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Postmonolingualism: Why You've Learned More Languages Than You Think You Have

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At home, we speak English, except for a few Spanish words for sneaking around toddler ears. But in my life, my brain and tongue have been touched too much by Spanish and Mandarin for me to be considered purely monolingual. Even now, I can read and understand a certain amount of each language. If I were to travel, I could spin them up to strength. (Just don't ask me to speak them right now.)

What am I, linguistically? I've taken to calling myself a "monolingual with benefits," but I might begin calling myself "postmonolingual." This provocative term ties together a bunch of language phenomena which don't, at first glance, seem connected. Why so many American parents want their kids to learn Chinese but so few public schools offer it. The fascination with artificial languages from sci-fi movies. The reaction of GOP voters to candidates who speak other languages. The fascination with hyperpolyglots, people who speak 6 or more languages. All of these are signs of living in a postmonolingual world.

As German literature scholar Yasemin Yildiz defines it, "postmonolingualism" marks the struggle against the political paradigm that emerged in the West around two hundred years ago. Before then, rulers of countries didn't care what languages their subjects spoke. But the modern nation-state was an imagined community of people who all spoke the same language in the same standard version. This political and cultural paradigm shaped how people thought of themselves and each other. The native speaker, the citizen, and the self were governed by the same linguistic norms. Call it the "one language, one self" paradigm.

Yildiz explains that postmonolingualism also marks the inability to break from this paradigm. Even if when we want to incorporate other languages into our lives, acknowledge linguistic diversity, and the like, the "one language, one self" paradigm sucks us back in. I may want to escape - or declare my independence from - my mother tongue. But I'll never have another place to arrive.

The stickiness of "one language, one self" characterizes language politics in America in numerous ways. Millions of American parents are determined to secure their children's economic futures by exposing them to other languages. Meanwhile, in the GOP primary, candidates have had to downplay their abilities in other languages, lest they seem to have mixed allegiances.

In my book, "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners" [Free Press, $25.99], I write about figures who are good models for a postmonolingual world. "Hyperpolyglots," as they're called, are high intensity language learners who have been running a natural experiment on the upper limits of the ability to learn, speak, and use languages, and they hurl themselves at opportunities that the rest of us would treat as language barriers. Yet they seem uncomplicated by knowing lots of languages. The English they speak is English, as standard as standard can be. So are their other languages. One of the most famous hyperpolyglots, Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849), had his dozens and dozens of languages stripped away from him in an illness, leaving him with his mother tongue, Bolognese. (He recuperated, and his languages returned.)

The reflective postmonolingual art of New York-based artist Rainer Ganahl is instructive in many ways. Ganahl has turned his efforts to escape his mother tongue, the German of Austria, into a series of sculptures, video projects, and installations. He videotaped himself studying Arabic and Chinese and once put his Japanese study materials, including a desk, on display. At first, I was surprised to find that Ganahl's goal wasn't fluency in all of these languages. Rather, his art puts his experiences of becoming a linguistic outsider, as well as those desires, into a concrete form where it can be inspected. He admits that his goal isn't perfection, or even fluency. I can say I am not a terrorist in 11 languages, he quips in one video. His emails to me are often mis-spelled, extravagantly so. When I showed him the part of the book where he's written about, he said this is deliberate, on his part. It's almost as if he imagines that no one cared about proper spelling in the pre-modern era, which might well be true, when there were many kinds of literacy. In the postmonolingual world, we have to return the notion that there are many ways to be a native speaker of a language, something which English language peevologists hate.

Postmonolingualism takes other forms, as well, such as the fad of constructing and learning to speak invented languages, such as Klingon and Na'vi. The search for a perfect language has long occupied utopian philosopher types. But modern day "conlangers," as they are called, are bent on creating micro communities around languages in which no one is a native, and for which there is no actual heritage beside what's imagined. I suspect that the same postmonolingual urge is what makes ASL the language with the fourth-highest college-level enrollments in the US. Because very, very few ASL speakers have sign as a mother tongue, knowing how to sign presents no challenge to the hearing user's own monolingualism.

Interestingly, the most surprising postmonolingual turn isn't in the world of natural human languages, but in programming ones.

In the technical world, debates over the best programming language, such as Python, Java, or C++, have shifted; now they're about "polyglot programming." This is when programmers craft a single software application out of multiple languages, each one best suited for some subtask. Critics say it keeps programmers from deep fluency and expertise in one language. Proponents say it increases the range of programmers.

Indeed, our experience of the world via the Internet may be postmonolingual, and my Twitter feed may be a perfect instance of this. I see tweets in all sorts of languages and writing systems, but I tweet in English, which is also the language my profile is written in. As one of my hyperpolyglots put it, we need to learn how to not speak English, something that billions of people on the planet do every day.