Category Archives: Language Learning

Bilingualism – and how to get there

Published in the July/August edition of TableAUS, the magazine of Australian Mensa

The Joys of Bilingualism and How to Get There

I have the pleasure of teaching two adult classes in French. When other people find out this fact, their first question is, ‘Why would anyone learn another language?’ In fact, most of the class members ask the same question. Learning a language as an adult is a hard slog, and, at the rate of a lesson a week, is likely to take three years to be able to conduct a simple conversation. [1]

Sure, in a few months, I can give people the confidence to negotiate customs, direct a taxi driver, check in at the hotel and order a good wine, but the 4,000 words said to be needed to hold up one end of a conversation with their supporting grammar and non-verbal clues take longer. [2]

For older people, one obvious benefit of the process of learning a language is the delay of mental deterioration. One study showed that bilinguals with Alzheimer’s were diagnosed on average four years later than their monolingual peers. The mental agility required to learn a language evidently holds bilinguals in good stead.

New research suggests that people making decisions in their second language may be more objective than when they make similar decisions in their mother-tongue. These studies used standard tests requiring the participants to balance risks. In the mother tongue, people were more likely to avoid a possible 30% loss than make a possible 70% gain; in their second language, they could more easily see that the risk was the same in both cases.  So bilinguals (may) make better investment decisions and relationship choices! [3]

Neuroscientists are surprised at the mental flexibility of bilinguals because not only do their brains have to store the vocabulary and grammar of both languages, when they speak, they activate both languages. This may explain why bilinguals may be slightly slower at recalling specific words in the language they are using, but it also reveals the benefit of more flexible thinking.

When we lived in multilingual Mauritius, we were amused at the strategy Mauritians used when they couldn’t recall a word: they simply switched over to the other language.

Some linguists believe that a second language gives the speaker a different framework for understanding the world. The scholars Sapir and Whorf in the early 20th Century proposed that the language you speak forces you into the worldview of that culture and language. This hypothesis is controversial, not least because it is hard to test.

Scholars have tried to devise conclusive tests.

For example, the range of words for colour differs in different languages. English, for example, makes a distinction between blue and green, and we can pick these colours when we see them. In some languages, there is only word for what English regards as two colours and speakers of those languages make no distinction between blue and green objects. Researchers believe that this means they may not see the difference.

Most linguists today accept a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the language you are speaking has some influence on your world-view. As a bilingual, I cannot judge how much I am influenced by the world-views of French and English as I use them, but I observe that the French language forces you into expressions which have different implications in each language. For example, when in English I say, ‘We must’ in French I would say ‘Il faut’. This literally means ‘it is necessary’, and I speculate on how much French takes away personal responsibility by using the more impersonal turn of phrase.

At a lighter level, idioms in different languages reveal the way we think about each other. In French, the English expression ‘to take French leave’ is ‘filer à l’anglaise’ (slip away in the English manner)! The claim that French idioms are more logical than their English counterparts is borne out by the French version of ‘I read it in black and white’ – ‘Je l’ai lu en noir sur blanc’, ‘I read it in black on white’. Does the fact that French has one word only for ‘sand’ and ‘gravel’ – le sable – mean that French speakers have a different mental picture of a beach?

I get fascinated by these small – and probably unscientific – differences, and they have the bonus of clarifying my thinking, of hunting out the imagery behind idioms to check what I actually mean when I use them. Knowing two languages may lead to clearer more nuanced thinking.

The other benefit that researchers often overlook is the access a second language gives you to a crowd of potential friends, to the riches of another culture (not every novel is translated into English, and not every movie is sub-titled), and to seeing history through different eyes (World War 2 has a difference resonance for the French than for us Australians.)

So if you are thinking of learning a new language, commit to a few months, a few years or a lifetime. The very attempt will reap great benefits!

[2] Paul  Nation and Robert Waring, “Vocabulary Size, Test Coverage and Word Lists,” Accessed 22/5/2012
[3] Jonah Lehrer, “The Benefits of Being Bilingual”, May 15, 2012 Wired Magazine,,   Accessed 21/5/2012


Beyond Babel

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1975. (507 pages, Hardback)
(Online price for used paperback from $AU10).

Reviewed by Ted Witham

George Steiner reminds us what a wonderful and impossible task translation is.  Steiner takes us to the source of the problem, which is our ignorance of what language is: neither the philosophy of language, nor the science of linguistics has come close to unravelling this mystery.

Words are certainly not a one-for-one description of an object.  There is nothing simple about the relation between the word “dog ” and the animal lying at my feet.  In addition, every word comes with its history, some of its inscribed on its surface, and some of it in deeper resonances.

Language is certainly not the simple giving of information, like the alarm signal one chook gives to the group that a hawk is overhead. Animals, Steiner claims, never lie.  In contrast, most human speech utterances are designed to conceal as much as they reveal.  As social animals, human beings present their best face by shaping their words for many and mainly hidden purposes.

Even the  instant interpretation bilinguals provide for their monolingual friends which has the addition of facial and bodily gestures is a very loose communication.  It reminds us, however, that language is far more than words on the page.  Written language is analogous to a musical score.

Steiner illustrates history’s ambivalence about translation from the history of Bible translation. There have always been those who claim that Hebrew (or is it Greek?) is God’s language, and any attempt to translate it into the vulgate will despoil its sacredness.  Against those have always been others urging the translation of sacred texts as part of spreading the good news contained in them.

So translation is a daunting task.  If every word has its own history in its own language, then how can it be translated into the words of another language?  Playwrights in English, for example, have echoes of Shakespeare.  If you are translating a modern playwright into French, the Shakespearean allusions will inevitably be lost.  One solution is to make the French translation thick with invented resonances like those of an invented French Shakespeare lending his echoes to the current translation.

How can translators know all the context of a text they are translating into their own language?  Many years ago I took it on myself to translate Ionesco’s Le Roi se meurt into English.  At the time I was immersed in Ionesco’s existential contemporaries Camus and Sartre, and I think I was aware of some of the psychological dimensions of the piece: the King as self. But I knew very little of Ionesco’s Romanian history and only a tiny bit about the Dadaist and absurdist sources for his work.  How could I, or any one translator, be deeply immersed in all of that?

Translators need some grasp of how we understand, hermeneutics, and consciously use that knowledge in their translation.  Specifically, Steiner commends a fourfold movement:

  •  We begin in an approach to the text drenched in love and trust.  This text, we say to ourselves, has something worthwhile to say at least to us. 
  •  We then move to attack mode, analysing the text.  How does it communicate through meaning, syntax, and sound and thought?
  •  Then we transform, rendering the text into a new form lying somewhere along the continuum from literal to literary. 
  •  The fourth movement, Steiner names “compensation” or ” all that “.  In some way, our translation has to revalue the original for a new audience.

This is not to suggest that Steiner’s is primarily a technical manual.  He raises questions rather than describes methods.  He takes the philosophy of language and the then infant science of evolutionary biology to its limits and finds only mystery.  His critiques of Chomsky’s generative grammar and Steven Pinker’s proposition that there is only one human language underlying the hundreds of languages still stand in 2012.

He gives outstanding examples of good translations.  He presents in inter-linear form Pierre Leyris’ breathtaking translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty which so moved me that I copied it out.

But above all, After Babel swirls with rich ideas about language and how we share it with others.  What is Babel? Is the multitude of tongues, which our planet experiences as the norm, actually preferable to the hegemony of just one language? Is Babel the attempt to impose politically correct language to the private version of language each individual speaks? The Bible presents Pentecost as Babel’s antidote, and the miracle of Pentecost is precisely the mutual understanding of many languages.

It may be that the translator, whether interpreting a text from a far off culture and language, or explaining a passage from Jane Austen, is doing her part to bring in Pentecost.

Le fleuve – The River [Thoughts on Language Learning]


Le fleuve

Apprendre une langue c’est comme apprendre nager dans un fleuve.

On commence en barbotant près de la rive, puis en marchant jusqu’aux genoux, puis, lentement, lentement, on nage dans les profondeurs.

Le clé caractéristique d’un fleuve c’est qu’un fleuve est un courant. Il coule. C’est toujours le même et toujours différent.  On ne peut pas attraper l’eau d’un fleuve dans un seau et la garder jusqu’au lendemain.

L’eau coule. Les rivages restent plus au moins les mêmes. Il y a une stabilité fondamentale du fleuve. C’est vrai, les rives peuvent se changent pendant les années, mais ces changements historiques ne trouble pas le débutant.

Ça veut dire qu’on apprend une langue dès le premier instant en l’écoutant.

On sent le fleuve dans les jambes, dans les mains, dans le corps, dans l’oreille.

La mémorisation, l’analyse et le grammaire sont tous les outils utiles, mais les deux facteurs indispensables d’apprendre une langue sont l’exposition et l’expérimentation.

Alors la bonne nouvelle est que :

  • Vous connaissez TOUJOURS plus que vous vous rendez compte de connaître.
  • La langue elle-même est votre professeur. Elle se corrige ; la tâche est de rester dans le courant.
  • Vous avez bien des chances à être exposé à la langue (nos leçons, la radio SBS, l’Internet, au marché de Vasse, etc.)
  • Vous pouvez vous amuser à jouer près du rivage. Alors, amusez-vous bien !
  • Toute personne qui parle le français est en train d’apprendre nager. Nous sommes tous dans une gamme du bébé au maître ! J’ai une facilité assez avancée en français, mais je rencontre tous les jours les rochers (les paroles que je ne connais pas), les rapides (un idiome, une expression) et les virages (nouvelle signification d’une parole que je connais) et beaucoup de plus. C’est amusant, et souvent frustrant.

Le fleuve qui est la langue française et un beau fleuve élégant, souple, séduisant. Vous avez bien choisi quand vous avez choisi de nager dans ce fleuve-ci.


The River

Learning a language is like learning to swim in a river.

We begin by paddling near the bank, then walking up to our knees, then slowly, slowly, we swim in the deep.

The key characteristic of a river is that it is a current. It flows. It is always the same and always different. We cannot trap the water of a river in a bucket and keep it until tomorrow.

Water flows. The banks remain much the same. The river has a fundamental stability. True, banks can change over years, but these historic changes don’t trouble the beginner.

This means from the first instant that we learn a language by listening to it.

We feel the river in our legs and hands, in our bodies, in our ears

 Memorising, analysing and learning grammar are all useful tools, but the two indispensable factors in learning a language are being exposed to it and trying it out.

So the good news is:

  • You ALWAYS know more French than you realise you know.
  • The language is your teacher. It corrects itself. The task is staying in the flow.
  • You have many opportunities to be exposed to the language (our classes, SBS radio, the Internet, at the Vasse Markets, etc.)
  • You can have fun playing near the bank. So have fun.
  • Every person who speaks French is in the process of learning to swim. We are all on a range from baby to master. My fluency in French is quite high, but every day I come up against rocks (words I don’t know), rapids (a new idiom or expression), and sudden hairpin bends (a word I know but with a new meaning) and much more. It’s fun and often frustrating.

The river called the French language is beautiful, elegant, supple, seductive. You chose well when you chose to learn to swim in this river.