Fish is Fish

I had a shiatsu massage today and as I was relaxing on the table I was thinking of calming images and one of a frog came to mind. This led to thinking about the book Fish is Fish by Leo Lionni, and from there it was a quick leap (haha) to interpreting it as a metaphor for being multilingual. In infanthood both fish and frog/tadpole do the same things and see each other as more or less the same. As happens with frogs, the tadpole soon grows legs, leaves the pond and travels the world. Frog doesn’t forget his friend though and comes back to the pond to tell Fish about all he’s seen. I’ll admit that this bit sometimes makes me feel a little strange as I feel a bit sorry for Fish who hasn’t been around the world, but let’s leave that to the side for the moment. Frog is now a multilingual entity and poor old Fish is still monolingual. Frog describes all the places he has been but Fish can only see them through his pond/monolingual eyes. Fish tries to jump out of the pond at the end but he can’t breathe air so Frog saves him by pushing him back in the pond. To keep with my metaphor it would be great if Fish could learn to breathe air and share the experiences Frog has, but this isn’t to be. The image I had of Frog as I was on the massage table is that Frog straddles two worlds and can live in both. I don’t want to stretch the metaphor too far, and the fact that frogs are endangered isn’t really symbolic of multilingualism as a whole. There are too many endangered languages, but outside of English speaking westernized countries people are far more likely to be at least bilingual. Charlemagne is credited with saying that to have another language is to possess a second soul. I also like a quote from Wittgenstein, “the limits of my language are the limits of my life”. I’ve used the second quote a few times as an opener to academic papers, generally when the topic relates to bilingual education in an English speaking country. While looking up these quotes I came across one that I’m not as familiar with but it’s heartbreakingly true:

Many Americans have long been of the opinion that bilingualism is ‘a good thing’ if it was acquired via travel (preferably to Paris) or via formal education (preferably at Harvard) but that it is a ‘bad thing’ if it was acquired from one’s immigrant parents or grandparents. -Fishman

I can’t quite tie this quote in to Fish is Fish as there are no family members in the pond as such, and I’m adding quite a personal slant to the book in any case. This is what it comes back to for me though, that we are all so much better off if we shed a monolingual coil and let in other words and languages, to whatever degree we are capable of.


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