Bilingualism is good for you. But monoglots needn’t despair

Learning another language is wonderful. You may not completely buy the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – the deliciously sci-fi name given by linguists to the idea that the words we use determine the thoughts we think. But knowing that the French have “fat mornings” instead of lie-ins, or that in Farsi the part of you that gets broken is not the heart but the gut, gives you a level of insight into the modes and mores of a culture that it is impossible to get by any other means.

Scientists tell us that learning a language is good for our brains, too. Evidence presented this week in the Annals of Neurology suggests speaking more than one language improves cognition. Leszek Borysiewicz, the Polish-born vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, told this newspaper that it conferred “huge advantages”. Schoolchildren, he believes, should be encouraged “to become as bilingual as they possibly can be”.

I heartily agree. Children raised with two languages are lucky indeed. But for the rest of us, the very fact of being monolingual can be a spur to intellectual discovery, so long as you’re at least exposed to the idea of other languages. My early thought on the subject was strongly influenced by my sister’s attempt to convince me that French was simply English backwards: our “dog” was their “god” and vice versa. I also believed there were so many languages in the world that simply by babbling nonsense I would end up saying something meaningful in one of them.

That last experiment must have been inspired by my dad, who, being Iranian, was often found on the end of the phone making bizarre noises into the receiver. Over the years, my siblings and I learned to recognise a few words. Tarjimmykonee was one, azbezutumkay another. We repeated them like magical incantations, and they meant as much to us as “abracadabra” did. But we knew they stood for something, and they felt all the more powerful for it.

When I found out what these phrases actually were, I realised how far our English ears had distorted them: tavajoh mikonee literally means “Are you paying attention?” – perhaps better translated as “Do you follow?”. Arz be hozuretan ke means, delightfully, “a petition to your presence that … ” – a very formal, old-fashioned phrase that amounts to “If I could just say … ”

As I got older, I grew increasingly frustrated that this world of knowledge had been denied to me. I knew that parents had the power to transmit language to their children; it seemed to come down naturally through the generations, like hair colour or the shape of your nose. But I had missed out. “Why didn’t you teach us Farsi?” I complained. The answers – “I didn’t have time” and “Your mother didn’t speak it” – seemed feeble then but are understandable in retrospect: he was working full time, in a completely English environment, knowing that I would have no one to practise with when he wasn’t there. No one talks about a “father tongue”, after all.

When I was 12 or 13, I tried to learn Farsi on my own, kitting myself out with Linguaphone cassettes and an exercise book. I crawled part of the way through the strange new alphabet but didn’t have the discipline – who would, at that age, with no classmates, no teacher, no one to get into trouble with for unfinished homework? When I got to university I decided there was only one option. If I was locked into a regime of daily lectures, grammar exercises and conversation classes, with the prospect of some very difficult exams at the end of it, then I would probably, finally, manage it. I stopped studying history, switched department and embarked on a degree in Arabic and Persian.

The next three years were completely fascinating, though not always plain sailing. But what I learned was that the “sensitive period” for the acquisition of language had long passed. I would never be bilingual, much less pass for a native speaker. My fascination with the way that languages worked – driven by that feeling of being locked out of my dad’s verbal world – grew into a love of linguistics.

So even if Borysiewicz’s prize remains out of reach, the study of language has hugely enriched my life. I can only echo his comments: if you have the opportunity to learn – or, better still, pass on – a language, then grab it with both hands. – By David Shariatmadari © Guardian News and Media 2014

Image – AFP

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