, katakana, used for writing non-Japanese words, one of the set of systems that make up the “seemingly impenetrable wall of Japanese writing” to which Dorren devotes a chapter of Babel. In recent years, some Japanese hands have begun to wring over the offense potentially inflicted by using katakana to write foreign names. Personally, I can’t say it bothers me. Nor does the task of determining how to linguistically situate myself in alignment with what role my personal characteristics assign me, and in observing how others, through language, position themselves relative to me. My own attitude as regards the “apartheid” of age, gender, or status, in language or other forms of expression, is best summed up in French: vive la différence. Every time I return to my homeland, which eschews Asian-style overt hierarchy for a more covert variety, the undifferentiated casualness of American speech gives me more of a start.
What began in the United States as casualness has devolved into carelessness, and, to my ears, everyday American language now often borders on incoherent. The American attitude toward language is matched by the American attitude toward dress — communication by other means — which makes the Polyglot Conference look like Savile Row. The same hasn’t quite happened in France, large sections of whose society acknowledge strict rules both sartorial and linguistic, though they don’t always obey them. As Dorren puts it, “There is a widespread belief among people speaking French as their mother tongue that they make a deplorably poor job of it.” This has no bearing on their high regard for the French language itself, once the world’s most powerful lingua franca. “Languages of high prestige can easily be mistaken for being superior languages, exceptionally rich and harmonious or even divine,” Dorren cautions. “Many a speaker and writer of Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Latin, Arabic and English has fallen into this trap, and those of French haven’t managed to avoid it either (nor do they seem to have tried very hard).”
Arabs, for their part, “adore their language in a way that makes the French seem moderate in the appreciation of theirs,” and it seems the Tamil poet Bharathidasan speaks for his countrymen when he writes that “Even the pleasures that woman alone give us do not compare to our great Tamil!” Dorren relates all this with what feels like bemusement, even amusement, seemingly having little time for the notion that one language can be superior to another, let alone to all the others. Or at least he doesn’t believe that the virtues of a language — as opposed to its association with wealth and power — determine its status, a position made explicit in a dialogue with an imaginary native English speaker. “But what of its virtues?” pleads this conjured-up Anglophone in favor of his mother tongue. “It’s versatile and adaptable. It readily creates new words, and absorbs words from other languages, and it is known for its egalitarian directness.” Dorren accuses him of trading in “unfounded cliches, I’m sorry to say, bandied about by people who know little of linguistics.”
Even as a native speaker, I too relish the deflation of English’s triumphal pretensions. Some of the hyperpolyglots Thurman meets know English but refuse to use it, “resenting its status as a global bully language — its prepotenza,” as an Italian hyperpolyglot puts it. Another explains her own hyperpolyglotism as “an apology for the dominance of English,” an “antithesis to linguistic chauvinism.” Interviewed at the Polyglot Conference, Dorren quotes the outspoken Anglo-German translator and poet Michael Hofmann calling bilingualism “a blow against stupidity.” More attention has been paid in recent years to how one turns polyglot, in forms such as Michael Erard’s 2012 study of Argüelles and his kind in the book Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, than to why. The terms in which Dorren casts his own linguistic journey, crediting so much to geography and circumstance, sound almost apologetic, but he writes admiringly of Africans, “pragmatic rather than passionate polyglots” who speak a variety of languages out of the simple need to communicate with their neighbors.
“Ironically,” Thurman writes, “as the hegemony of English decreases the need to speak other languages for work or for travel, the cachet attached to acquiring them seems to be growing.” That cachet worked, to an extent, for Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as well as a former candidate for the Democratic nomination in this year’s US presidential election. His wide-ranging polyglotism, uncommon among American politicians, did much to form his boy-wonder public image. “After the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral, he dipped into French to answer questions from French media,” writes Erard in The Atlantic. “He fielded questions from Norwegian journalists in Norwegian, which he’s said to have taught himself in order to read novels in the language.” Buttigieg’s campaign headquarters tells Erard Buttigieg speaks English, Norwegian, Spanish, French, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, and Dari (all languages Dorren has written about). To supporters, this underscored the qualities of intelligence, conscientiousness, and global-mindedness that made “Mayor Pete” presidential material.
To Buttigieg’s detractors, however, his extra languages amounted to so much résumé-padding. Spanish, in which two other candidates, both now also out of the race, awkwardly attempted to outdo each other in a debate last June, will sooner or later become an expectation. (And with good cause: “The U.S. already has more than fifty million Spanish speakers,” Dorren notes, “and by 2050 the Cervantes Institute estimates that it will have more Spanish speakers than any other country in the world.”) Maltese can be excused as cultural inheritance from Buttigieg’s father, an immigrant from Malta. But French, apparent proficiency in which caused John Kerry (also a speaker of Italian, Portuguese, German, and Spanish) so much grief in 2004? Arabic as well as Dari (the version of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan), the choices of which might look too neatly geared toward American interests abroad? In this view, Buttigieg’s polyglotism looks like a choice as unimaginative and calculated-looking as his military-and-McKinsey years after Harvard and Oxford.
Like many members of Buttigieg’s generation, I’ve seen in him a familiar high-school figure: grade-grubbing, rule-following, a teacher’s pet resented even by the teachers, now grown into what I read someone on Twitter astutely call a “LinkedIn profile come to life.” But I do sense a strain of humanity in Mayor Pete’s pursuit of Norwegian, the language whose apparent oddity that has drawn him the most press. He credits his interest to the Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe, and specifically to the English translation of Loe’s Naïve. Super, which inspired him to study Norwegian in order to read the author’s yet-untranslated work. That choice puts some distance between him and Model-UN alumni looking to burnish their appeal to the international relations industry, non-native speakers studying English to improve their job prospects, and other, more utilitarian language-learners. I respect Buttigieg’s engagement with Norwegian through Loe’s novels just as I do Dorren’s mastering English for a fuller appreciation of Right Ho, Jeeves.
Professed enthusiasm for this sort of literature suggests a willingness to invest in a language as one aspect of a larger culture, rather than as a means to a specific economic, professional, or romantic end. Its premise is the opposite of what “communication skills trainer” Marianna Pascal says, chillingly, in a much-viewed TED Talk on language learning: “English today is not an art to be mastered, it’s just a tool to use to get a result.” But then, the goal of attaining technical mastery of as many languages as possible — which entails, for maximum efficiency, the reduction of each language to words, rules, patterns, and behaviors to internalize — necessarily impedes this cultural investment as well, and at the extreme prevents it entirely. Language thereby detaches from culture, an individual-scale version of what happens on the mass scale when a language turns lingua franca. The condition that befalls the language also befalls the art made by and for its speakers: take, for instance, the placeless franchise blockbusters that now feel even more hollowed-out than global English itself.
No wonder some polyglots turn to minor languages relatively coterminous with single, identifiable cultures, like Basque, Icelandic, or Maltese. Acquiring even the basics of such seemingly obscure tongues demands considerable upfront effort on the part of the learner: picking up Maltese, for example, required Rojas-Berscia to actually go to Malta, a trip on which Thurman tagged along taking notes. But even for languages like Welsh, Romanian, and Dorren’s great enemy Vietnamese, there is, now, an app for that — or rather, there are several apps for that. “If Rojas-Berscia can speak twenty-two languages, perhaps you can crank up your high-school Spanish or bat-mitzvah Hebrew, or learn enough of your grandma’s Korean to understand her stories,” writes Thurman. “Such is the promise of online language-learning programs like Pimsleur, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and Duolingo: in the brain of every monolingual, there’s a dormant polyglot — a genie — who, with some brisk mental friction, can be woken up.”
I myself have become a Duolingo addict, as I wrote about last year on the LARB Korea Blog, or at least I’ve become a serious daily user. But mild amazement at its effectiveness as a language-learning tool comes alongside awareness of its limitations, given the essentially social nature of the subject at hand. “You have to inhabit a language,” Thurman writes after making an attempt of her own on Vietnamese through Duolingo. “I should have been hanging out in New York’s Little Saigon, rather than staring at a screen.” In The Atlantic, David H. Freedman writes of using Duolingo to become “a master of multiple-choice Italian. Given a bunch of words to choose from, I could correctly assemble impressive communiqués. But without a prompt, I was as speechless in even the most basic situations as any boorish American tourist.” As the most functional polyglots know, any given app — or textbook, video series, podcast, or tutor — constitutes just one part of a balanced language-learning diet.
Freedman eventually finds himself able, with all the Italian structures drilled into his brain by Duolingo, to more easily absorb from the good old dictionary and phrase book “what I hadn’t been able to get from Duolingo — grammar, vocabulary, and, most important, an ability to engage in simple conversations in typical situations.” This kind of digitally assisted but essentially traditional learning is a perhaps a less expected result of the convergence between technology and language, whose longer-anticipated fruits include automatic translation services. Inspired by the Babel fish, the creature from Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who interprets between all known languages to anyone who sticks it in his ear (and in real life the namesake of an early, both laughable and impressive web translation app), Dorren envisions the eventual arrival of the digital “Babel chip”: “You speak Malay to me, or Portuguese or Punjabi, and in my earphone I hear whatever language I’ve chosen.”
Despite great advances in machine translation, the development, acceptance, and widespread usage of such a device remains, for now, the stuff of science fiction. “In the medium term,” Dorren writes, “I’d back English to continue its dominance, while undergoing a variety of regional changes, with the Babel chip playing an increasingly important part. In the long run, I expect artificial intelligence will take over — linguistically, and no doubt in many other ways.” This equanimity, bordering on fatalism, is hardly what one expects from a man who has devoted so much of his life to learning about the world’s languages. He acknowledges, at Babel’s very end, a fully Babel-chipped world as a “great loss,” one in which few will know “the joys of bilingualism — the mental agility, better understanding of other cultures and the endless surprises of a second language.” But having read Lingo and Babel, and having learned much of linguistic interest along the way, I’m left with an unanswered question: what kind of linguistic world does Gaston Dorren want?
One could ask the same of many serious polyglots, whose pursuits, despite having everything to do with human communication, can shade from the individual into the hermetic. “[W]hen I fall in love with a language, I have to learn it,” Rojas-Berscia tells Thurman. “There’s no practical motive — it’s a form of play.” Though as a polyglot I fall short of the standard set by Dorren, let alone by Rojas-Berscia, I do often dream of a world without global English, and indeed without a global language at all. (The idea appeals in the same manner as that of the absence of a dominant geopolitical power, dire though the immediate consequences of either reality might be.) This doesn’t mean I would confine us all to our native languages, but that communication across cultures would occur on a one-to-one basis — the Peruvian learning the French language as a necessary tool to pursue his affinity for French culture, the Japanese company getting its staff conversant in Spanish and Spanish-speaking cultures for an expansion into Latin America — rather than many-to-many through a single, diminished linguistic medium.
My own language-learning may be a kind of preparation for such a world, however unlikely its emergence. Being the change I wish to see requires me to make cultural and linguistic investments in the places I go; in the case of Mandarin, an abhorrence of using English to communicate in Taiwan motivated me to take it up on Duolingo and elsewhere. Yes, I’d still be using a lingua franca, per Dorren’s description, but at least it wouldn’t be a global lingua franca. More linguistically legitimate reasons include gaining a stronger knowledge of the aforementioned Mandarin-derived vocabulary in two of my other languages, Korean and Japanese. And at the core remains the argument for language study as personal development, though accruing “mental agility” and other such practical benefits motivates me less to acquire one language after another (or rather, several in parallel, slowly) than does building a concept of language itself.
For most of the nearly 25 years I spent never having gone beyond the United States and Canada, I had no concept of language. No monoglot does, whichever country they come from: Dorren writes of the British, for example, that their “passion for language, though intense, generally takes form in a somewhat exclusive fascination for English.” But to rework a question posed by a noted British man of letters, what do they know of English, who only English know? We can no more understand language knowing only one language, however intimately we know it, than we can understand the automobile knowing only one model. Deliberately gain proficiency in foreign tongues, and you also gain awareness of the possibilities and limitations of your mother tongue. In Lingo and Babel, Dorren, as much a language gearhead as a language writer, shares what he sees when he looks under the hood — or as he prefers, “under the bonnet” — of models from around the world.
The attendant enrichment of Dorren’s exploration of language has surely placed him well to take on his latest learning project. “[B]efore even making a full recovery from the previous bout,” he writes in a January blog post in reference to his battle with Vietnamese, “I’ve contracted a new language.” He did so on his book tour for Babel’s Polish edition, during which he found himself unable to resist the three genders, seven cases, and “twelve different hissy sounds” heard all around him. Mastering Polish won’t bring Dorren hyperpolyglot status, but it will make him the equal of the famous historical polyglot 19th-century Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. In addition to the organizational genius he displayed on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, it was said, writes aphorist Aaron Haspel, that Moltke the Elder “could hold his tongue in seven languages. Now there is an epitaph to aspire to.”