Kohn touches upon some of the circumstances that have led to people in the UK being harassed for the audacity of not speaking English in a public place (we’ve all seen footage). He is cautious about judgment, though, preferring to consider generally the ways in which a language might be used to define the boundaries of a group: to define who are the ‘insiders’, and therefore also, by exclusion, who are the outsiders...Most people with a habit of using more than one language (including heritage speakers like Kohn and me) comfortably understand languages as complementing one another, rather than competing for exclusive territorial rights...Kohn also braves the much contested question of the relationship between language and thought, and in his small-scale examples, his evidence is particularly fascinating.
This beautifully written book is, indeed, a defence of cosmopolitanism against Theresa May’s nasty jibe: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” The author, a native Polish speaker, makes a powerful case for knowing more than one language as a life-enriching skill that may enlarge our sympathies in a world that wants to build walls. Though, as Kohn unsentimentally points out, linguistic differences can sometimes be erected as walls themselves. In Papua New Guinea, home to 800 languages, one village decided to change its word for “No” so as to be different from its neighbours.