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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Feel better, be bilingual

By Ooi Kee Beng

(Editorial in Penang Monthly, February 2012)

Why is it so important to scientists to discover extra-terrestrial life forms? They know the odds are astronomically small.

Well, they are hoping against hope, certainly. But I think that it is because they intuitively know that the leap in knowledge about Life and the Cosmos that such a discovery would bring would dwarf much of what we already know. It would precipitate a revolution in human thinking if we had a chance to compare one tree of Life against another totally unrelated tree, whose genesis is totally separate from ours.

This tells us something very important about the anatomy of knowledge.

Let me try to make my point analogously, by looking at something more mundane and common. As the inspired Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once argued, pointing only once does not make sense. One cannot learn what pointing is by having seen it only on a single occasion.

If you try to draw the attention of a very young child to some object by pointing at that object, and if that is the first time that such an act has been done in front of the child, you can be quite sure that he or she will simply look at your outstretched finger in wonder, and perhaps disinterestedly.

The cultural act – and it is a cultural act – of “pointing to an object” is learned only through repeated instances of pointing, and with more than one object being pointed at. One cannot point only once for the activity of “pointing out something” to be conceptualized.

In short, we need to be cognizant of at least two cases for a category subsuming the two, to be conceivable. The two cases need to project some salient similarity with each other; and through not being identical, suggest dissimilarities at the same time, for connectivity between them to be born in the child’s head.

This brings me to the point of this article. I wish to suggest that bilingualism, or multilingualism, is a fantastic source of knowledge – about the Self, and about the social limits of words and their uncertain ability to carry meaning.

If one is monolingual, then chances are, one is blind to many of the major assumptions that go into building up the discourses that are most basic in that language as used in a certain period of time; and perhaps more narrowly, within a certain class or gender.

Most of us have experienced how our personalities shift when we use different languages. More than that, we often sense how a notion easily expressed in one language may not even exist in another. In most cases, we realise how words and phrases in different languages merely approximate each other.

This tentativeness of meaning – this context-based boundary that our expressions must obey – is most obvious to those who effectively use different tongues in their lives.

Knowing several languages does not only increase the arenas where one can exercise influence, it also makes one more self-reflective. One can know oneself better by being bilingual; one can feel better and one is better at feeling his or her way around.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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