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):
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”?