Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever by Marek Kohn - review by Maureen Freely

Maureen Freely

We Need to Talk

Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever


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In late 2014 – a year or so before ‘Brexit’ became a household word – Marek Kohn decided that the time had come to address the ‘swelling roar of xenophobia, nativism and belligerent nationalism’ not just in this country but in so many others too. Struck by one variant of this global trend – the growing consensus among native speakers of English that theirs was the only language they would ever need – he set out to make a case for acquiring at least one other. Because he had lost his grasp of his own first language, Polish, after entering the English school system and had only recently begun to retrieve it, he was less interested in those who are ‘perfectly’ bilingual than in the ways that ordinary people travel between languages in everyday life, connecting with other cultures without compromising their own. Certain though he was about the openness and understanding that such daily practices foster, he wished to find out what other benefits there might be.

In the course of his quest Kohn sought to ‘find a path between the scientific, personal and political domains of language’. And here I felt for him. Although my years of travelling between Turkish and English have been full of intrigue, they have nothing on the warfare I have witnessed over twenty-five years in universities. To say that every discipline has its own language would be a gross oversimplification: inside every strand of every subdiscipline there is a distinct and fiercely defended vocabulary that only the faithful respect or understand. 

But never mind, says Kohn. The thing to remember about language is that it exists just as much to prevent communication as to enable it. Which makes sense, he insists: ‘the design logic of enabling information to circulate within a group, while restricting its ability to enter or leave, is

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