Saturday, 14 May 2011

Big multilinguals

Too many cooks spoil the broth, as they say. And too many speakers spoil the language, others might want to add. Just like proper broth-cooking should have a single signature, proper language-speaking should stick to one recipe.

This must sound familiar: these people don’t know how to speak; youths can’t use X (where X = the name of any language shared by different generations of users); newspaper headlines make a joke of spelling/grammar/vocabulary; and, not least, sms-es & Co. are ruining Y (where Y = the name of any language used in sms-es & Co.). I’ll come back to issues of electronic uses of language, but what I want to say here is that these cris du cœur mean to protect one victim (the language) from its many, many encroachers (the language users).

Here’s an intact language:

Photo: Schellack (Wikimedia Commons)


  And here are many speakers doing their best to ruin it:  
Photo: flickr.com

Since all of us are users of some victim, but only some of us are harassing it at any given time or place, depending on who’s accusing, “the” language that is being injured in each case cannot be “the” language: it must be the bits and pieces of it that don’t match the accuser’s, and that accusers usually identify as the only decently usable ones. Kate Burridge had a few things to say about how encroachers are viewed (which also tell us a few things about the viewers themselves) in Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: taboo and purism. We’re talking lèse-majesté here.  

Among these Barbarians at the Gate, to use Patricia Donaher’s label, big multilinguals, those of us who are “late” learners of new languages, make up the vanguard. Being multilingual means that all your languages are available to you, all the time. Unlike condiments in a recipe, you can’t choose to remove one or the other of your languages when using language. Maybe this necessary flavouring is what makes some tempers boil over “improper” uses of “their” languages, as if there were copyright on the victims. And maybe the rise in temperatures has to do with similar effects to the one that Ingrid Piller reports in Can foreign languages drive you crazy?. It all makes us wonder whether the (nowadays, also) English word pizza, to give but one example, is evidence of a spoiled English broth or of a tastier one.

Spoiling languages, by which I mean the concept “spoiling languages”, only makes sense when you think of languages as products, ready-made, well-defined objects that can deteriorate and so need preservation. All languages do feature preserved bits, whose role is precisely to go on being preserved, like greetings, formulaic expressions, proverbs, idioms – and, importantly, nursery rhymes, about which I will have something to say in future. Preserving languages is, in turn, one of the reasons we create libraries and databases (where we can also keep cooking recipes), but that’s hardly the job of language users. If pickled language were recommended use, it would be difficult to understand why it has become customary to give prizes to creative language users.

Little multilinguals, like little monolinguals, must rank amongst the most creative users of language (where creative = PC-speak for ‘error-prone’). Big multilinguals too, for whom their new languages are as new. One difference is said to be that if little ones say falled for “fell”, they’re being cute and adorable because they’re on temporary respite from proper linguistic behaviour: they’ll grow out of it. Whereas if big ones say the same, they’re (being) wrong and the prospect is bleak. I see common ground here instead: falled-uses bode well because they mean that the learners have both found a pattern (-ed endings attach to certain kinds of words) and found themselves able to use it (fall is one of those words).

To me, the real difference between little language learners and big ones is that the former start their learning from the beginning: children learn to sing their languages before they learn to speak them. Not in the bel-canto sense of singing, but in the sense that nobody talks without voice modulation, the so-called melody of speech, that very few people seem to pay any attention to, whether in comments about “proper” use of languages, or about child and adult language learning. I’ll try to work out why, next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Speaking out of tune. Saturday 21st May 2011.

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