Wednesday, 29 August 2012

“Good”, “standard”, and other intriguing language qualifiers

We can start discussion of this topic with a little survey: what does it mean, to you, to speak “good X”, or “standard X”, where X stands for the name of a language that you speak? And what does it mean, to you, to be a competent, or proficient, or good user of a language? You can also ask your friends to answer these questions, and have some fun collating the results.

You will have fun, I promise you. Attempting to describe qualifiers like “good” and “competent” in connection with uses and users of language is extremely entertaining, in that you can spend your whole life trying to find “the” answer to these questions. It’s not just that these labels have all come to mean the same: I can safely guess that your survey will show, for example, that good X means standard X and that both mean correct X, or that competent users of X are proper and/or native-like or even accentless users of it, or vice versa. It’s mostly that these labels are judgemental – just think of what their opposites mean, on which you can also conduct a revealing survey. To a linguist like me, judgement values about language are interesting as expressions of personal opinions, not as expressions of linguistic facts, which is what linguists busy themselves with.

In this spirit, I once suggested a project topic to my class of beginner linguistics students in Singapore, where they were to survey what Singaporeans understood by labels like good English and good Singlish. The former label was readily accepted as a viable survey question, but the latter drew baffled silence. Singlish is a native Singaporean language which, according to official Singaporean takes on the matter, is neither native nor a language: it’s just ‘bad English’, a statement which is about as accurate as stating that Principense, say, is ‘bad Portuguese’. The students were reacting to my apparent ignorance in attempting to collocate an adjective like “good” with something that is as inherently “bad” as Singlish. So I decided to speak some Singlish, and the students again stared blankly at me – those who did not burst out laughing, that is. “That is not Singlish!”, some of them finally giggled. “It is”, I insisted, “it’s bad Singlish.” I think I was able to drive my point home, because the discussion of their survey results on both questions turned out to be extremely interesting.

The thing is that some uses of language have become associated with prestige, another judgemental label which has nothing to do with linguistic facts, and thereby assumed as the only “proper” uses of language. This is why standardised varieties of different languages also became synonymous with the labels identifying those languages by name, sometimes in ways that users of those languages find it hard to recognise, let alone implement in their everyday life.

What users of X do use, that fails to meet “the” standard X, is thus dubbed bad X, or improper X, or accented X. Multilingual mixes, that I’ve addressed several times before, are a favoured target of language guardians. But monolingual uses are fair game too, whether in grammar, prosody or vocabulary. So-called “contracted” forms (another intriguing label to which I’ll come back soon), for example, like aren’t and they’re, are also bad language, and so is what many of us call “slang”, a word which we often use even without knowing exactly what it means (yet again), but to which we nevertheless attribute overall negative connotations. You can do another survey, to check out what it means to say “That’s slang”. But if you do, don’t tell your informants about this newly published book, titled precisely Slang. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but its subtitle, The people’s poetry, and a look inside seemed to me to show that Michael Adams agrees with my definition of what lingualism is all about: it’s about what people do with their languages.

Persuasions and practices based on ill-defined judgemental labels don’t help us understand what’s going on and what’s required in language learning, for children and adults alike. They merely create the illusion that the labellers know what they’re talking about, which is probably the reason why they go on impacting language education policies. The articles collected in Multilingual, Globalizing Asia. Implications for Policy and Education give an appreciation of current language policies, in multilingual Asia. And Rosina Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent. Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, explains the role played by policy makers, schooling and even Disney cartoons in perpetuating myths about language uses as tenets of what she calls “standard language ideology”.

In particular, such persuasions and practices have little to do with fostering linguistic intelligibility which, to me, is the end purpose of learning to socialise through learning languages. I’ll come back to this matter next time.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Vocal intelligibility. Saturday 8th September 2012.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Teaching to the standard

Language courses are routinely identified by the name of the languages that they claim to teach you. Things like Advanced Course in Turkish or Learn Swahili in Three Weeks are common sights on textbook covers and internet sites.

We learners might then be excused for thinking that we are learning a language, when what we are in fact presented with is one particular variety of that language. What we call “languages” are about as invariant as what we call “human beings”, so course creators and sellers might in turn be excused for omitting mention of which variety their creations and products reflect. But we language learners might think it courteous, to say the least, to be informed about what exactly is contained in what we’re consuming, just like we also prefer to know what exactly is contained in that appealing chocolate bar at the convenience shop.

Chocolate bar standards, however, arise from bottom-up preferences dictated by consumer markets, whereas language standards differ in two respects: they are dictated top-down and they serve offer rather than demand. Language course contents do not stem from a belief that everyone will be equally well-served by the standard language varieties on standard offer either: rather, it simply is unprofitable, for writers and publishers, to provide language materials which are tailor-made to learners’ needs or, for schools, to change textbook adoption policies, which routinely involve the use of (read ‘being stuck with’) the same materials for several years, precisely because shorter-term adoption contracts are too expensive.

The limited offer geared to user needs in language teaching matches the limited offer in speech-language diagnostic and assessment tools, for monolinguals and multilinguals alike. Like speech-language therapists, language teachers may find themselves required (read ‘forced’) to work with language varieties which they themselves do not use outside of professional duties, and to assess them against standards which in addition may not serve their clients either.

I can give one example. Many years ago, I attended a French summer course in Pau, in the French Pyrénées-Atlantiques. There I met a few other Portuguese students, who spoke a different Portuguese dialect from mine. In particular, we pronounced our so-called “rolled-r” differently, as in the ‘rr’ spelling of my surname. Mine is a uvular articulation, at the back of the soft palate, theirs was an alveolar one, at the upper gum ridge, and we used our respective r’s in our French too, as we had done ever since we first learned to speak French. We soon found out, however, that by doing so I was being a good student, whereas they weren’t “putting in the required effort”. I wondered what kind of “effort” I was giving evidence of, since all of us were doing exactly the same thing, speaking French as we always had. The issue was that my French ‘r’ happened to match the standard Parisian one which was required as proof of “good” command of the language. The irony of it all was that their ‘r’ matched the mainstream Béarnais French accent, which was the one we heard around us.

Being required to learn a standard variety of a language is not an issue in itself: whatever the variety or varieties of our language(s) that we use outside of official circles, we all need to learn to navigate (some) standard of those languages. But it wouldn’t hurt to also learn that languages come in many standards, and that what people sometimes call “the” standard is just one of them.

I can’t remember whether our teachers at the French course spoke in their own accents or in the “good” one with one another and with us students, outside of the classroom – probably because everyone understood everyone else, when we were using the language to talk rather than to demonstrate classroom-bound linguistic skills, an issue I’ll come back to some other day. But I was constantly reminded of this episode in my later language teaching career, when, as a beginner teacher, I took it as my duty to comply with unwieldy textbooks and assessment materials on offer, and equally unwieldy students who, because they’d been brainwashed about “good” uses of language being “the” language, were persuaded that, say, Standard Lisbonese (or whatever you choose to call it) and Parisian French were in use, or should be, in places like Luanda and Liège, respectively, to where they were relocating after completing their language courses with me. 

The issue has nothing to do with murky concepts like “nativeness”. Béarnais accents are as native as Parisian ones, which makes one wonder what (certain) people might have in mind when they say that “competent” language learning means emulation of “native” proficiency. The issue has nothing to do with linguistic competence or intelligibility either – unless we wish to argue that native Béarnais French speakers should also put in some “effort” in order to sound “good”. The issue is, to me, a non-issue, because it stems, yet again, from an ingrained confusion about what terms like good, standard, competent, native, intelligible, and so on, might mean. The next couple of posts deal with these matters.

© MCF 2012


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