If the title of this post reminds of the Olympic motto, it should: it’s pure competition out there. Which language, in the singular, tops the lot? Despite lingering suspicion that all languages of a multilingual should preferably stand on equivalent footing, ranking languages ex-aequo is not a preferred option.
Let’s see. First, first. What comes first comes before anything else, in time or space, so your first language is the one you have after you have no language. People can have more than one first language, of course, if they’re brought up multilingually from birth. But speaking of several first languages generates confusion when “first language” is represented as “L1”, which might have been a usable way of naming the L in question when everyone was assumed to start life in monolingual worlds. Since this is not so, and since confusing labels about language matters have a habit of persevering, you can then have several el-ones, which looks and sounds funny because if something is found to be suitably represented by the single unit “1”, then it cannot be suitably represented by several unit “ones”.
The confusion increases when multi-el-oners go to school and learn new languages. These languages, whether one or more, become their el-twos, because they are all second languages. The confusion peaks when the word first in “first language” is taken to mean not ‘first’ but ‘main’, in the sense that, say, a First Lady is a Main Lady, or ‘best’, in the Olympic sense that whoever comes first is best.
Main, then. This is variously taken to be the language you spontaneously use when initiating an exchange, the language you dream or swear in, or the language you do your maths in, for example. The problems are that when you’re initiating talk, you’re preparing to talk to someone, who also has at least one language, so you choose language not on instinct but according to what you know about your interlocutor’s language(s); that you dream and swear in whatever languages became relevant for what prompted your dreams and swearwords; and that maths is something that you learn, usually in school, from someone who must speak to you in some language, which then becomes your maths language.
Next, best. Really tricky, this one. Best for what? Or does “best” mean something like ‘best quality’, in which case do we mean quality grammar, or vocabulary, or fluency, which, again, must be best for specific purposes? For example, English is my best language for work, and also the main one and the first one that comes to me when I think about work matters, but I wouldn’t honestly know how to answer a simple yes/no question about whether English is my best language in absolute terms.
I believe that we need to shed the absolute nature of terms like first, main and best, when talking about our languages, and start thinking about them in terms of their uses rather than their properties. We’ve known this ever since the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski wrote, all the way back in 1923, that:
“A statement, spoken in real life, is never detached from the situation in which it has been uttered. For each verbal statement by a human being has the aim and function of expressing some thought or feeling actual at that moment and in that situation, and necessary for some reason or other to be made known to another person or persons – in order either to serve purposes of common action, or to establish ties of purely social communion, or else to deliver the speaker of violent feelings or passions.”
This is what we have our languages for, and each one will naturally shift from best to subsidiary to first and then back again, depending on which uses we go on making of them. But what happens, then, when we want to use our languages, and develop our skills in them, and find little or no support for this in our community? The next post, a guest post, gives us some answers to this.
© MCF 2011
Next post: =Guest post= Learning to read in a multilingual society: challenges for Africa, by Viv Edwards. Saturday 19th March 2011.