Barring exceptions, everybody speaks at least one language. Some speak two or more. Some have an impressive array of languages that aren’t even in the same language family. And yet, that doesn’t necessarily make them linguists, or even language experts.

In fact, monolinguals are rarely even knowledgeable of the only language they’re capable of. Loads of native English-speakers flock to Asia to teach English, despite having no background or education in English, or language pedagogy. They speak English perfectly; surely that more-than-qualifies them to teach it. And yet, they couldn’t tell you anything about the nuances between adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions, to say nothing of the  psycho-linguistic factors in play for the use of continuitive on (used in such sentences as “go on”; “play on”; “keep on drinking”, but not in sentences like “*drink on”, or “*scratch on”).

The problem is, unlike math, which resides in a somewhat isolated domain, language is necessarily overtly and extensively used by everybody, everyday. So people who have no solid observations on language beyond their own idle speculation and personal idiolects, will form opinions on language that may or may not have been proposed and rejected by the Linguistics community. It is for this reason that most people are convinced that Mandarin and Cantonese are mere dialects, and that after puberty, an individual will have no chance of learning a second language. And while these topics are always great to use as openers to Linguistics, it must get tiresome, like a prof who’s sole teaching responsibility is always the first-year introductory course. “What, another year of new ignoramuses filled with the same common misconceptions?”

Sesquilinguals are slightly better, having had exposure to a second language, while retaining full mastery of their first language. But since their skills in both languages aren’t parallel, they’ll obviously have different opinions and understandings of their two languages. Just the other day, I was speaking with a friend of mine who was learning English, as a Japanese speaker. She complained that far too many English words and phrases are polysemous (e.g. “to take (sby) out” can mean, “to lead (sby) away from the vicinity”, or “to be dating (sby)”, or even “to assassinate (sby)”). As far as she was concerned, Japanese was monosemous. Every word only has one meaning.

I was flabbergasted. Of course, I immediately knew that this was untrue, because there is always more than one sense of any given Japanese word that I’d be looking up. Moreover, any spoken language will have ambiguities, and some of those ambiguities will necessarily reside in the polysemy of the words/phrases being used.

Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn’t think of suggesting to look through a Japanese-only dictionary, and assess the relative number of entries that only have one definition. I could only offer her the most salient example I had in my head, which I only knew because I had looked it up some weeks before: the use of the word 余計 (“yokei”). The most salient example, it seems, is the sense of “unnecessary; useless”, but its literal/etymological definition is closer to “surplus; extra”. Thus, we get sentences like, “stop wasting my time!” (余計なことをするな!), but also “she studies more than the others” (彼女は人より余計勉強します), and even “I have no money to spare” (余計な金はない).

But what’s truly fascinating for me, is that despite this clear presentation of an allegedly new aspect in her new language, that she wouldn’t go back and actually test to see whether it also exists in her native language. Maybe that’s something that only a linguist would do? Having said that, there are obviously aspects of language which are unique to themselves; the noun counters in Japanese aren’t shared by PIE languages, for example. I shudder to think what aspects of Japanese that I find so frustrating, that I fail to realise also reside in English.