In a place like Hong Kong, where every child seems to be learning at least two languages, there is, at the very least, a practical argument for bilingualism: learning a second language (in Hong Kong, usually English) opens doors for future opportunities. For Hong Kong’s anglophone minority speakers this argument continues with many parents hoping their children gain exposure to Cantonese and Mandarin at school. And it is increasingly not uncommon to see a child speak one language with one parent, a second language with another and then two to three languages at school.
But in his book Four Words for Friend, Marek Kohn argues that there are benefits beyond the practical in learning a second (a third, a fourth) language. For Kohn, being a bilingual (his languages are English and Polish)
forms part of one’s basic understanding of the nature of language, expression, though and meaning. Although it may go unrecognised in everyday life, it is still there, embedded in one’s cognitive constitution. It colours the way one apprehends the world.
Kohn argues that for bilinguals, both languages are “continuously active”, therefore affecting how one thinks, develops and understands the world.
This ability to use more than one language matters, as the book’s subtitle says, more than ever and Kohn investigates a number of different issues and questions related to bilingualism. One of the ideas he tackles early in the book is the idea of the “bilingualism ideal”—that where the speakers speaks both languages with equal fluency. People tend to see fluency as a binary yes/no rather than a continuum, but Kohn argues that “balanced” bilinguals are the exception rather than the norm and “bilingualism should not be defined by them”—advice that might handy for anyone who is functional in a language, but who may not have (yet) achieved “native” fluency.
Kohn writes fluidly and his book is full of interesting research and interviews. He looks at bilingualism from a number of perspectives, from the idea of languages as “badges of belonging” (and, conversely, as a way to exclude) to the “foreign language effect” in bodies such as the European Union where English might be the lingua franca but where English is also a foreign language. Kohn also looks at language policies in Latvia (where the existence of a Russian-speaking minority makes language political) and, in Asia, how Singapore has “embraced multilingualism, and regards the two superpower languages, English and Mandarin, as assets rather than threats”.
Kohn also looks at some of the increasing number of studies on bilingualism and the brain. One study showed that
among healthy older people, lifelong bilinguals had kept their white matter, the brain’s connective fibre, in better condition than their monolingual peers had.
Younger bilinguals showed similar enhancements in both grey and white matter. In another study, in India, where “speaking more than one language appeared to delay dementia by four and a half years”. There are, of course, sceptics and Kohn also notes research that has failed to find any advantage. There is also the matter of where the research takes place. Research in countries with a more positive view of bilingualism tend to be more positive, and negative where views of bilingualism are more “ambivalent”.
Monolingual, anglophone readers form Kohn’s core audience and for readers who are not in a place where bilingualism is the norm then Kohn’s book offers plenty of evidence on why it might be good to start learning another language. But for readers who do use—or wish to use—more than one language, there is still much to be gained for Kohn’s book from the perhaps less tangible benefits to learning another language to the encouragement to, well, just get talking. As he writes,