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.

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