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Four Words for Friend: Why Using More than One Language Matters Now More than Ever

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A compelling argument about the importance of using more than one language in today’s world In a world that has English as its global language and rapidly advancing translation technology, it’s easy to assume that the need to use more than one language will diminish—but Marek Kohn argues that plural language use is more important than ever. In a divided world, it helps us A compelling argument about the importance of using more than one language in today’s world In a world that has English as its global language and rapidly advancing translation technology, it’s easy to assume that the need to use more than one language will diminish—but Marek Kohn argues that plural language use is more important than ever. In a divided world, it helps us to understand ourselves and others better, to live together better, and to make the most of our various cultures.   Kohn, whom the Guardian has called “one of the best science writers we have,” brings together perspectives from psychology, evolutionary thought, politics, literature, and everyday experience. He explores how people acquire languages; how they lose them; how they can regain them; how different languages may affect people’s perceptions, their senses of self, and their relationships with each other; and how to resolve the fundamental contradiction of languages, that they exist as much to prevent communication as to make it happen.


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A compelling argument about the importance of using more than one language in today’s world In a world that has English as its global language and rapidly advancing translation technology, it’s easy to assume that the need to use more than one language will diminish—but Marek Kohn argues that plural language use is more important than ever. In a divided world, it helps us A compelling argument about the importance of using more than one language in today’s world In a world that has English as its global language and rapidly advancing translation technology, it’s easy to assume that the need to use more than one language will diminish—but Marek Kohn argues that plural language use is more important than ever. In a divided world, it helps us to understand ourselves and others better, to live together better, and to make the most of our various cultures.   Kohn, whom the Guardian has called “one of the best science writers we have,” brings together perspectives from psychology, evolutionary thought, politics, literature, and everyday experience. He explores how people acquire languages; how they lose them; how they can regain them; how different languages may affect people’s perceptions, their senses of self, and their relationships with each other; and how to resolve the fundamental contradiction of languages, that they exist as much to prevent communication as to make it happen.

30 review for Four Words for Friend: Why Using More than One Language Matters Now More than Ever

  1. 4 out of 5

    Warwick

    ‘Among the many asymmetries that worked to Britain's disadvantage in its negotiations to leave the European Union,’ Marek Kohn notes, in one of the barbed asides that punctuate this book, ‘was the twenty-seven other nations' fluent grasp of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, unmatched by any corresponding British familiarity with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Bild.’ It's a point that seems especially clear from where I sit, as an Englishman living in German-speaking Central Europe, t ‘Among the many asymmetries that worked to Britain's disadvantage in its negotiations to leave the European Union,’ Marek Kohn notes, in one of the barbed asides that punctuate this book, ‘was the twenty-seven other nations' fluent grasp of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, unmatched by any corresponding British familiarity with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or Bild.’ It's a point that seems especially clear from where I sit, as an Englishman living in German-speaking Central Europe, though I suppose it only takes you so far – one is loth, after all, to understress the drastic incompetence of the British politicians involved. For a writer from the UK to be expatiating on the joys and benefits of multilingualism now, mid-Brexit, is not a timely coincidence – Kohn was inspired to the subject directly by seeing the nasty flare-up of xenophobia that followed the 2016 referendum. Kohn, whose family are from Poland, found himself responding not with a stronger desire to ‘identify as’ British, but, on the contrary, with a stronger desire to assert his Polish heritage and to properly learn the language which until then he had spoken only poorly and infrequently. One of the themes of this book is the ways in which language is used both to bind people together and, conversely, to establish lines of difference between one community and another. ‘Pragmatic arguments – migrants should speak English to avoid misunderstandings in the workplace, or to make friends in the playground – shade into demands of a more dogmatic cast: this is the language of the country, so if you want to live here, you had better speak it.’ The end-point of this mindset can be lethal, as easily seen all over the world – Kohn retails several examples, including from the Middle East where not long ago, for instance, a bus was boarded by armed men, one of whom held a tomato and demanded each passenger tell him what it was: those who said it was a ‘banadura’, identifying themselves as Lebanese, were ordered off the bus; those who called it a ‘bandura’, revealing themselves to be Palestinians, remained on the bus and were slaughtered. Similar incidents were common during the Balkans conflicts too. (This was, remember, the original function of a shibboleth: ‘Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan.’) New Orleans, 2017 Not all of the book, though, is on such a life-or-death level as this; a lot of it simply has to do with Kohn trying to get to grips with the latest research into bilingualism, what its beneficial effects are on the brain (if any), and how it might affect someone's view of society. I really admired the ideas animating the book, but Kohn's layman viewpoint did occasionally give me pause. He doesn't write as a linguistic researcher, or even as an expert commentator on the field (his previous books have been on subjects as diverse as Darwinism and British drug culture); if anything, he is writing as an interested bilingual person, although given his confessedly rusty knowledge of Polish, even this is a bit of a stretch. Which makes his conclusions sometimes a little shaky. A lot of his discussions of different languages have a decidedly neo-Whorfian tone which I think we should be cautious about; for instance, after considering languages with evidential grammar (like Turkish), he decides that ‘it is easy to infer that a population largely trusts its broadcasters if they accept that the default mode for news reports is the first-hand form’. This is quite a leap. Linguists tend to be suspicious of this kind of argument, not because it is totally without truth but rather because it so easily blends with arguments from pure stereotype (German is ordered and utilitarian, Italian baroque and expressive, etc etc). He also sometimes displays a quasi-mystical, literalist view of languages' untranslatability, of the kind that is very rarely shared by people who actually translate professionally (or even regularly). When talking about how Spanish-speakers describe breaking a box, for example, he seems almost deliberately obtuse: They could say ‘se me rompió’, which can only be translated nonsensically or awkwardly in English: ‘it broke to me’, ‘to me it happened that it broke’. Huh? This example is especially weird because English actually has a very similar impersonal prepositional construction: ‘it broke on me’. Being born in an English-speaking country used to be quite an advantage. Nowadays, it's almost a disadvantage, since everyone of basic education in the rest of the world speaks English anyway, and they speak a couple of other languages as well. And those who speak it as a second language may be getting extra benefits when it's used, since research suggests that using a non-native language helps you bypass emotional, knee-jerk reactions – something called the ‘foreign language effect’. Again, Kohn can't help seeing Brexit as a case in point: Britain, speaking English and only English, based its decisions on emotions and found itself in disarray. The twenty-seven countries on the other side, speaking English among themselves, achieved a remarkable degree of coherence, based on a clear understanding of their collective interests. Well, maybe. Certainly for those who do speak more than one language, or who want to speak more than one language, this book is full of fascinating anecdotes and studies to help consider what it means in a new light. And despite his flirtations with linguistic determinism, Kohn's conclusions on language are unimpeachable: ‘Its effects on thought are disputed. Its effects upon the relations between people are indisputable.’

  2. 4 out of 5

    Raluca

    Finding paths through language territories may not require maps, but it does require guiding principles. This book follows several; one is that paths are worth finding. The use of more than one language is a good thing: not always, not necessarily, not inherently, but in most circumstances and in spirit, it is good. There are many reasons for this, but the underlying one is that it favours a complex of goods: openness, interconnection, inclusion, mutual exchange and the sharing of knowledge. A Finding paths through language territories may not require maps, but it does require guiding principles. This book follows several; one is that paths are worth finding. The use of more than one language is a good thing: not always, not necessarily, not inherently, but in most circumstances and in spirit, it is good. There are many reasons for this, but the underlying one is that it favours a complex of goods: openness, interconnection, inclusion, mutual exchange and the sharing of knowledge. Another is that the two-sided character of language must always be recognised. It is the place from which the path has to start. We will get hopelessly lost if we lose sight of the truth that language exists as much to prevent communication as to make it happen. This is not really a paradox: the design logic of enabling information to circulate within a group, while restricting its ability to enter or leave, is all too easy to grasp. There you have it: the two sides of human nature, inward community and outward exclusion, the latter the engine of the former. Sympathy is generated by drawing limits around it. To transcend this design, to liberate those better angels of our nature, we need to treat the dual character of language as a contradiction that must be resolved, or at least mitigated. The third basic principle, that all of a person’s linguistic resources should be valued, helps to ease the conflict. Under this principle, languages are treated with due respect, but not with undue deference. A language is regarded not as an edifice within which a community is housed and to which individuals may aspire to gain admission, but as an assembly of elements which individuals are free to use as they wish. This does not mean that maintaining its integrity and sustaining its vitality are unimportant. Quite the reverse: the better shape a language is in, the more use its elements will be. A healthy language will keep its identity while encouraging a rich variety of relationships to flourish across its boundaries, in different combinations, balances, modes and registers, at different levels of proficiency. Its perimeter will not be a dumb fence; it will be a complex and productive interface, like the membrane of a living cell. Yet the key to this complexity is the simple principle that we should make the most of whatever we can grasp. It is a practical, everyday way to reduce the inherent tensions of language use. The first steps are simple too. Make what you can of the words you hear and see, spoken, written or signed. Start speaking, and keep going. This is not your average book on amateur-level linguistics, mostly because Kohn isn't a linguist. He's just a guy who thinks languages are cool and using more of them, even to varying degrees of fluency, helps bring people together. (Of course I'm oversimplifying, but not by sooo much.) Yes, the examples he uses will be familiar to readers of similar texts; we've heard the "Russian has separate words for dark vs. light blue" thing before. And yes, he stands a bit too close to neo-Whorfianism - or rather, a bit too close to statements which could, in turn, get very Whorf-y. But he does raise and try to answer interesting questions on what languages do and mean: - How do different countries handle multilingualism? (Awkwardly and inconsistently.) - Is learning a second language actually beneficial to brain health? (Results are inconclusive on the physiological front, but learn them anyway.) - Do we become other people when speaking different languages? (Sure seems like it subjectively, and personality tests given in certain languages do seem to "activate" the traits stereotypically associated with the language and its respective culture.) - Will the likely improvement and ever wider availability of instantaneous translation software make learning several languages useless? (Nope. Babel fish will be great for shopping and useless for jokes and poetry.) I'd recommend this book to just about everyone, and especially to anyone who's been on either the giving or the receiving end of a "in [country X] we speak [Xish]" comment. Can't we all just get along?

  3. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Jane

    See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits I have always been fascinated by language, especially the ways in which different languages have diverged but still retain links to each other. I didn't consider my own second language, French, to be fluent enough to claim bilingualism for myself, but Kohn's recognition of the wide variety of ways in bilingualism is vital globally means it would be. I was inspired to pick up a new Book in French right after reading this! Four Words For Friend See more of my book reviews on my blog, Literary Flits I have always been fascinated by language, especially the ways in which different languages have diverged but still retain links to each other. I didn't consider my own second language, French, to be fluent enough to claim bilingualism for myself, but Kohn's recognition of the wide variety of ways in bilingualism is vital globally means it would be. I was inspired to pick up a new Book in French right after reading this! Four Words For Friend explores in great depth what it means to be bilingual (or trilingual or quadrilingual) and how societies have always used language as a way to both reach out to other communities, and to close ranks against them, for as long as we've known how to converse. As someone who actively searches out books in translation I am very aware of how much effort is involved in the task of rendering one culture's idioms into concepts with which someone from a different culture can connect. As Robin Wall Kimmerer noted in Braiding Sweetgrass, a society's use of language demonstrates a lot about their way of life and beliefs. Nuances of meaning are difficult to pin down and I was particularly interested in Kohn's explanations of how everyday bilingual interpretation enhances our brain activity throughout our lives. I've often read novels where characters are speaking in one language whilst listening in another and, as an English woman, being amazed by the concept. Yet for much of the world, this interconnection is perfectly normal and the practice may even go some way towards explaining lower dementia rates in those societies. I remember being shocked, and a little saddened, some time ago by a fellow reader's statement that they only read books set in English-speaking countries because they hated authors including a smattering of foreign words that they don't understand (and won't google). For me, half the fun of my WorldReads is picking up random vocabulary! I appreciated Kohn's discussions of a number of scientific studies and the difficulties scientists and sociologists encountered in definitively isolating measurable effects of bilingualism. His understanding of the emotional divisiveness of this subject, especially in Brexit England where for years now we have been constantly bombarded with the myth of a certain preferred Englishness, makes for interesting and enlightening reading.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Yehudit Reishtein

    An examination of bilingualism and multilingualism. Kohn probes a what might seem like an esoteric subject, exploring the advantages of speaking more than one language to individuals as well as the problems it causes in societies. For example, he spends a full chapter exploring Latvia's two language populations. Even though the minority population of Russian-speakers must use the Latvian language in all public functions, their children attend "Russian" schools. The schools are mandated to increa An examination of bilingualism and multilingualism. Kohn probes a what might seem like an esoteric subject, exploring the advantages of speaking more than one language to individuals as well as the problems it causes in societies. For example, he spends a full chapter exploring Latvia's two language populations. Even though the minority population of Russian-speakers must use the Latvian language in all public functions, their children attend "Russian" schools. The schools are mandated to increase the amount of classes whose instructional language is Latvian to more than half the day. He gives examples of how languages divide societies and peoples, by helping native speakers determine who is "one of us" and who is a "stranger." It's a fascinating read, and may stimulate readers to develop their language fluencies.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Cassandra

    I think this book is fabulous and recommend it. Inspired by modern nationalism, xenophobia and global tensions, he examines what it means to be bilingual. From the start, he asserts his view that language is fluid and there is inclusiveness in diversity. The sections cover what does it mean to be bilingual, how does one learn multiple languages at home, the cognitive science and debates of bilingualism, and national identity and economic power (examples are Latvia, Singapore, and India). I found I think this book is fabulous and recommend it. Inspired by modern nationalism, xenophobia and global tensions, he examines what it means to be bilingual. From the start, he asserts his view that language is fluid and there is inclusiveness in diversity. The sections cover what does it mean to be bilingual, how does one learn multiple languages at home, the cognitive science and debates of bilingualism, and national identity and economic power (examples are Latvia, Singapore, and India). I found it very interesting, though there are a few times where evidence and interpretation are confused, but I enjoyed reading a subject that is so core to human experience yet I never get to really dig into.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    A fascinating exploration of bilingualism and its benefits for individuals and societies.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    Very interesting and academically presented. I would recommend it but I don’t necessarily see myself re-reading it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Maartje De Meulder

  9. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

  10. 5 out of 5

    Dora Okeyo

    This book is relevant today and I love how the author explores language, the ability to relate to different people and cultures and what role language plays in all this. It's an engaging read and for someone who speaks three languages fluently and struggled to learn Chinese and Spanish later on in college, I'd say that the author explores aspects about language and how powerful it is in relationships on any level-and though that's always been said, what's fresh with this book is research on the h This book is relevant today and I love how the author explores language, the ability to relate to different people and cultures and what role language plays in all this. It's an engaging read and for someone who speaks three languages fluently and struggled to learn Chinese and Spanish later on in college, I'd say that the author explores aspects about language and how powerful it is in relationships on any level-and though that's always been said, what's fresh with this book is research on the historical accounts on language. Thanks Netgalley for the eARC.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Emily Connor

  12. 5 out of 5

    Philip Price

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nadia

  14. 4 out of 5

    Dobrosława

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

  16. 4 out of 5

    Holly

  17. 4 out of 5

    Madara

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ike Sharpless

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stevie

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kurt Kurat

  21. 5 out of 5

    Christine Kenison

  22. 4 out of 5

    MRS D CONOLLY

  23. 4 out of 5

    Uldis

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jim McGovern

  25. 4 out of 5

    Iva

  26. 4 out of 5

    Margaux

  27. 4 out of 5

    Pegaunimoose

  28. 4 out of 5

    rex

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jayanti Banerjee

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joanna Kluczykowska

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