Two great delusions: logic and ease
Descartes and His Followers—The Search for Logic—The Search for Ease—Overlooking the True Nature of Language—Basic Ease of All Languages to Their Own Speakers—Bilingualism and Multilingualism
The great preoccupation of the a priori school was, as we have seen, with creating a language that would follow the "logical" classification of thought and ideas. This proved to be a will-of-the-wisp on two separate scores. In the first place, all sorts of classifications of ideas are possible, and what is a logical pigeonhole for an idea or the word that represents it to one man need not be at all the proper pigeonhole to another. Historical misnomers appear by the score to inform us that what seemed a proper classification and description at one time turned out later to be erroneous (three cases in point are "Indian" for a native of America; "atom," which means "indivisible," for what later on turned out to be fissionable; "oxygen," or "that which gives rise to acids," when it is actually hydrogen that enters into the composition of all acids).
The seventeenth century, and other centuries before it, thought they had achieved perfect knowledge of the universe, with the consequent possibility of perfect analysis and classification of thoughts and concepts. It remained for the twentieth, with its ever-broadening relativistic discoveries, to find out that man's information about his universe is still woefully imperfect.
Aside from this sin of origin, however, the a priori school made the bad error of trying to treat as a logical entity that which is by its very nature illogical. Language is based on the acceptance of symbols, and symbols, being unreal, cannot be logical.
There was, however, another factor that led to the general discrediting of the a priori methodology. A logical language, even if it could be achieved, would present enormous difficulty and an unbearable strain on the memory and faculty of association of the average individual. Hence, people turned with a sigh of relief from systems that had no connection whatsoever with the processes they had learned to associate with speech to the systems which displayed some sort of associative link with the known spoken tongues.
This, in turn, led to another frantic search, the search for the greatest ease to the greatest number. "That language is best which is easiest for the majority" became the slogan, even before Jespersen made it official.
It is this process of seeking ease that colors most of our thinking about the international language today. Esperantists extol their very simple grammar, which presents so few complications that anyone can learn it in half an hour. Inter-linguists bestow glowing words upon their international vocabulary, which anyone (that is, anyone brought up with English or a Romance language) can recognize at a glance. When the natural tongues are mentioned as possibilities, it is pointed out that one is easier because it has simple sounds, another because it has few exceptions to its grammatical rules, a third because its vocabulary is already international. Conversely, certain languages are discarded because they are "difficult," in sounds, grammar, or vocabulary.
Difficult for whom? For foreigners who have to learn them, obviously. There is no case on record where a language in its spoken form has been considered difficult by its own speakers. To the native speaker, who has learned it from childhood, by the natural, spontaneous process of imitation and repetition, every language in the world is easy. No proof is needed of the fact that Chinese and Russian children of six speak and understand Chinese and Russian as readily as the American child of the same age speaks and understands English.
Beyond the child stage, once speaking and understanding reflexes are fully formed, the story is altogether different, for then language learning becomes a conscious, not a reflex process; the intellective faculties rather than the ability to mimic and memorize come into play; and all sorts of associations are built up, so that a new language is judged to be easy or difficult to the extent that it coincides or fails to coincide with previously set language habits. To the two-year-old American child, learning spoken Chinese would be as simple as learning spoken English; but the same child at twelve will find Chinese extremely difficult, and will far prefer a language like German and French, to which he can tie his acquired English by reason of similarities in sounds, word-order, or vocabulary.
This has been known all along, but in a confused, hazy sort of way. It has long been fashionable for the children of the European privileged classes to be brought up by foreign governesses who would speak to them only in the foreign tongue, and it invariably turned out that children brought up in this fashion would speak, easily, fluently, naturally, without a trace of accent, three, four, or five different languages.
But it was also believed that something similar could be achieved by putting an older child in a high-school class and giving him intensive instruction in the grammar, vocabulary, and literature of the foreign language. In a few rare cases this worked. In the majority of cases, what came out was a person who would possess grammatical information, reading ability, sometimes even the ability to write in the foreign language, but whose handling of the spoken tongue left a good deal to be desired.
In recent times, a discovery as obvious as that of Colum-bus's egg was made. If you want children to learn a foreign tongue so that they will speak and understand it like natives, start them off young—the younger the better. Our more progressive educational circles are now working on this theory, putting foreign languages into the kindergartens and elementary schools, where they properly belong if what is wanted is a conversational knowledge of the language. The results are bound to be satisfactory.
The principle involved is that all languages are easy to those who learn them from childhood. This principle, however, applies only to the spoken language, not to its written counterpart. In writing, languages have intrinsic ease and intrinsic difficulty, based on the relation which the written form bears to the spoken. Where the written form of the language is thoroughly phonetic (that is to say, where the actual sounds of the language are accurately isolated, and each one is given an individual written symbol to represent it) it is easy to learn to read and write. Where the spelling does not accurately reflect the sound, as in English, or where there is no connection whatsoever between written symbols and spoken sounds, as in Chinese (the Chinese characters are like our $-sign, not like our written word "dollar"; they represent ideas, not sounds), it is difficult to learn to read and write even when one speaks and understands the language fluently.
This being the case, the international language does not have to be particularly "easy" for anyone, nor does it have to be linked with familiar languages. Learned in spoken form at the proper, or child, stage, it will be found by the child-learners to be just as easy (or just as difficult, for that matter) as any of the languages they are actually in the process of learning at their mothers' knees. The only element of ease we should be preoccupied with is that of making the written form of the language completely phonetic, with a set of individual symbols each one of which will correspond to one of the sounds of the spoken language, and to that sound only.
Under the circumstances, the business of making the international language one of the greatest ease to the greatest number becomes sheer nonsense. Any language, natural or constructed, will be learned equally well by child learners. If its spelling is thoroughly phonetic, it will be learned with speed, accuracy, and ease in written form when the time comes to teach the child to read and write.
Dr. Wilder Penfield, Director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, calls language learning "the human brain's first miracle." He claims that by conditioned reflexes, and with no effort, a child can learn two or three languages. He also warns that after the ten-to-fourteen-year-old period "the brain becomes senescent so far as language-learning is concerned."
The experiment of discovering what is the linguistic saturation point of the individual has never been tried. How many different languages, all started from early childhood, can be absorbed, learned, repeated, and understood, and to what degree can control over them be retained in later life?
The maximum number of such languages that have come to my own notice is three, though I have it on hearsay that four, five, and even six are quite possible. Let me again stress that what I mean is languages spoken with absolute native-speaker accent and fluency, not languages handled with a foreign accent, however slight, and with hesitation over words and forms, however fleeting. Polyglots (people who can speak, understand, read, and write, in some fashion or other, anything from two to a dozen languages) are fairly numerous; but our discussion is not concerned with them.
On the other hand, people who handle two or more languages with absolute ease and accuracy, subject only to the disabilities that would be inherent in native speakers, are somewhat rarer. Almost invariably investigation discloses that they started speaking the two or more languages they handle like natives, not in high school or college, not in a Berlitz or Intensive Language class, but in very early childhood.
Very recently I had occasion to observe a little girl of four, whose father is American and whose mother is French. Subject to the limitations of a four-year-old child, both her French and her English were impeccable. The miracle of the situation (and it is an unexplained miracle, in this and all similar cases) is that her French was not in any way influenced by the fact that her father's French, though fluent, was not of the 100 per cent native-speaker variety; neither was her English in any way influenced by her mother's heavy French accent.
In another instance, a French colleague of mine and his French wife, both of them speaking English grammatically, but with an unmistakable French accent, have brought up a family of four children, whose French and English are both as perfect as it is possible for native languages to be perfect. Here the miraculous sixth sense of the growing child must have warned them that while they should slavishly imitate their parents' French, they should at the same time avoid imitating their English, giving preference instead to the English of their teachers and schoolmates.
J. P. McEvoy, Roving Editor of Reader's Digest, who is himself an accomplished linguist and student of languages, is responsible for the most comprehensive and successful experiment in this field that has yet come to my direct notice. Spending part of his time in Paris, part in Havana, and part in the United States, he undertook to have his two daughters trained by native governesses and companions in French, Spanish, and English. Pat and Peggy handle French like Parisiennes, Spanish like better-class Cuban senoritas, and English like cultured New Yorkers, without the slightest trace of hesitation, confusion, or mutual interference. To date, they are my best living proof that not merely two, but at least three languages can be imparted to the young child with absolute success. They also constitute utter refutation of the theory, frequently advanced in certain pedagogical circles, that bilingualism or multilingualism interferes with a child's psychological or intellectual development, for they are psychologically normal and, intellectually, at least on a par with other young ladies their age. They are now, in their teen-age, acquiring Russian, and I think I can confidently predict that their Russian, however well and thoroughly they learn it, will never quite equal their English, French, and Spanish.
How many languages could be successfully imparted before ten is still in doubt. The point I am interested in making is that at least two languages can be acquired with equal ease and fluency in the first decade of any individual's life, and that point has been demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt. If one of these languages were the national tongue of each country, and the other an international tongue designated to serve the purposes of linguistic exchange throughout the world, there could be absolutely no doubt that the second tongue would be spoken and understood as thoroughly as the first.