Language Is Our Music: The Natural Way to Multilingualism

by Corey · 1 comment

Language Is Our Music: The Natural Way to Multilingualism

We are delighted to have the opportunity to share a chapter from the book Language Is Our Music: The Natural Way to Multilingualism, by Yo Sakakibara! If you are raising a multilingual family and/or are simply interested in multilingualism in general, you really should check out this book.

In the chapter below, titled “Language’s Beautiful Order,” we are reminded of the amazing faculty that we have to learn languages. Language has an elegant order to it. We can’t help but recognize this each time our child uses a newly learned word or executes a perfectly organized sentence for the first time. Language is our music and it is so very beautiful!

We hope you will enjoy this chapter from Language Is Our Music.
You can find it at Amazon if you are interested in purchasing it: Language is Our Music: The Natural Way to Multilingualism.

A big thank you to the publishers for allowing us to share this with you here!

You can say thanks by visiting Art + Interior.

Chapter 2: Language’s Beautiful Order

Taking Another Look at the Obvious

There is a little boy, age two years and five months, who lives next door to us. He and I are great buddies, and every week or two he comes over to our house to play. These days he manages to surprise me every time I see him: his language ability is growing by leaps and bounds. Only a few months ago, if we passed on the street, he’d say something like “. . .’m go ou . . .” (I’m going out). If we took a walk together and a train passed by, I might say to him, “There goes a train.” My young friend would then mimic me with “. . .’ere go trai . . .” Or he might toddle after his big brother, calling out “Wai’ mee!” That was just a few months ago.

Now, if he sees me on the street, he declares “. . .’m goin out,” and when he chases his brother he yells “Wai fo mee!” He seems to “get” everything I say to him, and he knows how to say just about anything he wants to me. It occurs to me that in another six months, he’ll be able to speak in complete sentences, and I realize that I am witness to a miracle in progress.

When we think about language, what is the most important thing we should take note of? I believe it is the obvious, everyday “facts” of language acquisition that we tend to take for granted — like my young next-door neighbor’s miraculous progress. It is these seemingly ordinary truths that tell us what language is: how it evolves, how it works. Language is such a natural thing for us, like the air we breathe, that we rarely give it a second thought. We take it on faith that any human being can learn to speak his or her mother tongue. So we pay little attention, if any, to the most important “facts” of language acquisition.

One snowy afternoon my little neighbor dropped in, cheeks ruddy from the cold. As my wife wiped his face and hands, she said to the boy in baby talk, “Cooode? Han’s cooode?” Even simple exchanges like these contain priceless information about language.

Taro Goes to America

We may take language for granted and ignore its significance most of the time, but I believe that deep inside, we know a great many important truths about language.

Take, for example, a Japanese family that moves to the United States when the father’s company transfers him to the New York office. If the parents don’t speak much English, they will have a hard time adjusting. But if there is a four- or five-year-old child in the family, we assume that the child will have no trouble picking up English in his or her new environment. That’s because we’ve all heard stories about how a child of five will quickly make friends with the local kids and will be speaking like a native inside of six months.

Let’s think about the situation this five-year-old, young Taro, encounters in America. Taro’s family has moved into an American community. When he looks out the window he sees the neighbor kids, George and Mary, playing outside. Taro wants to play with them so he goes outside too. Because he’s so young, Taro is not even aware of the language difference between them — he just starts playing with his American friends. Does he intend to learn English while at play? Hardly. Taro wants to play because it’s fun, not because it will teach him something.

For their part, do George and Mary try to teach Taro English? Do they correct his pronunciation? “That! Th . . . th . . . th . . .” “Father! F . . . f . . . f . . .” Not too likely. Nor are they going to explain the meaning of English words to him; after all, George and Mary don’t speak Japanese. Does Taro say to himself, “I learned the present tense today, so tomorrow I’ll work on the past tense”?

The vocabulary of grammar simply is not part of the natural language-learning process — whether in situations like Taro’s, or when we learn our first language as infants. Nor do children open a notebook and jot down all the expressions they learned each day. As Taro plays happily with George and Mary, he simply picks up bits and pieces of English at random, without any intention whatsoever. That process alone is enough for any child of Taro’s age anywhere to master a new language in about half a year.

The total amount of linguistic information a five-year-old can pick up at random in six months is surely quite limited. Yet Taro can soon pronounce English just like his American friends without a single pronunciation drill, and his sentences are grammatically correct without his knowing a thing about grammar. If a natural language-learning environment is available, no one can “fail” to learn a language. Individuals may vary in their rate of progress, but except in special circumstances, you will not have situations where Taro learned English but Jiro could not.

Marianne of Luxembourg

There are a number of places around the world where people in the same country or region speak three or four utterly distinct languages. In fact, such places might be the norm more than the exception. We refer to these countries as “multilingual nations.” One such nation is Luxembourg. Smaller in area than a small Japanese prefecture, Luxembourg is a country where three languages are commonly spoken — Luxembourgish, French, and German — and quite a few people speak English as well.

Just as we tried to envision the process by which young Taro learned English in America, let us now imagine Marianne, a little girl growing up in a French-speaking household in Luxembourg. How will Marianne go about picking up all those languages?

Marianne’s first language is no doubt the French spoken by her mother. By age one and a half, Marianne can stand and walk. Her French is still limited to baby talk, but she can understand most of what her mother and other adults are saying to her.

One day, hand in hand with her mother, Marianne toddles off to the neighborhood park. There she finds lots of children playing, many of them her age. Her eyes meet those of another child and quite naturally they start playing together. But her new friend does not necessarily come from a French-speaking family. It could be a family that speaks German, for example. Suppose Marianne starts speaking in French baby talk, and her playmate responds in German baby talk. Most likely, the two toddlers do not even notice they are speaking different languages. As they play together, they hear happy shouts from the other side of the lawn. Hand in hand, they rush over to see what the commotion is, and find a gaggle of kids babbling in Luxembourgish and English.

This is what is known as a multilingual environment. It’s great fun for Marianne, so every day she toddles around the park, playing with kids who are speaking these various languages. She does not play, needless to say, for the purpose of learning languages. But one day she herself will realize that she can already speak three or four. You might say she has been “snacking” on bits and pieces of language all that time. It is a process that requires no effort from her whatsoever. Picking up three or four languages clearly does not demand three or four times the effort required to learn one.

Some people claim that if children encounter foreign languages too early, before mastery of their first language is complete, it will impede their ability to learn the mother tongue properly. But does it really? If simultaneously picking up multiple languages really caused the sort of linguistic confusion these people fear, wouldn’t multilingual countries have plunged into linguistic chaos long ago? Every language is a distinct, unified entity, like an individual personality. Our minds do not confuse them with one another: that is another of the remarkable “facts” of language acquisition.

An Indian Lady’s “Konnichi-wa”

That is all well and good for kids, but it’s not so easy for grown- ups, I hear others say. They seem to believe that up to age five or six, a child placed in a natural language-rich environment will absorb that language without difficulty — but at some age or other, adults discard this marvelous talent, or it atrophies of its own accord. There is a conventional wisdom that the capacity for learning languages undergoes a qualitative change around age ten. But is this true?

One day I was introduced to a lady from India. She had arrived in Japan with her child two weeks earlier to join her husband, who was already studying at a Japanese university. When I greeted her with a standard “Konnichi-wa” (Hello), she immediately responded with “Konnichi-wa.” I was impressed: her “konnichi-wa” had none of the accent of the typical “koh-nichi-wah” uttered by other foreigners I had met shortly after their arrival in Japan. She sounded just like a native Japanese. When we got off the elevator, I said “Dozo, o-saki ni” (Please, after you), to which she replied “Arigato gozaimasu” (Thank you). Once again, her pronunciation was astonishingly natural. Thinking I might have misheard that she had been in Japan all of two weeks, I asked her about it in Japanese, but it was clear she didn’t understand me this time. So it was true that she’d just arrived.

Multilingual Countries and Language Learning Ability

India is a multilingual nation; it boasts somewhere around eight hundred to a thousand distinct languages, I’m told. So I immediately asked my new Indian acquaintance how many languages she spoke. She replied that she speaks three “first languages.” Where she grew up, three languages were spoken in her neighborhood: Tamil, Urdu, and Sanskrit. And these are not merely dialects of the same tongue, but three entirely different languages, mind you. Before she was old enough to think about it, the lady said, she was already speaking all three. Then, at some point, she also picked up Hindi, one of India’s official languages. Later, because higher education in India is conducted in English, she learned English as well. When she got married she accompanied her husband to Europe for his studies, where she added French and German to the list. Now, she told me, she can speak close to ten languages. It’s enough to make a monolingual Japanese person feel faint.

Three months later I ran into a mutual friend of the Indian lady, and inquired about the lady’s progress in speaking Japanese since the time we had met. “Oh, she’s quite fluent,” my friend replied. “She can make everyday conversation with no trouble at all.” Several months after that I had the opportunity to meet the Indian lady again. By chance she and her son were attending a Hippo Family Club camp in which I was also participating. At this point about ten months had elapsed since her arrival in Japan. When I overheard her chatting with another Japanese person, I was dumbfounded: it sounded just like two natives conversing. The lady even filled out her camp evaluation sheet in hiragana script, with a few kanji thrown in: a very natural mix of Japanese writing. She explained that she had only recently begun studying written Japanese.

The boy accompanying the lady was six years old. Four months earlier he had entered their local American School, and he already spoke fluent English. When I asked if they spoke English at home, his mother replied that they hadn’t done so for some time, so the boy had forgotten most of the English he knew previously. But when he started going to the American School, he picked it right up again. I asked her what languages they used on a daily basis and she replied, “Hindi and Hiroshima dialect.”

A Japanese grown-up asked the boy his name, in Japanese, and he replied “Niraji.” Then the same person asked him in English, “What is your name?” — to which Niraji retorted, in Japanese, “Why are you asking me the same thing?” I found the boy’s reaction very funny, and quite understandable — after all, he’d heard the same question twice!

Human Language Has an Elegant Order

In a newspaper article about our activities at Hippo Family Club, the reporter wrote of a young Ugandan who had come to Japan on a technical training program. The young man, the article said, could speak around thirty tribal languages and five European ones — some thirty-five altogether. For most Japanese, this is simply inconceivable. Not only that, but three weeks after his arrival in Japan, the young man was able to converse with his interviewer in Japanese — minimal, but real Japanese nonetheless. At the institute where technical trainees from various developing countries study Japanese, the article added, it is taken for granted that trainees from multilingual countries will pick up the language at mind-boggling speed.

At the United Nations Office in Geneva, many staff positions require the ability to speak four or five languages. But most people who have mastered four or five languages sufficiently for professional use can actually speak ten or twenty with varying degrees of fluency.

In this chapter I have talked about the “facts” of language that we instinctively know from personal experience. My aim is
to see just what it is that these facts tell us about language. For example, what is a natural language environment? By what process does language acquisition take place? Is there really a fundamental difference between the language learning ability of a child and that of an adult? And do multilingual people have a special talent that others lack?

The work of a natural scientist is to scrutinize the vast, seemingly chaotic diversity of “facts” we know about Nature, find connections among them, discover the order therein, and, using language, describe that order. If there were no order in Nature, it would be impossible to describe it with language. For that matter, language itself would have no order, and the whole notion of describing nature would be meaningless.

With rare exceptions due to special disabilities, any human being can learn to speak a language. This fact in itself suggests that, to the human mind, language is an elegantly organized system. The amazing processes associated with language — the process by which babies learn to speak, the process by which five-year-old Taro so quickly picked up a new language in a new environment, the way people in multilingual environments can master three, four, or more languages at the same time, the way multilingual people can learn subsequent languages with such ease — all these phenomena are evidence of an exquisite order found across the entire spectrum of languages. The goal of our language research is to describe that order.


We would like to thank the publishers of Language is Our Music: The Natural Way to Multilingualism for their generosity in allowing us to publish this excerpt from their book. We hope you enjoyed this and please check out the rest of their book for more insights, information and more on multilingualism:

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 J. Mitchell June 1, 2014 at 3:25 pm

The short story about the multilingual Indian Lady above is just amazing. Most people find it difficult to conquer a single foreign language let alone ten or more! Her story suggests to me that multilingual immersion at an early age is the key to being able to master a large number of languages.



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