Saturday, 5 February 2011

Socialising in tongues

We start socialising when we realise, by around age 3, that being human means finding ways to get along with other human beings. People socialise chiefly through language, so we need to learn to make sense of linguistic signals from our fellow interactants, in order to find our place in our social groups.

Learning to interpret language takes time, energy and investment, but we can’t spend our whole lives investing: we must reap some reward, sometime. So we need to find our groups too, the ones that satisfy our socialising investments with reasonable reward.

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has quite a few interesting things to say about how we do this. He asks, for example, How many friends does one person need? His findings became known as Dunbar’s number, reflecting the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships” – about 150, give or take a few. The book that started me off on Dunbar’s work has the appealing title Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language, and is as entertaining as the title promises.

I came to think about significant limits to socialising (or do I mean limits to significant socialising??) when I was writing about globalisation. Our social groups and our socialising have certainly evolved. Physical proximity is no longer an issue, for example. We are all on Facebook, but we may have no idea who our next-door neighbour is; we’re permanently connected, with no time to meet; and we may send electronic greetings to the colleague sitting next to us at work. From social networking to smart phones and smarter apps, I came to think about the new language that we are all learning to use, to deal with them: we currently txt, ROFL, :D, and are *.*, O.o, and ^_^. I should add here that, being as I am a non-native user of this language, I asked the natives (my children) for confirmation that the words(!) above are printable in a blog like mine.

We thus learn to use languages in order to satisfy our socialising needs, and we learn new languages to satisfy new such needs. This cannot be fundamentally different from what a multilingual does. It is not even different from what monolinguals do too, if we replace the word languages with the more general expression “ways of using language” (registers, in the jargon). We learn to use our languages in different ways, so that we can socialise in different ways. We speak differently to children and adults, or to shop assistants and our boss, for example. Multilinguals and monolinguals alike switch register in their languages in this way, the difference being that multilinguals may also switch language to switch among registers. The learning process that produces this skill and the skilled product that enables effective socialising are the same for all of us.

Our social groups usually start at home, among our families, and I will have much to say about uses of language in multilingual families, in coming posts. The next significant group, for most of us, must be our school(s). I wrote about schooling of multilingual children before, but I didn’t mention then how schooling in language subjects manages the learners’ multilingualism. Being multilingual appears to stand in the way of becoming multilingual the school way. The next post reports a few observations about this.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual adventures in School-Land. Wednesday 9th February 2011.


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