Unpalatable it is, but true -- despite what all the apologists tell us -- that the English speak no language other than their own. It is not that we cannot learn languages: we just do not. Travelling recently in the subcontinent it was blindingly obvious how very different is the situation with even moderately educated Indians who speak one, often two Indian languages, plus English as a matter of course; and for whom, therefore, multilingualism is the norm.
Nor does that mean necessarily that Indians speak to some fellow countrymen in one language and to others in another. In an overheard conversation at the airport in Delhi the dialogue began and continued in Hindi until by chance an English word was used mid-sentence. That triggered a change -- "code-switching", in John Edwards's professional vernacular -- and the conversation continued in English. After some moments one of the speakers decided -- was it a conscious decision? -- to revert to Hindi, until the same thing happened all over again. An absolutely common occurrence across the length and breadth of India.
So what is multilingualism to us or we to multilingualism? A great deal, it would seem. The broad Edwards canvas takes multilingualism through individuals and societies to its "influence on human life". We are all, reassuringly if not convincingly, participants provided we can cope with c'est la vie or ciao. But the real champion must surely be Georges Schmidt, one-time head of the Terminology Section of the United Nations (so that's what they do . . .), master of 19 languages and knowledgeable in a dozen more. I looked for but did not find reference to the notorious Cambridge don reputedly "silent in nine languages".
The anecdotes are splendid. I particularly liked the one in which Herodotus described the bringing up of two children in isolation from human kind to discover which language they would speak naturally if taught none. This was then declared to be the first language spoken on earth. Much depended upon the subjective interpretation of the sounds the children uttered. Herodotus comes out in support of Phrygian.
Studies of Balkan history -- in fact of any history, medieval to modern (residents of Quebec especially should begin here) -- will read avidly the section on language and the politics of nationalism which emphasises the rationale that "a group speaking the same language is known as a nation and a nation ought to constitute a state". After all, every would-be immigrant to the United States takes care to polish up her or his English for the interview, not to speak of Welsh-English rivalry. From there follows a fascinating chapter on education and multiculturalism, dialects, grammar and standard forms. I still refuse to accept that an unchecked "I done it" encourages communication among children.
Of course we are obsessed by language, for the simple reason that it either explains or drives behaviour. While there is plenty for the professional scholar it is the wealth of individual example and reference to the human condition that makes this book a gripping read. It does not quite explain what makes us decide to say one moment that we are bloody knackered and the next minute very tired. But I was positively uplifted by the school superintendent in Arkansas who dismissed a request to have foreign language taught in secondary schools with the unbeatable "If English was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for you". Read this book and you will go to bed content. You too can be a multilinguist, if not a linguist.
John Hanson is the director-general of the British Council.
Author - John Edwards
ISBN - 0 415 12011 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £19.99
Pages - 256pp