An Advantage of Bilingualism

November 5th, 2006

One of the biggest advantages, for me, of being bi/trilingual is something I almost never hear addressed:


Learning a new language opens up a world of humour that just isn’t possible in other languages.

Take, for example, Japanese. Japanese is ordered SOV (subject, object, verb). English is ordered SVO (subject, verb, object). Since humour is often predicated on the unexpected, it often appears at the end of a sentence. So in an English sentence, you’ll often have the object of the sentence be something unexpected and ludicrous. If you translate that joke into Japanese, even if it doesn’t rely on puns or plays on words, it falls completely flat, because the object pops up way before the verb which in English serves to direct your expectations. And, likewise, in Japanese the verb will be the punchline, but in English it comes at almost the start of the sentence.

Add to the grammatical aspects all the cultural aspects, expectations, plays on words, and the like, and by learning a new language you’re really almost doubling the amount of things that can make you laugh.

Tangentially related, the hardest to understand translation I’ve come across of a book has to be Catch 22 in Japanese. It uses many long, long descriptive sentences, like this (not actually from Catch 22):

Bob bought a genuine Swiss watch at the store which had managed to avoid the aerial bombardment by virtue of the owner passing a substantial amount of money to the Luftwaffe officer who regularly visited to pick up the newest and greatest in counterfeit Swiss watches, which were the only types of watches they actually sold.

Which, translated into Japanese, has the following word order:

Bob owner often newest greatest counterfeit Swiss watch pick up to visited Luftwaffe officer bribe paid thus aerial bombardment avoided counterfeit only selling store at genuine Swiss watch bought.

Now, sure, you have the double-punch of translating English to Japanese and then back again, but, honestly, the Japanese is just as incomprehensible.

Or an example that’s actually from Catch 22:

[I]t was even possible that none of what he thought had taken place, really had taken place, and that he was dealing with an aberration of memory rather than of perception, that he never really had thought he had seen what he now thought he once did think he had seen, that his impression now that he once had thought so was merely the illusion of an illusion, and that he was only now imagining that he had ever once imagined seeing a naked man sitting in a tree at the cemetery.

Ok, that’s not straightforward. But you can understand it. Maybe it takes two readings, but it’s comprehensible. Plus, it ends with the unexpected “naked man sitting in a tree at the cemetery”.

In Japanese, the word order would change into something along these lines:

He thought taken place that really taken place not, he perception problem not, memory problem dealing with was, he now saw thought thought thing really saw thought not, he now thought thought thing really illusion’s illusion, now only once cemetery tree in naked man sitting saw imagined imagining was possible.

The whole book is like that. Even the totally nonconfusing English passages turn into giant labyrinthine puzzles.

So, in summation, being bilingual is nice. Being quintillingual, I can only imagine, would rock so much that one would need earthquake insurance.

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