March 17, 2004

Multilingual in Urumqi

Americans tend to be much impressed with somebody who knows more than one language, provided that that somebody is a native speaker of American English. Bilingual and multilingual Native Americans and foreigners are merely normal and ordinary, because often the second or third or nth language is English, and speaking English is obviously the norm (in the opinion of native-English-speaking Americans). It's easy for us to forget that most of the world is bilingual, and much of it is multilingual. Yesterday's New York Times has a reminder of this linguistic characteristic of the rest of the world, in an article about Urumqi in China.

The reporter quotes Ahat Imam, who "operates a bank of telephones on the sidewalk." "You've got to be able to speak a little bit of a lot of languages in this work," he told the reporter, because Urumqi is multiethnic. "I can speak Uighur, a little Kazakh, a little Uzbek..."

True, these are all closely-related Turkic languages; but Dutch and English are also closely related, and yet English speakers can't understand Dutch without studying it first. Well, O.K., Ahat Imam's three Turkic languages are probably more closely related than English and Dutch -- maybe even as close as Modern English and Chaucer's Middle English. But Modern English speakers also have to study Middle English in order to read Chaucer, so the point still holds. What's ordinary every-day life with languages to Ahat Imam is exotic to Americans, who live in what may be the only country in the world where most people can afford to be monolingual. For those of us who think that learning languages is a deeply enriching activity, this seems a shame.

Posted by Sally Thomason at March 17, 2004 08:51 AM