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On Becoming Bilingual

On Becoming Bilingual

By John Perry
Department of Philosophy, Stanford University

“If you call someone who knows two languages ‘bilingual’ and someone who knows three languages ‘trilingual,’ what do you call someone who knows only one language? - An American”.

This is a joke Europeans like a lot. A couple of years ago, when it looked like Europe was going to be an economically united, politically co-ordinated colossus and Europeans were regaining that little spring in their step that disappeared around 1914, the visiting American heard it a lot.

Even now, when Europe has reverted to form, the language issue remains something about which the visiting American is expected to be embarrassed. Most Americans have a good grasp on at most one language, which apparently we should call American, since leading British scholars don’t like it to be called English.

However, in defence of Americans, a couple of points can be made. First, the language we know is a very nice one. For one thing, it has words for all the major ideas, which can’t be said of other languages. Consider, for example, the word “get” and the associated simple straightforward idea. It is very important, as one can see from the following description of my morning:

“I got out of bed, got the paper, got myself some breakfast, got some coffee, and began to get dressed and to get ready for work. I got in the car, got to the office, and got to work. I got a lot done