My son-in-law, a buddy, and my grandson took a quick road trip to Death Valley. There wasn’t much to do there, so they went on to Las Vegas. There wasn’t much to do there, either, so they came home.
The buddy was curious. “How does he know which language to use?”
“What do you mean?” my son-in-law asked.
“He knows when to speak Japanese and when to speak English. He never gets it wrong. He’s three years old.”
They thought about it for a while.
A little quiz
Back at home they gave Ringoro a little quiz. In Japanese they’d ask him, “How do you say [word] in English?”
They went through his considerable Japanese vocabulary, and for several minutes he unhesitatingly spoke the correct English translation. On the surface it seems like a neat parlor trick, a little kid blurting out translations.
But when you think about it, it’s pretty profound, because it’s not just that he knows two words, “ringo” and “apple” to describe one object. It’s much more than that.
First, he understands the question, that there is something called English, that it’s different from Japanese, and that the two are wholly distinct. That kind of amazes me, because “language” is a pretty abstract concept, and it’s one that he must have known even before he was three. It must have been an abstraction that he was somehow able to understand even as he was mouthing his very first sounds, because as I thought about it, he never mixed the two up, speaking English when he should have been speaking Japanese, or vice versa.
Second, he plugs those words seamlessly into a wholly separate system of grammar, pronunciation, and idiomatic usage. No Pimsleur, no Rosetta Stone, either.
Third, back to the buddy’s question, how does he know so unerringly which language to use with whom? It’s not that he almost always gets it right … he always gets it right. He is fully equipped with the abstract concept of language, the building blocks of vocabulary and usage, and the knowledge of how to read the social fabric so that he can use the language the right way with the right people.
Did I mention that he’s three?
Kids are kids
Bilingualism is totally normal. More than a third of the world’s population understands more than one language, and you have to think that most dual speakers learn both languages simultaneously, from infancy.
My eldest son, who lives in Vienna and teaches, says it’s not unusual at all for immigrant children there to speak four or more languages, often ones that are completely unrelated. Speaking five and six languages isn’t particularly special, for that matter.
It really makes me wonder.