In an age of Brexit and closing borders we need to embrace multilingualism

Being able to speak to people in their own tongue instantly breaks down hostility and broadens the mind. But in the age of Brexit, the acquisition of other languages has become a political act. Andy Martin wonders was there ever a Big Bang moment when we all understood each other?

Andy Martin
Monday 05 June 2017 11:54
The usefulness of learning a foreign language lies in 'recognising that your mother tongue can define your thoughts, and if you learn another one you can open your mind to new constructions'
The usefulness of learning a foreign language lies in 'recognising that your mother tongue can define your thoughts, and if you learn another one you can open your mind to new constructions'

Remember how good it used to be? How this was once a green and pleasant land? How nice people used to be way back when? How politicians were completely straight and forthright and trustworthy? Ah, those were the days! Now it’s gone to the dogs of course. But maybe we can get it back again…?

Cobblers. You don’t remember any such thing. You just think you do. Otherwise known as nostalgia. The golden age mentality. I think it’s built into the brain, something to do with the way we process information, subject to some kind of cognitive jet-lag. Cue déjà-vu, cue nostalgia. Let’s face it, people have always lied.

I have a friend in New York who tends to hark back to the good old days of truth-speaking. Yes, he lives on the eleventh floor of a tall building in Manhattan, but he occasionally looks out of the window at Central Park and he dreams of being a hunter-gatherer. And he reckons that once upon a time it was all, “there is a woolly mammoth on the other side of that hill”. Helpful, constructive remarks like that. Come on, lads, there’ll be a feast tonight! But the fact is you could point to the passing “mammoth” and bash the guy over the head with your club so you can go and steal his woman. As soon as you have truth you have the potential for falsehood, right from the off.

I was reminded of this the other night when I happened to go to a concert in Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, which included Steve Reich and Wagner but also featured a (I suspect) rarely performed work by Erwin Schulhoff, the so-called “Sonata Erotica” for solo female voice. The whole piece, which went on for quite a while, was the sound of a woman having an orgasm. Possibly several orgasms, it’s hard to know. I really need to have a proper look at the score.

Like Ravel’s Boléro, but without any actual music as such. Not so much crescendo, more climax. And amid all the groaning and sighing there was the occasional word for good measure eg schnell! or bitte! (this being “sung” in German). At the end of it, the woman sitting next to me, Joy Connolly, muttered something about: “Well, that was a bit short!” To me it seemed long. Then she added rather shrewdly: “You can tell that was written by a guy – it was purely reactive. Passive. I would prefer more engagement.”

Until that point I had been thinking, naively, something like my friend dreaming of hunter-gatherers, that this was the real thing – the visceral genesis of language right there. It’s one of the great questions posed over the past few thousand years – human language: where did it all begin? Promethean fire? The fruit of the tree of knowledge? Neolithic indigestion?

The erotic sonata inspired the thought that actual vocabulary, forming as recently as one or two hundred thousand years ago, must have been something like the foam – an “ejaculation” after all – bubbling up out of this biological spring. “Le cri de la nature” as Rousseau said, the birthplace of language.

Martin Pescador - 2012 Spanish embassy short film prize winner

But, as Joy Connolly reminded me, this was actually a performance. There was a woman behind a curtain, who took a bow at the end. She was only pretending to have an orgasm. Faking it. Sex is not the realm of truth, any more than politics is. It’s more like a conversation, with a lot of scope for misunderstanding built in. Or as Serge Gainsbourg neatly summed it up: “Je t’aime moi non plus” (I love you, me neither).

We’re all desperately seeking a single origin to everything, a Big Bang moment. There must have been a primal form of language, mustn’t there? A time when we all knew what we were talking about and everyone understood one another? A Tower of Babel, before it got torn down by the vengeful Yahweh and our one language was “confounded” , chopped up, and recycled into thousands of different ones? Could English/“Globish” be the answer to the problem?

Connolly: 'They tell us the spread of languages is all about trade or conquest. It’s military-colonial. I think we need new models for language learning' (JessIca Lehrman)

But language was always an evolutionary mash-up of random phonemes. Professor Joy Connolly, to give her her full title, provost at the graduate centre of City University New York (or CUNY for short), can speak a lot of them, with a lilting New England accent. She is a classicist, fluent in Ancient Greek and Latin, and the author of The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome, who therefore knows a lot of good and occasionally quite obscure words, many of them no longer in common parlance.

She says she also has forgotten quite a lot, so I guess that evens out. As we wandered back across Washington Square she taught me a new word (new to me, at any rate) – “mudita”. Apparently it’s from the Sanskrit and means something like “taking pleasure in the pleasure of others”. A useful antidote to the better known schadenfreude, ie taking pleasure in the pain or discomfort of others. It’s hard to be a teacher, she said, without having some kind of propensity for mudita, because you want students to do well, not fail miserably. “English,” she said, “doesn’t contain all the words you need.”

MML The movie

The question is: do we really need all these words? And do we really need to speak other languages? What is the point? I had a word with Bridget Kendall – known to many as BBC diplomatic correspondent, formerly based in Moscow, and now first female Master of Peterhouse, at the University of Cambridge. She reckons it’s all about popping the bubble of your own narrow, rigid world-view, which you are so used to you don’t even know it’s there.

The usefulness of learning a foreign language, she says, lies in “recognising that your mother tongue can define your thoughts, and if you learn another one you can open your mind to new constructions and means of expression”. Last week she was launching a new online journal, Languages, Society and Policy, at the British Academy, part of a larger project called “Multilingualism: empowering Individuals, transforming societies”.

Bridget Kendall: 'I couldn’t remember where the stress lies on the Russian verb to spy so I had to work around it'

In the age of Brexit, the acquisition of other languages has become a political act. “Trump ought to learn a language,” a multilingual New York lawyer said to me the other day, “it would make him less arrogant and cocksure. He’s still working on his English though.”

Bridget Kendall herself has clearly been empowered by languages. She even got to interview President Putin on prime-time live TV, in Russian. Impressive, except for one minor but then again rather major glitch. Funny how you never get this coming up in John Le Carré novels: “I couldn’t remember where the stress lies on the Russian verb, “to spy” (shpionit – and it should be on the O, she says now), so I had to work around it.”

I suppose that rules her out as an actual spy therefore. Which is a pity. I note that if you want a career as a spy, it helps to have a decent command of languages. Look at all those false passports you have to carry. You’re going to get caught out if you can’t speak the language. James Bond, for example, took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge. Jason Bourne, similarly, is pretty deft with the words as well as the lethal punches.

Joy Connolly is a bit like that. A tall redhead from an Irish Catholic family, she puts me in mind of Emma Peel in The Avengers, but with greater knowledge of Homer. She likes to “whomp” a punchbag at the gym every day and knows the difference between a roundhouse and an uppercut. But she says she prefers “negotiation” (and “collaboration and sharing resources” is her personal theory of the aetiology of language). If you don’t have the words, then the peaceful option is not looking a good bet. It’s probably why most pub fights start. “You what?” “What?” “OK, you asked for it.”

Bridget Kendall similarly thought that her command of Russian very often kept her safe from harm: “In a crowd of people suspicious of Western journalists, being able to speak to them in their own language broke down the hostility very quickly.'' It was like having a protective aura “in a war zone or at an armed checkpoint”.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein said that “the limits of language mean the limits of my world”. But he also thought that there was one right kind of language that would “mirror” the world. He changed his mind though. In Philosophical Investigations, he speaks of different “language games”. Being able to speak different languages broadens out your options in the global village. If you only speak one it’s the linguistic equivalent of playing Grand Theft Auto for the rest of your life. Are you going to listen to just one band – forever? Gets to be a bit monotonous after a while.

Bridget Kendall says that speaking Russian was “a door opening on to an almost unrecognisable world”. She said that when she arrived in the USSR back in the eighties, it was so “outlandishly cut off” it was like “landing on a different planet. Understanding the social and political connotations only came through living there.” She gave a specific example. “‘Malenky radosti’, the ‘little pleasures (of life)’ in a society where so many things were forbidden or impossible, carried a poignancy you cannot translate.”

There may be something of this in the science fiction film, Arrival, which has aliens landing on earth (or not quite landing: their massive vehicles are parked peacefully a couple of yards up in the air) and is the only Hollywood production known to me with a linguistician heroine who dares to speak of “the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”. Rather like Keanu Reeves learning to surf in five minutes flat in Point Break, it doesn’t take that long to crack the alien code and start conversing with amiable semi-omniscient heptapods.

I won’t give away the ending (which is also the beginning, oddly) but suffice to say that learning an extraterrestrial language gives you a wonderfully different take on time and space. But even terrestrial languages are a little like that because words represent thoughts you otherwise can’t have. An obvious case of nomadic polyglottism that springs to mind is that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, lapsed Muslim, and fluent in Somali, English, Arabic, and Dutch, whose gift for picking up different languages helped her escape the constraints of her genealogy and upbringing. Learning another language is a form of personal liberation.

Which is why, back in New York, Joy Connolly is so insistent that everyone, and not just the lucky few, should have the opportunity. She has the zeal of a true evangelist. “We’re not telepathic beings,” she said. “We need some way of expressing our needs and desires. How could I not want more fruitful communication for every democratic citizen?” She had reservations about the social science narrative about languages. “They tell us the spread of languages is all about either trade or conquest. It’s military-colonial. I think we need some new models for language learning.”

I agree, and I would say it’s all about pleasure. The pleasure of forming different sounds and reading and writing a different script. It’s like morphing into a different person. One “Heather” I know has to become “Rachel” when she goes abroad, because her first name is virtually unpronounceable elsewhere. With multilingual skills under your belt, you can (at a stretch) do a James Joyce or a Samuel Beckett.

Also, on a more mundane level, you’re going to get laid more (should you so choose). It’s an evolutionary reward for nomads. If language doesn’t begin with an earth-shattering orgasm, maybe it ends with it. I think that scene in Last Tango in Paris between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider (no conversation, pure body language) is very much the exception. And anyway, you still have to be able to say something afterwards, even if it’s only goodbye.

Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of ‘Make Me’ and teaches at the University of Cambridge. Follow @andymartinink

For more on the multilingualism project, see

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