Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Second tongues and foreign tongues

By the logic of numbers, a second language must be the one that you learn in second place, after your first and before your third. By the logic of definitions, a foreign language must be a stranger to you, because that’s what foreign means.

A second language is said to be used where you happen to be learning it, whereas a foreign language isn’t. In any case, the logic of these labels doesn’t serve too well their use as cover terms for your new languages, whether we take into account the learners or their reasons for learning. Take second, for starters (pun intended, though see below). I suppose we don’t need to think very hard to guess how this label originated, and how many languages the typical language learner is assumed to have before acquiring a new one. What is interesting is that even if you have more than one “first language”, even if you’re learning your 7th or 28th language, and several new languages at the same time, you’re still a “second language” learner.

Take foreign, next. One of the reasons for learning new languages is certainly that your school syllabus forces you to. I’ll come back to this in another post. But if you’re learning new languages because you need to use them, you’ll be using them yourself. Using something involves making that thing yours. If I read a book that you recommended to me, I read it for my own purposes; if I borrow your car, I’ll drive it my way. But a foreign thing cannot be made yours because it is not part of you: think about, say, a foreign body in your eye, whether a piece of grit or a contact lens. New languages appear to belong together with grit and prostheses: if I “borrow” your language, one requirement seems indeed to be that I use it your way. I briefly mentioned issues of language “ownership” before, and I will also have more to say about them in future.

Acronyms like SLA, for ‘Second Language Acquisition’, or FLL, for ‘Foreign Language Learning’, have nevertheless immortalised the gist about our new languages. Granted, perhaps we shouldn’t split hairs about what’s in a name: we go on saying that the sun rises and sets, Galileo Galilei notwithstanding; and during my school time, blackboards became green without ever being acknowledged as greenboards – although the more recent whiteboards gained instant recognition by name.

Vagaries of naming, no doubt. But: just like the label multilingual, these language-related labels stick to you too. They can do so in paradoxical ways. It may well happen, for example, that plain mistakes that you make in your new language (like the rest of us, including in our old languages), or your creative uses of it, or what you intend as language play in it (see above), end up dismissed as second-rate, alien proficiency in it. At the same time, what you do, or fail to do, in your new languages may be taken as proficient use of it, on the assumption that if you’re using one specific language, you’re using it like everyone else does: my previous post reported a botched attempt at a polite excuse, rendered in second/foreign English as a rude insult.

Politeness matters, because it can open or close doors for you in this way, although it hardly finds mention in traditional second and foreign language teaching. Jonathan Culpeper’s recent resource, Impoliteness: Using and understanding the language of offence, helps us make sense of it, for users of English.

Your tones of voice, what linguists subsume under the label prosody, find a similar fate in language classes: you’re not taught how to “sing” your new languages. No wonder they remain second and foreign, despite Kenneth L. Pike’s observation, in his 1945 book The intonation of American English, that “if a man’s tone of voice belies his words, we immediately assume that the intonation more faithfully reflects his true linguistic intentions”. Prosody happens to be one of my pet subjects, incidentally, so I will have quite a lot to say about it in coming posts.

Tone of voice and politeness often go hand in hand: male uses of high pitch, for example, signal politeness in some Asian cultures. Assertive tones may do so elsewhere.


So how do we manage someone else’s (im)polite behaviour, in someone else’s language – or language variety? The next post, a guest post, tells us more about this.


© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= When in Rome, do as the Romans do?, by Sunita Anne Abraham. Saturday 29th January 2011.

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