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Los Angeles Review of Books: What Do They Know of English, Who Only English Know?

Until age 24 I lived, as many Americans do, without leaving my native continent. I first applied for a passport out of the humiliating need to go to no farther than Canada, whose entry process had recently become more stringent. But not long thereafter I went genuinely abroad, taking a 25th-birthday trip with my dad to New Zealand. The country appealed by being far enough away to necessitate my first long-haul flight and by not being overhyped as a destination (or at least it wasn’t, before the Lord of the Rings films). Best of all, it was English-speaking, and not just in the sense that its waiters, station attendants, and hostel owners could communicate with twentysomething backpackers. The de jure official Maori native language aside, New Zealanders speak almost nothing but English, and with a fascinating accent and slang as well. (Even as I came to understand the appeal of world travel, the allure of such exotic-sounding beverages as the “long black” and “flat white” convinced me of the appeal of coffee.)

A decade later I write this essay in South Korea, the decidedly non-English-speaking country where I’ve lived for years, motivated in no small part by an interest in its language (its abundance of coffee and coffee shops, so essential to the working process of the essayist, also plays a part). Not long ago I returned from a trip Taiwan, a destination also chosen out of interest in its language, or rather in its lingua franca, Mandarin Chinese (I did consider learning Taiwanese Hokkien, its most widely spoken local language, but couldn’t find much in the way of study materials). Now and again, my Mandarin-learning project has brought to mind a local news segment I saw back in New Zealand. It told of the introduction of immersion Mandarin classes into certain primary schools. Interviewing a teacher, the reporter closed with a question asked out of seemingly genuine concern for the students: “But aren’t you afraid their little brains will explode?”

It seems New Zealanders share with Americans and other Anglophones not only the English language, but also the perception of bilingualism as an impressive, potentially life-threatening achievement. Eddie Izzard expressed this attitude best: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed.” That quote appears more than once in the work of Gaston Dorren, a Dutchman who’s made his name over the past 20 years writing books about languages. In his first, 1999’s Nieuwe tongen, he examines the languages of migrants to Benelux, the politico-economic union of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and in the more recent Vakantie in eigen taal he focuses on his native Dutch. 2012’s Taaltoerisme (“Language Tourism”), a kind of linguistic European travelogue, came out two years later in an expanded English translation as Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages. His latest book Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages takes Lingo’s concept global, considering the distinctive characteristics of the world’s 20 most spoken languages.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.