Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Multilingualism and its Discontents

I am fluent in English because, well: I am English. It’s my mother-tongue, and my father-tongue too, and I work the edge of its blade against the whetstone of practice every day as a writer. Nothing to boast about there.

What else? I speak French, but haltingly, awkwardly, after the manner of an Englishman: which is to say, mal and avec un accent atroce. I cannot claim that I ‘speak’ Latin, or Greek, though I have a Classics degree and have produced academic work in both tongues. Were a betoga’d Roman to step out of a time-machine in my sitting room, startled and wreathed in quantum steam, I would stumble and stutter and not understand the simplest commands. One cannot polish-up one’s Latin by taking a two month holiday in Cicero’s Rome, in the way one can improve one’s French via a spell in the Dordogne, after all.

My self-consciousness about my linguistic limitations is acute, akin to shame. I’m not stupid, and I love ‘language’ as such. But learning a whole other language is a fantastically complex and involved business, and despite a generalised desire to be more multiligual I have not carved-out the time or mental space, or put in the punishing linguistic-gym reps, to have mastered German, or Russian (which I mention because in both cases I have had work-related reasons for acquiring a smattering of expression) or anything else. I am very much not proud of this. I could do better — I’m smart — but it’s so time-consuming, and I have so much else to occupy my energies and brainpower.

This is a prelude to a different point than just my personal inadequacies (large though that topic be). The fact is: learning a language is a complex task. It requires a lot of effort, the mastery of difficult interlocking skills-bases to do with vocabulary and syntax, grammar and idiom; plus, of course, it’s eminently practical. Like building a motorbike from scratch. It ought (excuse me for a moment, while I slip deliberately into self-consciously sexist mode) to be an archetypally manly activity. But it’s not. On the contrary. The popular conception of the linguistically multi-skilled individual is either fey, effeminate and ineffectual, like this geezer:

Or fey and psychotic like this one:

I appreciate, of course, that I’m only talking about an Anglocentric position (of course things are very different on the Continent, for instance). But even so: I’m at something of a loss to explain the default hostility aroused by the individual who can speak many languages fluently. Is it that linguistic versatility is seen as being fundamentally slippery, evasive and so on? I mean, that would be bullshit. But perhaps it’s how many people, especially the monolingual majority, feel.

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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