— Thomas Jerome Baker (@profesortbaker) January 28, 2014
Which is easier: learn a second language or sing a song in 25 languages? Intuitively, most people would probably answer that it is easier to sing a song in 25 languages than learn a second language. After all, for the song you only have to learn a few words and phrases. You don’t really have to “know” the language.
Samuel Johnson, in 1761, summed up this concept quite nicely: (quote) “To use two languages familiarly and without contaminating one by the other, is very difficult; and to use more than two is hardly to be hoped. The prizes which some have received for their multiplicity of languages may be sufficient to excite industry, but can hardly generate confidence.” (end of quote) From this, we can understand that someone singing a song in 25 languages is not the same as truly knowing a second language.
So, what does it mean to “know” a language? I have asked a question that will be answered differently by many people. The linguist might answer this way: “Knowing a language means knowing what to say, to whom, when, where, why and how to say it in any given communicative situation.”
This definition seems to cover everything we need to consider about what it means to “know” a language. Yet, as we shall see, it doesn’t even scratch the surface. What it means to “know” a language is very profound. There is more to this than what meets the eye at first glance.
We can not be satisfied with any answer until we probe, examine and analyse (what it means to know a language) from another point of view, another angle, another perspective. This is a tremendously provocative question for many people. For example:
(quote) “The more languages you know, the more of a person you are. – European Commission
(quote) “second language: ‘A language acquired by a person in addition to his mother tongue’. – UNESCO
(quote) “I have never known what is Arabic or English, or which one was really mine beyond any doubt. What I do know, however, is that the two have always been together in my life, one resonating in the other, sometimes ironically, sometimes nostalgically, most often each correcting, and commenting on, the other. Each can seem like my absolutely first language, but neither is. – Edward Said 1999
(quote) “We do not for example say that the person has a perfect knowledge of some language L similar to English but still different from it. What we say is that the child or foreigner has a ‘partial knowledge of English’ or is ‘on his or her way’ towards acquiring knowledge of English, and if they reach this goal, they will then know English.” – Chomsky, 1986, p.16
(quote) “Can an African ever learn English well enough to be able to use it effectively in creative writing? Certainly yes. If on the other hand you ask: Can he ever learn to use it as a native speaker? I should say, “I hope not.” It is neither necessary nor desirable for him to be able to do so. The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry out his peculiar experience.” – Chinua Achebe, 1965, ‘English and the African writer’, Transition, 18, 27-30
By now the complexity of knowing a language is clear. This is especially true if we intend this language to be our second language. Though it would be difficult, singing a song in 25 languages would be for many people, likely the majority, the easier proposition, since we don’t have to know what we are talking about (singing about). We just have to make the sounds of the words…