“No one can live at that speed!”: Bilingualism and Language “Wiring”

Cathy Davidson’s main interest in Now You See It seems to be the plasticity and adaptability of the brain in general, with a particular focus on the ways in which this natural behavior and selective attention should be reflected in the ways we learn and teach. Yet, because of my own personal experience, I was particularly intrigued by another thread that kept on coming up in her work: bilingualism.

I grew up in a bilingual English/German household, and have spoken both languages fluently since before I can remember. Since my mother (a native German speaker) worked evenings until I was well past my toddlerhood, I spent most of my waking hours with her for my first few years. At that point, I probably spoke German more naturally and fluently than I did English, despite being otherwise surrounded by English-speakers in the small central NY town my parents and I lived in. This of course quickly changed once I entered pre-school and grade school; it was then that I discovered that bilingualism—a thing that was so mundanely normal for me—was not the norm for everyone, but a source of fascination for my peers (“How do you say x in German? Do you know any bad words?”). To use Davidson’s phrasing, I suddenly saw “others treating our ways of doing things strange” (35) and realized the necessity of acknowledging and commenting on this part of myself–as well as suppressing it in the completion of my  schoolwork. My bilingualism and my cultural heritage at once became my fallback “fun fact” about myself when meeting new people (or on the first day of school/summer camp), but also sometimes resulted in people using this linguistic category as “shorthand” (34), assuming I automatically possessed other “German” traits. The double-edged sword of cultural ownership/imposed labeling is a keen one.

Like Davidson’s Little Andy, I only became aware of these “cultural scripts” (35) because of the attention paid to them by others, not so much by my family in this case, but by my learning community. As an adult, I still cannot say I can fathom NOT knowing two languages–that is still my normal–but I can more fully appreciate the complex sorts of code-switching that I am capable of. These inevitably occur in even the most everyday conversations between my parents, sister, and I (which makes conference calling an interesting listening experience for any eavesdroppers):

The Clark family communication circuit.png
The blue arrows indicate communication in German; the yellow in English. Even though all of us can speak both, each person’s choice of language depends on who they are talking to.

In reading Davidson and remembering my own experiences, I was reminded of a bit from Eddie Izzard’s 1998 filmed performance, Dress to Kill (original clip uploaded to YouTube by melinda923). In the clip in question, he mimics a quintessentially stodgy Brit complaining about the increasing imperative to speak more than one language: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed!,” Izzard’s Stodgy Brit exclaims, dismayed.

Eddie Izzard on Bilingualism (I’ve had a  bit of trouble getting this to play on TubeChop–it should be 1:51-2:12  of the original video linked above).

Of course, his tongue-in-cheek comment makes the point that many people do indeed “live at that speed” (in and outside of Europe), but that English-speakers are notoriously stubborn about doing so. Language and translation are topics that come up often in Izzard’s stand-up routines, and which obviously interest him on a broader, more serious level as well; he has even performed on tour in both French and German.  Is Izzard (though not a pedagogue himself) not right in encouraging the forging of new connections based on the acquisition and/or cultivation of a new/alternate code of communication?

Izzard’s point therefore seems well taken in relation to the ways in which bilingualism (and second language acquisition) is treated in the average American school environment—that is to say, too often with heavy-handed inefficiency and oversight, as Davidson also suggests (94). One might even extend this to the foreign language examinations required of English graduate students: in the age of readily available access to tools ranging from scholarly translations to Google Translate, how necessary is it really to have superficial reading competency (much less full fluency) in another language—or two? Many admit that the exam is somewhat outdated, and what it tests is no longer fully relevant to all in the field, but are there not ways in which it could be better made to?

In a way, these discussions of bilingualism—the rewards and challenges—seem also to align themselves with those of digital literacies: both are often perceived as skills worth cultivating, but ones we are still trying to gauge and deploy with often incongruent measures. Perhaps my ultimate question is this: can we really ever be bilingual English/digital? Can we  ever truly “live at that speed”?


9 thoughts on ““No one can live at that speed!”: Bilingualism and Language “Wiring””

  1. Petra,

    I really like your closing question that raises the issue of proficiency in digital language. I’m curious about how we would even “measure” that kind of proficiency, especially since language exams, as you’ve mentioned, are painfully outdated.

    I assume that digital bilingualism or proficiency would somehow involve being able to use certain social media tools—and not just to use them but to be intimately familiar with them as well. But what either criteria are there or could there be?

    I’m also curious about how digital bilingualism would impact English, or whatever other language we wish to pair it with. Would we see the same messy inflections that Davidson points out in her students’ research papers? Or would this help create a new vernacular that promotes greater understanding and accessibility?

    So yeah, there are some more questions to answer yours I suppose!

  2. I too, am latching on to your comments about the language exam, because you’ve been partially subject to my office whinings about how it’s nonfunctional. From a scholarly standpoint, I basically spun off my budding bilingualism into a network of other young academics, who help me to translate stuff, because I cannot efficiently do what I do and also do that (I cannot, ironically, “live at that speed” on demand, because English is, for me, effectively a second and third and fourth language). It’s a collaborative network taking advantage of linguistic attention blindness. Hooray!

    So really, I wonder if they might assess us on our ability to use available translation resources and professional networks, instead, or if they might assess us in our ability to understand enough to correct automatic translations, identify plays of meaning, or to problematize the whole process of translation as an intellectual exercise.

  3. So interesting to see how your family communications among various members! Everyone is bilingual, but socially speaking you and your mother–the communicative space between you–is German. And you and your sister don’t speak German to each other at all?! This is fascinating.

    I wanted to ask if these bilingual interactions hold up in written as well as spoken word. For example, if you email or text your mom, is it in German? When you take your talk digital, is English the go to language, or are there times when German still wins out?

  4. Petra, et al,

    Although I do recall, somewhere in the dim recesses of time, passing a PhD language exam, I doubt that I could do so now. So I’m intrigued by Michael’s idea about testing for something like “access to translation.” I think that’s closer to a skill I’ve continued to use rather than trying to decode academic articles in foreign languages (which I really don’t do at all).

    The question I have for you, Petra, is whether metaphors involving languages (“bilingualism”) differ significantly from those involving literacies (“digital literacy”). I’m thinking here about the distinction between “acquiring” a language naturally and “learning” a discourse or literacy deliberately.


  5. Petra,

    I really enjoyed this post and comment thread; the connections you draw between second language learning and digital literacies are worth exploring. I worked for a K-8 public charter school in New Orleans for a couple of years that actually did complete immersion in a second language (Spanish or French, and more recently they added Mandarin Chinese) from day one of kindergarten until 8th grade graduation. It genuinely blew my mind how quickly the 5- and 6-year-old students picked up second language skills (and, of course, it was insanely adorable to hear these little kids chattering away in their non-native tongues!)

    One of the foundations/justifications for this early immersion program was that having a second set of words for the same concepts actually alters the way we access the concept– a broadening of the mind that affects more than just language abilities. This NYT article seems germane to the conversation, and actually points to the ways in which bilingualism changes our ability to switch our focus in attention: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-benefits-of-bilingualism.html

    With regard to Joe’s point about the difference between “naturally” acquiring an ability (like a child born to bilingual parents) vs. deliberately learning later in life (like choosing to improve your digital literacy), I suspect these are not equivalent processes, but that they are related. The article above claims that there is reason to believe that both native bilinguals and those who learn a second language later in life enjoy the benefits of an ability to switch attention to something else with ease. Presumably, they are able to see more, and in different ways (counting basketballs *and* seeing the gorilla). I wonder if this holds true for literacies in the same way.


  6. Chris, Michael, and Janel–You all bring up interesting points and questions regarding the acquisition and uses of multiple discourses, whether they be linguistic, skills-based, or generic. While I was thinking more about the use of digital writing as a “language” (more on that below), there are of course real digital languages like HTML that it is possible to be “fluent” in, even if they are deployed in different ways than I use my schoolgirl French, for example.

    Joe–Your point about the difference between linguistic fluency and literacy is therefore well taken, and I would have to sheepishly admit that I was aiming more towards Kylie’s interpretation, but clearly failed due to lazy elaboration. My thought was that there might be useful comparisons to be drawn between being fluent in multiple languages (whether from birth or through later learning) and acquiring “fluency” in digital “languages”/genres rather than equating them as the same type of communication. Perhaps the metaphor stretches a bit too far, but I’ve always found the potential intersections of terms “native speaker” and “digital native” to have interesting implications….

  7. Petra,

    I think your post interestingly comments on how educational experiences can seem “normal” or “extraordinary” based simply on what you’re used to. The way you discuss other classmates being fascinated (and maybe a bit jealous—I know I am) of your bilingualism seems to reflect the experiences of the students in the alternative schools. Because these students began at a “normal” school—where many of them struggled to fit in—they are now very cognizant of their now “extraordinary” learning environments. Drawing an analogy to your experience, they grew up monolingual and then all of a sudden became bilingual and realized all of the benefits that bilingualism held.
    The fact that these current students understand both sides of the educational divide makes me wonder what the future will look like for students that ONLY have experiences in alternative schools. What will happen when they can’t imagine doing anything in school other than play videogames? Will they continue to appreciate it the way current alternative students do, or will it also become tiresome in the way that conventional schools are for most students now?

  8. Petra,
    First of all, I think there is a kind of resonance of another language’s knowledge in the way you speak English, the way you emphasize on specific words is interestingly special.
    Getting to your question, the digital world is building a universal language with its own structure and codes. Everybody is learning how to speak this language no matter what language they know. This is a new bilingualism with new characteristics, beyond linguistic components, I suppose.

  9. I’ve been trying to formulate a response to this post since I saw it pop up, because I enjoyed it and think it’s a unique take on the message of Davidson’s book.

    To address your final question, on page 55, Davidson says that “To live is to be in a constant state of adjustment,” and goes on to say that working with people who have a different life experience can teach us new skills and advantageous ways of harnessing the “natural processes of repetition, selection, and mirroring.”

    I’m not sure that I see digital/English writing as two separate languages, per se, but rather as an expanded way of thinking about the world and the way we communicate. We generally still use all of the skills we use in proper written or spoken English, just….differently.

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