Saturday, 14 December 2013

Multilingual crosswords

I found out only the other day that 2013 marks the first centenary of crossword puzzles. I was rather surprised, actually, because I realised I had been under the impression that such marvellous entertainment must have been invented as soon as words themselves were. For some reason, my mind had dated crosswords all the way back to the invention of playing cards, which we (apparently) owe to Imperial China. In any case, I wouldn’t forgive myself for missing out on the celebration before the year is out.

Image © MCF

Quite a long time ago, I woke up in one of those multilingual moods which, as inexplicably, came associated with crosswords and with my children. The children were familiar with crosswords because of my addiction to them, and they also knew that crossword puzzling comes in many variants, like any other culture-bound entertainment. Swedish-style crosswords, for example, feature a picture, a mix of quick and cryptic clues which are included in the grid itself where other variants may have blocked cells, and strings of light-shaded cells for answers which have no explicit clue except some relationship to the given picture. Whatever their style, however, crossword puzzles all have one thing in common: they stimulate thinking about words in different ways, thereby engaging our linguistic little grey cells in different ways. Since I’ve spent most of my life enjoying linguistic fun and thinking about it, my odd mood on that day gave me the perfect excuse to try to spread the crossword virus to my little ones.

Swedish and English were the languages in which the children were literate at the time, so I created a grid containing Swedish-English orthographic twins with possible different meanings in each language (e.g. the word pass) and two sets of clues, one in each language. My clues were of the quick kind (I’m a coward, yes...), asking for names of people/characters, things, places, activities, synonyms, fill-in-the-blank and anything else I could think of which related to the children’s everyday interests. It was up to the children to decide whether they wanted to solve the crossword twice, separately in each language, or once, using both sets of clues at the same time. Needless to say, the grid had quite a lot of blocked cells, nothing in the way of symmetry, and was otherwise not very appealing to the eye. I used a typical Portuguese grid design, by the way, where rows and columns are numbered sequentially at the side/top of the grid, and individual clues for each of the answers in the same row or column are separated by a full stop. This was the least I could do to have some Portugueseness included in the puzzle.

Physical and mental activities spawned by this crossword puzzle had an unexpected side effect among the children. They all suffered a brief but all the more intense relapse of their (very) aggravating child humour bouts of years before, when they used to point at, say, dogs, then call them cats, then giggle their socks off at their joke, and then repeat the whole routine with (very) minor variations over and over again while prodding us parents to join in. They now spent time and energy inserting, say, Swedish crossword words in English utterances or vice versa, and likewise ROFLing at the results. Given that nurturing their awareness of words and word play in their languages was one of the purposes I had in mind when I set the puzzle, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about having kindled the associated silliness, too.

On the whole, then, I rate the effects of this word-venture quite positively. Crosswords develop our skills in thinking about a language in that language. They teach us new words and help us sort out old and new word spellings. In addition, many of us aren’t necessarily aware of lexical or other relationships among our different languages. Our languages are there to serve different purposes, so their everyday use seldom affords us opportunities to track any similarities they may share. But knowing about them can come in handy: two of my children had to study Latin in school (I know. Don’t ask: just have a look here), which they did in English, their school language. They had serious trouble memorising (ditto: here) all those “funny” words and their meanings until I pointed out to them that thinking about Latin words in Latin’s daughter Portuguese might assist otherwise puzzling homework tasks. This was a true epiphany for the children. Multilinguals do not develop this kind of cross-linguistic awareness spontaneously, by simply being multilingual, despite common assumptions to the contrary – an issue I’ll come back to some other day.

Not least, the multilingual crossword was sheer fun to set and solve. If you’re into language brain-teasers and language play, and would like to see how we can solve and appreciate them even in languages that we’ve never seen or heard before, you may enjoy my Lang101 Workbook. It includes puzzles in languages which use non-Roman scripts, though I have no idea whether or how multilingual print-based puzzles combining different scripts might work. I would be delighted to hear about this.

My next post has a couple of thoughts about what else we can do with our languages.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Expats and immigrants. Saturday 11th January 2014.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

You must be joking.

When we tell someone that they must be joking we don’t mean that they must be joking: we mean we don’t believe what they’re saying. They may not be lying, but what they’re saying strikes us as making sense only in the realm of make-believe. We say this in a tone of voice that rules out acknowledgement of shared merriment. And we don’t laugh at the presumed “joke”. So why the word joking, then? Quirks of linguistic formulaic devices, surely, but that’s what languages are: formulaic devices. We need to learn when and how telling people that they must be joking is appropriate, because we don’t say this to people whom we know are joking. So how do we know they’re not?

At the turn of last century, in a monograph titled Le Rire: Essai sur la Signification du Comique which has withstood the test of time, Henri Bergson argued that what makes us laugh, “le comique, [c’est] du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant”. Stumbles and/or falls, for example, trigger our mirth because (more or less) supple living bodies fall prey to mechanical stiffness – and I suspect there must be something mechanical at work, too, in what makes us laugh over and over again at whatever makes us laugh. Perhaps the converse of Bergson’s take, plating life onto machines, is one reason why machines aren’t that good at laughing at what makes us laugh? Or rather, why we aren’t that good at creating laughter-inducing software. Richard Powers puts it this way, in Galatea 2.2: Helen, the mechanical protagonist, “was strange. [...] She sped laugh-free through Green Eggs and Ham”. Helen isn’t the only one having issues with laughter in this novel, by the way: if you’re curious, have a look in Fran McDonald’s chapter Wrong laughter: Laughing away the human in Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2.

Bergson also explained why laughter confirms a successfully shared joke: “Notre rire est toujours le rire d’un groupe.” 


As we learn our languages, whether we’re young or old, we learn what’s shared through them among fellow-users. Human beings are natural merrymakers, regardless of culture, so it’s no wonder that one of the main purposes of language use is entertaining, along with informing and persuading. Since jokes make sense to insiders, learning to make and get jokes isn’t as frivolous as it may appear on first thought. Happily, given the not-for-laughs nature of most language teaching materials, humour is being increasingly understood as a very effective language learning tool. Research by Nancy Bell shows, for example, that fostering joking in a new language enhances linguistic proficiency, by promoting creative ways of using those new linguistic resources. Catherine Davies provides an additional reason for getting to grips with humour in the language classroom: her study How English-learners joke with native speakers concludes that “Such fine-tuning of understanding is the core of why the ability to participate in such joking is important in the development of rapport.” Not only do we learn better what makes us laugh, learning what makes others laugh hails us as sanctioned linguistic insiders. My take is that people who joke together wire together.

Although I have yet to decide which of the two is more vexing, someone telling you that you must be joking when you are joking, or someone laughing at your joke when you’re not, I’m sure of one thing: prosody is often to blame for mishaps of this kind, as research included in this special issue of Pragmatics & Cognition, dedicated to Prosody and Humour, makes clear. We draw on language/culture-specific analogies and metaphors, bodily ones included, to create idiomatic sarcasm and irony, but language/culture-specific prosody is what allows their interpretation as humorous. Maybe the reason why Richard Powers’ Helen and our other human-like machines don’t know how to laugh is that programmers inherited the traditional view of languages as exhausting themselves in robot-friendly words + grammar. Just a thought.

Lastly, a healthy note: we know about an apple a day, but a laugh a day may have equally beneficial effects on our physiology and psychology. Here are two, for the child within each and every one of us: Howard L. Chace’s monolingual fairy tale, Ladle Rat Rotten Hut and Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s multilingual rhymes Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames. I’ll indulge in some more language play next time.

Davies, C. (2003). How English-learners joke with native speakers: an interactional sociolinguistic perspective on humor as collaborative discourse across cultures Journal of Pragmatics, 35 (9), 1361-1385 DOI: 10.1016/S0378-2166(02)00181-9

Goldstein, J. (1982). A Laugh A Day The Sciences, 22 (6), 21-25 DOI: 10.1002/j.2326-1951.1982.tb02088.x

McDonald, F. (2012). Wrong laughter: Laughing away the human in Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2. In Matos Alves, A. (ed.), Unveiling the Posthuman, Interdisciplinary Press.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual crosswords. Saturday 14th December 2013.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Multilingual liars

Cynics have it that human beings developed language in order to be able to lie. I’m not sure I like the innuendo in this suggestion, but I’m quite sure that language does allow us to lie and that we human beings make liberal use of this linguistic facility.

Human language features what linguists call displacement, enabling us to talk about absent and/or fictitious referents – you can read more about this in Chapters 1 and 12 of my book The Language of Language. Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal, discusses the morals of lying, a fascinating topic in itself – and I quite like another cynic’s take on morality in general, August Strindberg’s in Röda Rummet: “... moralen som de bestå, det är deras elakhet som anlagt en lämplig, presentabel form”. But Wright also argues that our ability to empathise with fellow human beings’ feelings and thoughts explains our deception skills. He writes that “the presentation of self, and the perception of others, has great Darwinian consequence: reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy”, which, by an apparent paradox, “may together be responsible for most of the dishonesty in our species” (emphasis mine). And he adds: “We are far from the only dishonest species, but we are surely the most dishonest, if only because we do the most talking” (emphasis his, p. 265).

Like empathy, displacement was once hailed as a distinctive characteristic of human languages, but we’re not so sure any longer. The issue revolves not only around what we mean by language(s) (the perennial issue of terminology...), but principally around what we’ve come to learn about non-human communication. Birds can fake injury, in order to attract a predator’s attention away from their nests. Natural camouflage experts likewise deceive their predators, and carnivorous plants their prey. We’ve also long known that bluffing about resourcefulness is a survival strategy among those of us who populate lower rungs of the food chain. For example, Eldridge S. Adams and Michael Mesterton-Gibbons, in The cost of threat displays and the stability of deceptive communication, reported on one crustacean species whose weaker members resort to threatening behaviour as much as their strong ones, with the same goal of putting off stronger opponents.

Social chains are our civilised equivalent of food chains, and we often lie for similar purposes of survival. Why else do we praise the quality of substandard meals, useless meetings or soporific lectures to which we’ve been invited, for example? We may not be intentionally attempting to deceive by doing so, not least because feedback of this kind is largely formulaic, but we are certainly attempting to benefit from using language in less than honest ways. We even have dedicated names to represent our gradient views about the moral acceptability of untruthfulness, from white lies and fibs through hoaxes to frauds and swindles. Strindberg did indeed hit the nail on the head.

Lying, like any other social behaviour, obeys culturally sanctioned norms. It engages not only our linguistic resources but (mostly?) body language, hand movements, eye gestures, facial expressions, whose interplay we must learn to adjust congruently in order to become competent liars. When we lie, we don’t want it to show.

Image © Enrico Mazzanti (Wikimedia Commons)

Over 20 years ago, in Fishy-looking liars: Deception judgment from expectancy violation, Charles F. Bond and colleagues investigated the effects of discrepant verbal vs. nonverbal clues in our perception of deception. More recently, Joanne Arciuli’s co-authored study “Um, I can tell you’re lying”: Linguistic markers of deception versus truth-telling in speech found that hesitation markers, sometimes misunderstood as signs of disfluency, play a core role in our perception of fluent truth-telling vs. lying.

So what about those of us who need to lie in tongues? The issue of whether we can identify liars across languages and cultures appears to be far from settled, judging by research led by Charles F. Bond which shows both that cross-linguistic and cross-cultural lying behaviour can’t be detected (e.g. in Lie detection across cultures) and that it can (e.g. in International deception).

These findings may explain why the behaviour of multilinguals at times rings false, as it were. This is particularly true of trainee multilinguals such as young children and beginner language learners: it takes time to gain awareness of conventional behaviours in different languages, in different places, to different people, and it takes effort to master their appropriateness. In addition, it’s not enough to just remember the lies that we concoct, so we can stick to them, we also need to remember in which language we lied. Professional liars (spies come to mind, though I’m sure they’re in good company), know all about this: they must develop skills which not only uphold the credibility of their false persona and false claims but, chiefly, suppress the clues which would betray their true persona’s lying habits.

Next time, I’ll deal with something that relates, indirectly, to perceptions of lying. Meanwhile, let me leave you with nothing but the truth, my favourite example of the Liar’s Paradox: Don’t believe a word I say. I’m a liar.

Adams, E., & Mesterton-Gibbons, M. (1995). The cost of threat displays and the stability of deceptive communication. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 175 (4), 405-421 DOI: 10.1006/jtbi.1995.0151

ARCIULI, J., MALLARD, D., & VILLAR, G. (2010). “Um, I can tell you're lying”: Linguistic markers of deception versus truth-telling in speech. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31 (03), 397-411 DOI: 10.1017/S0142716410000044

Bond, C., Omar, A., Mahmoud, A., & Bonser, R. (1990). Lie detection across cultures. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14 (3), 189-204 DOI: 10.1007/BF00996226

Bond, C., Omar, A., Pitre, U., Lashley, B., Skaggs, L., & Kirk, C. (1992). Fishy-looking liars: Deception judgment from expectancy violation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63 (6), 969-977 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.63.6.969

Bond, C., & Atoum, A. (2000). International Deception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26 (3), 385-395 DOI: 10.1177/0146167200265010

© MCF 2013

Next post: You must be joking. Saturday 30th November 2013.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Numbers and languages

When my children became initiated in the arts of school homework, they welcomed assistance from us parents in revising, among other things, their times tables. It didn’t take me long to start suspecting serious innumeracy in all three children: they took unsettling amounts of time to reply to my questions, whether toughie ones like Seven times eight...? or easy-peasy ones like Three times two...?

It took me a bit longer to realise that the problem had nothing to do with number skills, and all to do with languages: I naturally used Portuguese in these drilling sessions, but the children were learning their times tables in English, their school language, and were therefore computing the sums in this language. Which meant that they had to mentally translate my questions into English, and then re-translate the answers into Portuguese, which does indeed take ages. Which in turn meant immediate revision of home language policies: English became the language of homework, because homework comes in tongues. Part 3, ‘Acquiring a Third Language’, of my book Three is a Crowd? has more on multilingual division (and revision) of language-based labour.

Now, you may be wondering that the reason I naturally used Portuguese to drill times tables was that this is “the language in which I count”, since I am Portuguese. Well, not really. First, my times tables became forever etched in my brain in both Portuguese and French, through similar school-bound drilling. I used Portuguese with my children because this is the default mummy-child language in my home. Second, there’s no denying that numbers associate with languages, because everything else that matters to us does, too. But not necessarily with a single language: numbers, like homework, also come in tongues. In my case, for instance, I can only recall phone numbers (or recipes, for that matter) in the language in which I memorised them. Ask me to tell you, say, a Swedish phone number in another language, and watch me jotting it down in mental Swedish so I can read it to you in spoken non-Swedish, much like my children were doing with their times tables. And third, language names and nationality names don’t designate coextensive concepts, and never have. It makes as much sense to ask South Africans or Singaporeans which language they count in, as it does those of us who happen to have a nationality which happens to have the same name as a language.

Most of us know our times tables – and our other sums – in the language(s) in which we were made to drill them, in school. Whatever we learn in school, number goodies included, we learn through some language. Unless we want to claim that school-trained behaviours represent “the” essence of overall multilingual cognition, and that the language(s) of schooling play “the” core role in it, I don’t see the relevance of questions like In which language do you count? for our understanding of multilingualism. Several years ago, Marguerite Malakoff made this clear in The effect of language of instruction on reasoning in bilingual children.

Numbers, it turns out, aren’t essential to our languages, because numbers aren’t essential to human beings.

Numbers rule?

The interesting questions are whether numerical skills relate to numbers at all. For example, does numeracy depend on command of number words? Researching Numerical thought with and without words: Evidence from indigenous Australian children, Brian Butterworth and colleagues compared numerical concepts of child speakers of languages with restricted vs. broad number-related vocabularies, to find no correlation between numerical thought and number words, a finding that they extend to claims about adult numeracy and vocabularies. Christine Nicholls also turned to child users of Australian languages, to show that numbers aren’t at the core of mathematical reasoning (even discounting the common confusion between arithmetic and mathematics). Quoting from her article It’s time we draft Aussie Rules to tackle Indigenous mathematics, “Aboriginal mathematical systems are largely founded upon spatial relationships rather than on numbers, which is the case in Australia’s dominant culture.”

“Dominant culture” is the key phrase here. The association of numeracy and/or maths skills with languages which feature number vocabularies, and are featured in mainstream schooling, draws on misguided and misguiding dominant, Western, monolingual models of language use and language education. So does the related assumption in meaningless questions like In which language do you X?, where X variously stands for “higher-level”, “fundamental”, “spontaneous” and/or “emotional” exponents, believed to be descriptive of what we are, such as thinking, dreaming, swearing or being miserable and happy.

Finally, in case you’re feeling that something is surely missing here, because numbers must lay bare essential findings about us in that they’re factual and therefore indisputable, then don’t: numbers are no more than what we do with them – whatever our languages. Darrel Huff said so in his enduring pearl of a book, How to Lie with Statistics, and so did Sebastian Wernicke in his TED Talk Lies, damned lies and statistics.

I’ll keep to ways of deceiving, in my next post.

Butterworth, B., Reeve, R., Reynolds, F., & Lloyd, D. (2008). Numerical thought with and without words: Evidence from indigenous Australian children Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (35), 13179-13184 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0806045105

Malakoff, M. (2008). The effect of language of instruction on reasoning in bilingual children Applied Psycholinguistics, 9 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S0142716400000436

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual liars. Saturday 2nd November 2013.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Multilingual dreams and nightmares

Multilingual nightmares can take many forms. Children, for example, may be discouraged from using their languages, in the name of resilient myths equating linguistic health with monolingualism; parents intent on raising their children multilingually may agonise over recommended enforcement of monolingual home language policies; and people (and places) that we’ve adopted and wish to cherish as our own may suddenly turn hostile because we unwittingly cause offence by using the languages we’re used to using.

Rather less disquietingly, some of us may find ourselves uttering fluent gobbledygook when attempting to speak language X, while actually speaking language Y in X: the other day, after an intensive English-only week, I heard myself asking Mas ela não fez isso, fez ela?, complete with falling intonation on the tag, in what I thought was Portuguese. I did realise it wasn’t, and I also realised that my Portuguese must at the time have been yawning away its drowsiness after the week-long nap during which I had had no need for it.

All good: such glitches are evidence of the natural tidal motions which regulate our use of our languages, and of which we are more or less conscious. But it is also true that we may wake up in the morning in irresistible language-bound moods, which lie beyond our control and whose compulsion suggests that our languages don’t necessarily go to sleep when we do. We may well dream about our languages, but do they otherwise take part in our sleeping activities? Namely, do we dream in them?

Dreams, good and bad, have regularly intrigued us as tell-tale reflections of what we are when we’re not in control of what we are, on the assumption that selves on the loose are our real selves. On the further assumption that multilinguals are in fact monolinguals in disguise, only one of our languages can apparently mirror our multilingual selves. Questions like In which language do you dream?, part of a rich battery of like-minded FAQs addressed to multilinguals, attest to this view.

The problem is that if we accept that languages mirror selves, then we must also accept that all languages of a multilingual do so, because multilinguals routinely use all of their languages – or they wouldn’t have need for them. If what matters to us, in turn, naturally came to matter via our engagement with different languages, it must follow that our expression of our selves reflects that engagement, whether we’re awake or asleep. I, for one, can confirm that members of my family who talk in their sleep (while, presumably, dreaming), me included, indeed do so in different languages.

An alternative take to how multilinguals dream has it that multilinguals can in fact dream in more than one language, but only if those languages are well developed. That is, dreaming in a language is a reliable gauge of proficiency in that language. The problem is that there is no evidence supporting this claim. Jessica Sicard and Kees de Bot make this point in their article ‘Multilingual dreaming’, and conclude that factors such as the length of our engagement with the environments in which we use a language play a role in triggering dreams in that language.

What to say, then, of the meaning of multilingual dreams? Dream analysis assigns an interpretation to what a dreamer dreamed, and must likewise proceed in tongues because analysts use languages, too. The dreamer reports dream contents in some language, preferably one which the analyst shares – which may or may not be the one(s) in which the dreamer dreamed, or the one(s) best suited to express what the dream was all about. The analyst then attributes meaning to what the dreamer reported, also in some language. This (bad) dream, for example, got interpreted in Spanish:

Image ©: Francisco Goya (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem is that different languages represent meanings in different ways, because meanings associate with cultures. Dream analysis traditionally makes use of symbols, analogies, metaphors, whose interpretation does not necessarily match across languages. If, say, I dreamed of snakes last night (or owls, or bats, or feline creatures), did I have a good dream or a nightmare? The decision may rest entirely on how the dreamers’ culture and the culture of their dream analysts symbolise snakes (or owls, or bats, and so on).

Next time, I’ll deal with numbers, which don’t seem to be as open to cultural interpretation as dreams, but which also rank high on the list of FAQs-to-nag-multilinguals-with: “In which language do you count?”

Sicard, J., & de Bot, K. (2013). Multilingual dreaming International Journal of Multilingualism, 10 (3), 331-354 DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2012.755187

© MCF 2013

Next post: Numbers and languages. Saturday 5th October 2013.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Metaphors and multilinguals

Many years ago, one of my children decided that one good way of putting his newfound walking ability to use was to bolt around the house targeting furniture and people, and asking about the names of whatever he bumped into. One day, he crash-landed on the arm of an armchair. Having asked what that was, and having received the answer um braço (‘an arm’), he forgot to race to his next victim. He was dumbfounded: an arm?? He already knew the word for ‘human upper limb’, so he endlessly repeated his question, first slapping the arms of the armchair, then slapping his own arms, and then alternately slapping each of the two ‘arm’-thingies, until he satisfied himself that those completely different objects indeed went by the same name.

He had no idea, of course, that we adults decided that one good way of putting our vocabularies to use was to extend the meaning(s) of words, for example by means of metaphor. Metaphors use comparisons without using the word like: the arms of an armchair aren’t like arms, they are arms, and we call them so by name. My boy’s bafflement got me baffled, too, about two things. First, why do we say that adults use metaphor and children use overextension (or overgeneralisation)? When big ones call a part of a table leg, and when little ones call any cutlery spoon, we’re all doing the same thing: giving the same name to whatever strikes us as similar. You can read introductory accounts of metaphorical and overextension processes in Chapters 9 and 12 of my book The Language of Language, respectively, and a full account of this armchair episode in Chapter 8 of another book of mine, Three is a Crowd?.

The second thing that got me wondering was what exactly is it that prompts our perception of “similarity” – whether we’re intending to compare things metaphorically or not. Do we say that an armchair has arms because armchairs look like sitting human beings relaxing their arms on their sides, because their lateral appendages feel like arms when we sit, or because we rest our arms on them? That is, what does the “arm” in armchair mean? And, for those languages which have equivalent concepts designating armchairs, does the arm bit mean the same? Not to speak of the chair bit, of course. That is, how are metaphorical meanings got at, in different languages? For a thorough discussion of metaphor generation and usage in English, try Andrew Goatly’s book The Language of Metaphors.

Words and word-based constructions, however, are just one fraction of the linguistic devices that we can use metaphorically. Our languages come complete with gestures, including vocal gestures, through which we can create meanings. Prosodic metaphors are the reason why the “same” word can be used – and interpreted – as a term of endearment or of abuse, as I noted in a previous post. It all depends how you say it: our uses of words create their meanings. Do we use rising (as opposed to falling) tones of voice, say, because rises vs. falls carry distinct meanings in our language(s), because we want to show politeness or encouragement, or because rises but not falls happen to be characteristic of our language(s)? And what do these vocal gestures mean to other people, when we use them, unwittingly, in a different language from the one(s) in which they’re meaningful to us?

Metaphors build on constructed associations of meanings, in arbitrary, culture-bound ways. The same is true of other forms of comparison which permeate our everyday uses of language, including analogy. In a review of Cameron Shelley’s book Multiple Analogies in Science and Philosophy, I argue that analogy is “central to everyday reasoning about everyday happenings”, so much so that “we hardly realise the extent to which it shapes our thought.

Predictably, metaphors and analogies abound in scientific thought, too. Their use “overextends” our thinking from what is familiar to us to what we know (nearly) nothing about, and then, once accepted as legitimate ways of expressing our observations, they constrain further thought, for better or for worse. If we call an X a big bang, say, we want to associate X to whatever we already know of bigness and of bangness. Which, of course, may not match what someone else understands by these words, even if we’re all using them in the same language.

And what to say of the metaphors that riddle discussions about multilingualism? What, exactly, do we mean by labels such as balanced, half-/semi-, dominant, first, mother, standard, which have become “standard” in shaping our thought about language? Why, exactly, do we go on using such terminology? Have a look in my book Multilinguals are...?, for more about this.

My next post keeps to the topic of things we like to interpret metaphorically.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual dreams and nightmares. Saturday 7th September 2013.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Multilingual rudeness

Swearing fluently and insulting people where it really hurts isn’t easy. The thing is that you manage to be rude only if someone acknowledges your rudeness. That is, only if someone understands that you’re being rude. You may have intended a compliment instead, or you may have had no intention of being either polite or rude. This is probably what explains the common perception that profanity is the hardest thing to master in a new language.

I agree. I’ve had students quite eager to show off to me their not-so-bad-after-all proficiency in the languages they want me to help them fine-tune, by inserting random expletives all over their speech, during my assessment interviews. It sounds horrible, and it *is* horrible. I’ve also witnessed attempts at verbal abuse by means of word-by-word translations of horrid expressions from one language into another, resulting in either unintelligible gibberish – or flattery. It sounds depressing, when it doesn’t sound hilarious.

“Verbal” is probably the key word here. Keith Allan and Kate Burridge’s book gives an account of Forbidden Words. Taboo and the Censoring of Language, but words are not the whole story. Words aren’t even main characters in the rudeness plot, in fact: we can either insult or compliment someone by calling them a genius or a filthy pig. Whether words will never hurt me, as the saying goes, depends entirely on our other languages, which are necessarily there when we speak: body-eye-hand language, and our prosody. They give the clues to what we mean, because rudeness is a cultural covenant, not a lexical one.

Studies such as José Mateo and Francisco Yus’, Towards a cross-cultural pragmatic taxonomy of insults, and those collected by Jonathan Culpeper and Dániel Z. Kádár in Historical (Im)politeness highlight the social nature of rudeness. Its verbal and gestural dialects evolve and vary across time and space, much through our uses of metaphor – more on which in my next post. The label idiot once described a clinically diagnosed condition, for example, and the label idiot-savant still does. In Europe, Nordic rudeness draws on mythical beings and places related to religious beliefs, whereas Mediterranean profanity is at its most flamboyant when invoking bodily functions – as well as close relatives resulting from some of those functions. And is it (more) rude to point with your index finger, your pinkie, or your thumb? Or is it rude to bite your thumb, as in this sample of Shakespearean insults?

Being multilingual and (not) wanting to be rude means being aware of these choices. I’m often asked the standard question asked of multilinguals, the one beginning In which language do you ...?, about my swearing, too. As if things like stubbing my toe or boiling inside a car in peak hour traffic jams only happened in the settings where I use one of my languages. As if the reasons for swearing and hurling insults, including at myself, came pre-packaged in a single language. I swear multilingually quite often – like just now when my server broke down for the third time today, and I found myself muttering Raio de internet connection!. I also curse monolingually, often because the curses I can express in that language are the most satisfying for whatever made me curse – even if the trigger took place in a different language. And sometimes I don’t really care whether anyone understands my insults: it just feels good to let off steam in a way that I know to be very rude.

Having said all this, I am (mostly) a nice, polite person [insert groan here], so when my children were growing up, with me as their only provider of Portuguese, I made a mistake. I thought I was being a good mother by not familiarising my nice, polite little ones with Portuguese profanity. Until, that is, a good friend expressed her bafflement at this striking gap in my children’s Portugueseness: How can they be Portuguese without knowing how to use Portuguese rude words??, she chided me. She was right, of course. I followed her advice (obrigada, Maria João!), and the kids soon became fluently rude – like me. I had forgotten that you can’t be polite if you don’t know how not to be rude. I can give one example:

Photo ©

If the gesture featured in this picture makes you cringe, you’re not alone. I, for one, am still working on taking it as a gesture, rather than the (very) rude insult I grew up associating with it.

School-language learners who intend to use their new languages, verbal and gestural, might be grateful for some insight about how other users use them, too, rather than about what those languages “are”. We may unintentionally offend (or fail to offend) by using tones of voice and/or gestures that associate with different meanings in our other languages. Prosodic false friends, as I call them, are no less than a time bomb, if we’re left in the dark about them. My study Non-native interpretive strategies for intonational meaning shows what can (and certainly will) go wrong when we attempt to speak a new language with no clue about its prosody.

Prosodic false friends tell us that words do not hold the exclusive on metaphorical meanings. I’ll have some more to say about this next time.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (1987). Non-native interpretive strategies for intonational meaning: An experimental study In A. James & J. Leather (Eds.), Sound patterns in second language acquisition (pp. 103-120). Berlin: de Gruyter.

Mateo, J., & Yus, F. (2013). Towards a cross-cultural pragmatic taxonomy of insults Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict, 1 (1), 87-114 DOI: 10.1075/jlac.1.1.05mat

© MCF 2013

Next post: Metaphors and multilinguals. Saturday 10th August 2013.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Multilingual moods

Have you ever woken up in a language-bound mood? Or felt a sudden compulsion, at any time of your day, to speak, think, read, sing, cook, dress, in one of your languages, and only one of them? This happens to me all the time. Not that I go about summoning up language-related everyday behaviours at will: rather, these urges appear to strike whenever my intentional uses of my languages are off-duty, as it were.

I indulge these unscripted moods as a leisurely way of keeping my languages and the behaviours that go with them well oiled. They’re a welcome addition to my daily uses of them, which ebb and flow according to need – whether I’m working or relaxing with friends and family, for example. Whatever skills, fluency, ownership, flexibility, we acquire in our languages are neither inborn nor immutable: they arise through use and they rust without it. Such moods are also a natural consequence of being multilingual, not evidence of the legendary monolingual said to be lurking inside every multilingual. When I’m being Portuguese, for example, I’m being it with a flavour, not because there is a vanilla way of being Portuguese, from which I “deviate” as a multilingual, but because nobody has vanilla ways of being whatever they are – except perhaps in their own eyes.

If we happen to believe in pure languages and pure moods, we may be tempted to call these mood switches and colourings “mixes”. On condition, of course, that we then use the same word to describe, say, what conventional tourists do, including staunch monolinguals, when they bring home souvenirs from the places they visit. Why else do we keep and cherish bits and pieces, songs and food, behaviours and words from other cultures, if not because we want them to be part of new moods we wish to enjoy? Different languages likewise associate with different souvenirs, as reminders that you have experienced things in different ways. Our mobility in time and space, to use the word in Alastair Pennycook’s book title, Language and Mobility. Unexpected Places, imprints our selves, and so our languages. My point is that there are different “mes” to every single “I”, from any anylingual individual.

This is why questions requiring mono-minded answers like “Do you feel X?”, where X stands for the name of official nationalities (of all things!) don’t make sense. When I feel miserable, or happy, do I need to feel so and express what I feel in a nationality? Or in a language? Questions about moods, feelings, emotions, and “their” language(s) raise similar issues to the ones about thought and “its” language(s). Not surprisingly, perhaps, since António Damásio showed, in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, that the “neural underpinnings of reason” (p. xi) turn out to have quite a lot in common with those of emotion. So what exactly is it that we’re trying to find out by asking such questions, and why does it matter to know? And, of course, why aren’t questions addressing monolingual moods, feelings and emotions by name apparently as interesting to ask. Different languages, much like different clothes, are but one of the choices that some of us have available for expression, depending on who we’re talking to (ourselves included), and what we’re talking about, among other things.

Multilinguals naturally express their moods differently in different languages because different languages naturally reflect different things: languages belong to cultural heritages, not genetic ones. See, for example, Javier E. Díaz-Vera and Rosario Caballero’s article ‘Exploring the feeling-emotions continuum across cultures: Jealousy in English and Spanish’. The whole issue of the journal where this article appears, Intercultural Pragmatics, is of interest for the additional reason that it is a thematic issue on the topic of Metaphor and Culture. Metaphor does seem to permeate quite a lot of what we say, whether we’re being “emotional” or “rational”, and metaphorical devices as well as meanings certainly vary among different cultures, and so among different languages. The meaning of things like “big boys don’t cry”, for example, fits a particular culture and makes sense to those who have been initiated into that culture. And not all of us express loving moods by invoking a “little cabbage” or by hugging and kissing the object of those moods.

Photo: MCF

Metaphors also abound, understandably, in our expression of profanity. Next time, I’ll try to explain why this is interesting for multilinguals.
Díaz-Vera, J., & Caballero, R. (2013). Exploring the feeling-emotions continuum across cultures: Jealousy in English and Spanish Intercultural Pragmatics, 10 (2) DOI: 10.1515/ip-2013-0012

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual rudeness. Saturday 13th July 2013.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

You speak so, therefore you think so.

In a previous post, I discussed the opinions that we like to entertain about people(s), on the strength of our judgements about their linguistic habits. Among those habits, accents rank high: research findings make it clear that we assign intellectual and personal accomplishments (or lack thereof) to fellow human beings, on the basis solely of their accent. But we appear to have similar difficulties refraining from passing judgement on people’s overall brain functions on the strength of overall features of their speech.

Despite our next-to-nil understanding of how thought and language(s) may interconnect, the conviction that they correlate has a long history. Among Western thought, one famous attempt at extricating thought from uses of language dates from the 17th century, when the English philosopher John Wilkins published An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. In it, Wilkins sets out to propose a “natural grammar” which, he clarifies, “may likewise be stiled Philosophical, Rational, and Universal” (p. 297), in that it should reflect the workings of the human mind, devoid of language-bound intrusions. This natural grammar should also constitute an improvement on the universal grammars created by his predecessors, who “were so far prejudiced by the common Theory of the languages they were acquainted with, that they did not sufficiently abstract their rules according to Nature” (pp. 297-298), and thereby mistook properties of the language(s) that they were familiar with for universal properties of language – an observation which applies as acutely to more recent creators of universal grammars. Incidentally, for some discussion of whether “Nature” might be interpretable through “a theory of everything” consecrated in a single, “special” language, see my review of Roy Harris’s book The Semantics of Science.

The contention behind Wilkins-inspired endeavours is that our thoughts may be beyond our immediate grasp because of meddling languages, but are nevertheless there and can therefore be retrieved as “pure” thoughts, as it were. That is, thought is one thing, languages are another. In contrast, popular views about language(s) and thought assume not only that thinking and speaking/signing mirror one another, but that the former can be inferred from the latter, in yet another example of the fallacy which equates (presumed) correlation with causality. That is, we turn the thinking-in-a-language conviction on its head, to conclude that thinking in tongues means speaking in thoughts. Samuel Johnson attributed this kind of reasoning to the ingestion of intoxicants, when he quipped that “One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts”, but sober thinkers appear to reason likewise.

The conviction that the uses of our languages bear witness to the uses of our grey matter surfaces, for example, in the way much language teaching deals with adult learners. The misperception that learners’ budding abilities in someone else’s native language reflect overall intellectual ability may well have originated from language teachers’ inability to interact with their students but through the language that they’re teaching. Child learners fare no better: young learners of mainstream/school languages go on being referred to “special” care, on the misunderstanding that academic underachievement reflects disorder rather than simple lack of practice of (new) academic uses of a new language – or a new language variety.

Children who are so referred to specialist care often see the reason for their referral snowballing into a clinical “condition”, rather than dismissed as unfounded. This is because specialists also speak (and think?) in tongues, and may not be aware of two things: one, that the child is learning the mainstream and/or school language, which often doubles as the language of intervention, under circumstances which do not and cannot match monolingual linguistic and cognitive milestones; and the other, that the child cannot therefore satisfy the demands of monolingual assessment instruments in that language. Inferring intellectual abilities from abilities in languages that we’re only just beginning to make sense of, whether we’re young or old, is unfair. If people do indeed think in languages, then multilinguals do not think in a single language.

The next couple of posts will deal with a few more monolingual-bound misconceptions about being multilingual.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual moods. Saturday 29th June 2013.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Thinking in tongues

One of the popular questions addressed to multilinguals is “In which language do you think?”

Image © Clipart from

Like other favoured questions, this one also assumes a singular answer, and therefore that it makes sense to ask such questions of multilinguals but not of monolinguals. Monolinguals are in turn assumed to think in one language because they have a single language – something whose rationale some of us might wish to question.

The other assumption is that we all think in some language. This is intriguing, in that a cursory look at the literature shows all but clarity in thinking (or talking) about thinking. We think individually, of course, but if we do think in tongues, then maybe our findings about thinking will vary depending on the language we’re using to think about these things. If we don’t think in tongues, what do we think in, and how do we convert our thoughts into some language that may make our findings known to fellow thinkers? And if we can’t convey our thinking in any language, is there a problem with the thinking or with the languages? And so on.

You can check out some of the players in this controversy by searching for “linguistic relativity”, or “Sapir-Whorf”, the surnames of the two linguists who most recently became associated with it. Their names usually come up in this order, though Whorf got there first and foremost, and in the context Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, meaning that any claims must be proved or disproved through empirical evidence, which is what hypotheses are there for. Facts are, however, that we’re still wondering what to think about all this: like multilingualism and other topics where we’re faced with too few data and too many theories, Whorfianism has also had its fashionable woes and joys. It went from a must-have approach to thinking about (and in) languages in the early 20th century, through academic tabooing, to desirable revival from the year 2000. Alison Gopnik was one forerunner of Whorfian rehabilitation: the title of her book chapter ‘Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing’ says it all.

Against this rather disconcerting background, I would like to offer a few thoughts (no pun intended) on a firm correlation that we nevertheless feel free to establish between thought and languages. I’ll deal with other assumed correlations in my next post. Please bear in mind that my thoughts might strike you (and me) differently, were we to use a different common language from the one I’m typing this in.

Parenting guides insist on the need for caregivers to develop one “good” language in their multilingual children. This is the language which usually turns out to be the one (also singular, yes) which the family’s community acknowledges as mainstream, or school language, or as having an enviable tradition in print, or all of the above. The reasoning here seems to follow two convictions. One, that there are languages which are (more) suited to thinking in, and which should therefore be chosen, top-down, for multilinguals. And the other, that we don’t so much think in languages because we have those languages, but that we need to develop a language in order to be able to think in it – or, perhaps, in order to be able to think at all. I have quite a few things to say about this presumed “language of higher thought” in my book Multilinguals are ...?. For instance, that if you are doomed to thinking higher things in only one of your languages, then you must also be doomed to having only lower thoughts in your other languages.

We can of course think about anything regardless of language, as thinking users of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages that (we think) we’ve identified worldwide make clear. We can do with any of our languages whatever we need (or want) to do with them, provided we do it, bottom-up. I can explain what I mean: one question which never fails to draw peals of laughter from my Singaporean students is whether we can discuss nuclear physics in Hokkien. In Singapore, Hokkien is a dialect (and “dialect” is a derogatory term), fit for the army and rough goings-on. The next question I ask of my students is why can’t we do with Singapore Hokkien (or with Singlish, for that matter) what’s being done with, say, Kreyòl in Haiti. Why can’t children, like all speakers of the languages that people do speak, “build solid foundations in their own language”? This Linguist site has more information on this Haitian project.

To me, attempting to assign one language to (higher) thought makes as much sense as attempting to extract other “privileged” single languages from within a multilingual, their “first, main, best” or their “dominant” one. It is clear that multilinguals have different languages for different purposes, but I don’t see how this must mean that multilinguals are stuck with the purposes for which they use their languages. Languages are as flexible as we make them, because languages have no claims to superiority over other languages: people have such claims over other people. If we do think in languages, the issue isn’t “in which language do we think”, but in which languages can we think.

Next time, I’ll talk some more about thinking, namely, about another correlation between language and thought that we seem to take for granted: if we speak funny, does that mean we think funny, too?
Gopnik, A. (2001). Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing. In M. Bowerman & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Language acquisition and conceptual development (pp. 45-69). Cambridge, UK/ New York: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620669.004

© MCF 2013

Next post: You speak so, therefore you think so. Saturday 15th June 2013.


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