Creativity seems to be a defining characteristic of human beings. If we human beings weren’t creative, the reasoning goes, we wouldn’t have made it to where we are now (whatever that means) – and we wouldn’t, of course, be able to extol creativity as the path to getting there (ditto).
Our languages serve our creativity. In Western parts of the world, we learned this in 1836, when the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt published his book Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (translated into English as On Language), and remarked that language “makes infinite use of finite means”.
Humboldt meant that we can do with our languages whatever we need to do to make them work for us. The way we learn to do this, however, doesn’t seem to be all that creative.
Children do not only end up using their languages the way somebody else does, whether at home or in school: their language learning is deemed successful only when they actually do so. I’m not arguing that we learn our languages through simple imitation: my work on child language makes clear my views on this. I’m saying that like the proverbial apple and its tree, linguistic ripeness seeds its own orchard.
I can give one example, from Singapore. Little Singaporeans are known to say things like the following, where I transcribe in ordinary spelling what is heard:
I miss a class this morning.
That happen a long time ago.
Why do little Singaporeans say this? Because that’s what they hear big Singaporeans say. I’m talking about Singapore English here, by which I mean the standard version of the language that is used in the country, not Singlish. These uses of verbs have been ascribed to ignorance of past tense forms, or to other ignorance subsumed under general labels like “incomplete learning” of the “correct” forms. For both little and big ones, by the way.
Now, because I’ve lived in Singapore for many years, because I’ve listened to a lot of Singapore English, and because I found it odd that a whole country should go around speaking incomplete English, I decided to check matters out. Instead of the grammatical deficiency with which Singaporean speakers were diagnosed, my study, Past tense suffixes and other final plosives in Singapore English, found a phonological issue, one that is besides shared by other speakers of English throughout the world: the well-known instability of [t] and [d] at the end of syllables.
In Singapore English, present tense trust and bend can sound like ‘truss’ and ‘Ben’, both present tense send and past tense sent like [sen], and past tenses left and went like [lef] and [wen]. A Singaporean’s best friend, with no verbs involved, is as much a [bes fren] as the [-st] of missed is [-s] and the [-nd] of happened is [-n]. In other Englishes, the next world is also the neck’s whirl, the past is pass, and facts are fax. Singapore English is just/juss one more example of this. You can listen to the corpus of speech data on which I based my study.
The issue is this: if children fail to conform to the linguistic models that are available around them, they also fail to acquire linguistic appropriateness to their daily environments. But if they do conform to models that for some reason are not deemed acceptable, then they, and whoever seeded those models for them, risk their reputation as appropriate users of language. Similar issues of serving as you have it served arise, for example, among self-labelled OPOL families. There was a time when researchers puzzled over “OPOL” children’s mixing of their languages. The puzzlement vanished when the presumed OL-users, who already were or had by then become multilingual, were found to do likewise, despite reporting in good faith that they didn’t.
What we say and what we think we say can be two quite different kinds of language. Those of us who doubt this might want to pursue some very entertaining fieldwork, listening to what we actually produce, speech-wise. We often (mis)take ourselves for users of desirable, standard conventions, which is fine: self-flattery is another defining characteristic of human beings. The problems begin when we take non-standard uses of language, whose label reflects factual observations, for sub-standard uses, a label that reflects opinion. From there to “wrong”, and so in need of correction, takes but a small step.
Standard uses are also the ones contemplated in assessment instruments. A child’s linguistic input, from elders as well as peers, is accordingly part of routine observation, in speech-language clinics. Taking into account a child’s natural way of copying uses of language is a necessary step to deciding between difference and disorder. Sharynne McLeod discusses similar issues in her blog Speaking my Languages.
I’ve now returned several times to matters of assessment, in this blog, and to the kind of knowledge that allows us to trust both our assessment instruments and our judgement when using them. Next time, I’ll deal with a rather broad issue about knowledge itself. Namely, how do we get to know what we know? Or perhaps I should say: how do we get to know what we think that we know.
© MCF 2011
Next post: How do we know? Saturday 25th June 2011.