Saturday 29 January 2011

When in Rome, do as the Romans do?
=Guest post=

by Sunita Anne Abraham

Politeness and its counterpart, impoliteness, are twin issues that concern linguists and language users, monolinguals and multilinguals alike. Perhaps the most well-known work in this area is Brown and Levinson’s (1987) Politeness: some universals in language usage, inspired by Erving Goffman’s (1967) notion of face work, derived from the Chinese notion of “face”. Drawing on data from a variety of languages, Brown and Levinson argue that politeness strategies exist in all communities as a means of managing our own and others’ face needs.

What counts as polite behaviour, however, and how this behaviour is enacted linguistically, varies across language varieties. Given that different languages have different social and linguistic norms, how is a multilingual speaker to decide whose norms to follow, when and where?

Consider, for example, the English politeness formulas please and thank you, which are more widespread in the UK than in many Asian varieties of English. Failure to mind one’s Ps and Qs can result in one’s being perceived as an uncivilised foreigner (or barbarian, to quote our Ancient Greek friends). I grew up in Penang, Malaysia, speaking English, Malay, Malayalam and Tamil; and, while my mother wanted us to mind our Ps and Qs, my father found the same behaviour laughably priggish and stand-offish.

More recently, a newly-arrived American colleague sent round an email chastising my colleagues and me for “failing” to address our elderly Malay cleaning lady by her given name. In Malay (as in Chinese, Tamil, and various other languages), it is considered the height of impudence to address one’s elders (and betters) by name. So, most of us had taken to addressing the aforesaid lady as Makcik (the appropriate Malay honorific for a woman of her advanced years). Indeed, one knows that expatriates in Singapore have acculturated to Singapore English when they address unrelated older people as auntie or uncle, as a mark of respect.

Brown and Levinson (1987) discuss two kinds of face needs and their corresponding politeness strategies. Positive politeness strategies attend to our positive face needs – our desire to be liked and admired – by emphasising solidarity (e.g. using in-group identity markers like nicknames), reciprocity, interest in and sympathy for one’s interlocutors.

Negative politeness strategies in turn attend to our negative face needs – our desire not to be imposed on – by showing deference, indicating pessimism about the likelihood of a request being granted (e.g. I don’t suppose I could borrow your umbrella for just a few minutes) or impersonalising directives (e.g. Patrons are reminded not to walk on the grass).

But, figuring out what counts as an imposition can be tricky. In the US, it’s generally considered polite for hosts to offer guests to their home a choice of refreshments. In Japan, the same behaviour would be perceived as placing a burden on one’s guest. There, the polite thing to do would be to “just serve the tea”, as a Japanese colleague recently told me.

Travelogues and textbooks on cross-cultural communication are full of stories about the strange and exotic customs of others. The question they don’t fully answer is how monolinguals and multilinguals decide whose norms to follow, when, where, and to what extent, in an increasingly globalising world.  
Sunita Anne Abraham is an Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, and a Fellow of the NUS Teaching Academy.

© Sunita Anne Abraham 2011

Next post: Socialising in tongues. Saturday 5th February 2011.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Second tongues and foreign tongues

By the logic of numbers, a second language must be the one that you learn in second place, after your first and before your third. By the logic of definitions, a foreign language must be a stranger to you, because that’s what foreign means.

A second language is said to be used where you happen to be learning it, whereas a foreign language isn’t. In any case, the logic of these labels doesn’t serve too well their use as cover terms for your new languages, whether we take into account the learners or their reasons for learning. Take second, for starters (pun intended, though see below). I suppose we don’t need to think very hard to guess how this label originated, and how many languages the typical language learner is assumed to have before acquiring a new one. What is interesting is that even if you have more than one “first language”, even if you’re learning your 7th or 28th language, and several new languages at the same time, you’re still a “second language” learner.

Take foreign, next. One of the reasons for learning new languages is certainly that your school syllabus forces you to. I’ll come back to this in another post. But if you’re learning new languages because you need to use them, you’ll be using them yourself. Using something involves making that thing yours. If I read a book that you recommended to me, I read it for my own purposes; if I borrow your car, I’ll drive it my way. But a foreign thing cannot be made yours because it is not part of you: think about, say, a foreign body in your eye, whether a piece of grit or a contact lens. New languages appear to belong together with grit and prostheses: if I “borrow” your language, one requirement seems indeed to be that I use it your way. I briefly mentioned issues of language “ownership” before, and I will also have more to say about them in future.

Acronyms like SLA, for ‘Second Language Acquisition’, or FLL, for ‘Foreign Language Learning’, have nevertheless immortalised the gist about our new languages. Granted, perhaps we shouldn’t split hairs about what’s in a name: we go on saying that the sun rises and sets, Galileo Galilei notwithstanding; and during my school time, blackboards became green without ever being acknowledged as greenboards – although the more recent whiteboards gained instant recognition by name.

Vagaries of naming, no doubt. But: just like the label multilingual, these language-related labels stick to you too. They can do so in paradoxical ways. It may well happen, for example, that plain mistakes that you make in your new language (like the rest of us, including in our old languages), or your creative uses of it, or what you intend as language play in it (see above), end up dismissed as second-rate, alien proficiency in it. At the same time, what you do, or fail to do, in your new languages may be taken as proficient use of it, on the assumption that if you’re using one specific language, you’re using it like everyone else does: my previous post reported a botched attempt at a polite excuse, rendered in second/foreign English as a rude insult.

Politeness matters, because it can open or close doors for you in this way, although it hardly finds mention in traditional second and foreign language teaching. Jonathan Culpeper’s recent resource, Impoliteness: Using and understanding the language of offence, helps us make sense of it, for users of English.

Your tones of voice, what linguists subsume under the label prosody, find a similar fate in language classes: you’re not taught how to “sing” your new languages. No wonder they remain second and foreign, despite Kenneth L. Pike’s observation, in his 1945 book The intonation of American English, that “if a man’s tone of voice belies his words, we immediately assume that the intonation more faithfully reflects his true linguistic intentions”. Prosody happens to be one of my pet subjects, incidentally, so I will have quite a lot to say about it in coming posts.

Tone of voice and politeness often go hand in hand: male uses of high pitch, for example, signal politeness in some Asian cultures. Assertive tones may do so elsewhere.

So how do we manage someone else’s (im)polite behaviour, in someone else’s language – or language variety? The next post, a guest post, tells us more about this.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= When in Rome, do as the Romans do?, by Sunita Anne Abraham. Saturday 29th January 2011.

Saturday 22 January 2011

Using someone else’s language(s)

I learned English in Portuguese. English was a school subject, not a language, and so, like its fellow curricular subjects, it was taught through the language of schooling. We pupils were not preparing to speak English, just like we were not preparing to speak Botany or Geometry. We were preparing to sit, and preferably pass, tests in our school subjects.

The environment, in my English class, was Portuguese. We behaved in Portuguese, we misbehaved in Portuguese, we spoke Portuguese, and we spoke English in Portuguese. It is a safe guess that the same happened to other English-learning children (I was 10 years old, at the time), and that the same is true for many adult learners, in their respective schools.

Learning English has become a must-do, given the omnipresence of the language wherever we turn to. The question then arises of whether students of English around the world are in fact studying the same thing – a question that we can of course also ask about Botany, Geometry and other less aseptic school subjects, and about other languages that are school subjects.

Do you speak English? is a loaded question, and Yes, I do a loaded answer to it. They query and acknowledge an unqualified entity, whereas what they mean is the qualified ‘the same kind of thing that I was told is English’. They cannot mean otherwise, in fact. It’s the same for questions like Can you cook pasta? and their answers, but we do need to be aware that there is pasta and pasta, cooking and cooking, and that there’s English and English. The latter observation is just one additional piece to the hopeless puzzle of attempting to define language boundaries.

Those of us who added English in this way to our linguistic repertoires became multilingual with English in this way. We became English users our way. We are different multilinguals-with-English from those multilinguals who are raised with English from birth, not least because they are taught English in English. Some of us went on to make use of the language beyond school certification requirements. I use it for work-related matters, for example, like I’m doing here.

But using someone else’s language for “work” doesn’t mean that that language has become a neutral vehicle of your professional thoughts, or that you’ve become immune to the way you learned it. In coming posts, I will deal with the consequences of having to use someone else’s language in order to give visibility to your work, and with what kind of visibility is actually achieved by doing that. The point here is that you are still you, when you’re using someone else’s language to work, and that you need to express yourself through it, when you’re working.

One example of what I mean is an episode that I witnessed at an international (=English-only) conference in Asia, many years ago, and at which I still cringe, still today. An Asian participant gently reminded the Scandinavian presenter that she had exceeded her allotted speaking time, and wondered if he could please ask some questions about her very interesting paper. The presenter checked her watch, and looked genuinely baffled by her miscalculation. Turning to the Asian gentleman, she cried “It’s not true!”, a literal English translation of a heartfelt apology in her language. The reaction of the Asian participant, and of most of the remaining audience, was to leave the room. The presenter had just insulted her audience by implying that they were liars. The irony is that the topic of the conference was the teaching of English as a second language.

Maybe part of the trouble lies in the names that we call the languages that you learn outside of home: unfriendly names like second language, or the even more unwelcoming foreign language. These are languages that do not rank at the top, and that are alien to you. These are languages that thus remain someone else’s. I’ll offer some thoughts about this in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Second tongues and foreign tongues. Wednesday 26th January 2011.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Global individuals

I thought of talking a bit about globalisation today, for two reasons. First, because it is fashionable to talk about globalisation. And second, because I have no idea why it should be fashionable to talk about it.

Globalisation is currently hailed as an exciting, recent development, which is spreading like wildfire as we speak, or email, globally. Just like multilingualism, which is apparently as thrilling, new and infectious. But saying that being global and being multilingual are the fruits of our time forgets that we human beings have been there and done that over and over again since we started being human beings, and fails to interpret our history from these twin perspectives. Were the Islamic Golden Age, or the Viking Age, or the Roman Empire, or the Portuguese Expansion, for example, monolingual local phenomena?

Take another example. Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a linguist, an archaeologist, and an expert in ancient textiles (isn’t this a wonderful combination of interests, by the way??). In her book The Mummies of Ürümchi (or Urumqi, an alternative spelling), she writes, on page 184, that “By 40,000 B.C. people were also carrying far and wide such new language-mediated behaviors as religion and art”. Note: far and wide, language-mediated. People couldn’t possibly be all speaking the “same” language, whatever “same language” might mean.

Note also: thousands and thousands of years ago. It should perhaps not surprise us, then, that the youthful 4,000-year-old mummies that Barber studied turned out to provide evidence of other language-bound globetrotting: these mummies, found in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin, in North-western China, are of tall, ginger-haired and in all likelihood blue-eyed people. The weaving techniques of the plaid woollen twills that they wore show striking similarities to the ones of contemporary Celtic tartan found in European archaeological sites.

Wow!, I thought, when I first read this book. But then I thought again: Wow!, why? What were these people doing that is remarkable? Travelling, and living and dying away from what we presume was their home? These future mummies couldn’t possibly be speaking just one language either, all the way through their cross-continent trek. But what is it that is remarkable about that too? My current guess is that 2,000 B.C. news reporters would be as excited to learn about Celtic clothes fashion in Tarim as we would nowadays to find remains of an Italian suit in a Brazilian tomb dating from the end of last century.

Perhaps what struck me then was the thought that these ancient people were being global without access to the technology, of the electronic and cybernetic kind, that we nowadays tend to associate with globalisation. But we’re not being global only when we fly, or when we opt for video conferencing because we cannot fly. If I walk to the next village, or if I take my vegetables to market on my donkey cart, I’m also being global – and so is the donkey

Cartoon © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena
In Cruz-Ferreira, M. Multilinguals are ...? 

As individuals, we can’t be global in any literal sense because we’re limited by space and time – our bodies, their stamina, their life-spans. Being global is rather a matter of being not-local. Just like when we talk about seeing “the world” we mean seeing a couple of places where we haven’t been before. Globalisation, in turn, cannot mean uniformity, not least because the “globe” is anything but uniform. We can be global in many different ways.

In order to be(come) global, we usually step on someone else’s territory, usually a territory of whose desirability we became persuaded. Since territories are peopled by individuals, and individuals speak particular languages, linguistic territories are high on the global wish-list. Along our recent Western history, we had to speak Latin, then French, and now English, in order to gain non-local visibility. Globalisation thus commonly collocates with multilingualism, which is probably to be expected, although it can do so in unexpected and even paradoxical ways. For example, if you want to matter beyond your own territory, learn languages; but if you want to take part in current global goodies, learn English and forget your other languages. I’ll have quite a few things to say about these matters in future.

Next time, I’ll attempt to explain how individuals who wish to become international (or global) communicators can be tricked by the uniformity that global territories appear to promise: I’ll be talking about whether “using one global language” means ‘using the same language’.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Using someone else’s language(s). Saturday 22nd January 2011.

Wednesday 12 January 2011

Language diverence or disapility?
=Guest post=

by Laura B. Raynolds

In the United States, many children enter the public school system not speaking the language used for schooling – English. Bilingual education has been outlawed in California and Massachusetts, and multilingualism is only valued with high-status languages, such as French or Swedish.

Beyond the politics of multilingualism however, lie the real lives of immigrant children and their success in school. My interests are in teaching English-Learning children (ELs) to read and in making sure that all children are reading in English at grade level by third grade. It is possible! With expert teaching in both language and literacy, children can quickly acquire the skills and vocabulary necessary for early reading. Reading itself will help to continue language acquisition.

However, there is a conundrum that teachers in the field face as they work to make sure all children are reading. The ability to hear the sounds of language and early literacy are strongly related. Research indicates that 3-5% of all children are at risk for phonologically based dyslexia. About 20% of all children are on a continuum needing explicit direct instruction and extra practice to learn to read. English-speaking children at risk for reading failure are often characterized by their difficulties in hearing sounds in words. They can be identified with tests that were created and normed for monolinguals.

Multilingual children with and without risk, however, often demonstrate this same difficulty, especially in early stages of English learning. In other words, they appear to be at risk for dyslexia, using the tests that are given to monolingual English-speaking children. Error patterns in their early spelling or invented spelling may also be similar to at-risk children. As you may have noticed in the title of this post, I tried to demonstrate how different languages – even similar ones – categorize sounds differently. A speaker of English may hear a /b/ sound whereas a speaker of Spanish listening to the same sound may identify it as /p/. My paper in Reading and Writing gives a detailed description of this in terms of young children’s invented spelling.

How can we distinguish language disability from language difference? This question is of utmost importance as we seek to provide early intervention to prevent reading failure. Much is now known about methods of teaching that prevent reading failure for most children at risk for dyslexia and this research has reached many U.S. public schools. Preventing reading failure is less traumatic for the child and much easier to fix than remediating difficulties after the child has experienced failure.

I have seen the pendulum swing from over-identification of ELs for special education and speech services to under-identification, especially in some schools with many ELs. I suspect that the high cost of special education services is contributing to this pendulum swing. Often poorly informed school officials will cite research indicating that it takes 5-7 years for ELs to catch up to their peers. They misuse that reasoning to let ELs with true reading disabilities suffer in classrooms without receiving the reading intervention that they need.

Much research is needed to document the normal development of English-learning children in English-only schools. Knowing what is typical is vital when trying to identify what is atypical. More research is needed for the early identification of ELs with reading disabilities, and most importantly this research needs to make its way into the public schools.
Laura B. Raynolds is an Assistant Professor of Reading at Southern Connecticut State University, and a Research Affiliate at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut.

© Laura B. Raynolds 2011

Next post: Global individuals. Saturday 15th January 2011.

Saturday 8 January 2011

(Im)prints in the brain

Some of the most frequent questions I get from parents in multilingual families concern the initiation of their children in cross-language literacy. The child has started learning spelling in one language, and the queriers wonder whether this doesn’t mean that the time has come to learn it in the child’s other languages too, whether or not literacy in all of the child’s languages is taught in school. Sometimes, the implicit reason for the query is the wish to avoid having the child’s proficiency in one language beat proficiency in the other(s).

Becoming literate in particular languages depends of course on whether becoming literate in those languages is useful to the child. Many people use languages that they never learned to read or write, and not only in communities where printed forms of language do not exist. Language proficiency is not a championship either. Languages, proficiency in them, and literacy in them, are there to do a job for their users.

Learning to read and write doesn’t come naturally. Many of us tend to associate prestige, like the one enjoyed by print, with essential properties of the prestigious entity (which are often hyped as such, too), but printed forms of language are as conventional as the languages themselves. The word cat means ‘cat’ in some places and the word kucing means the same in other places because of conventions similar to the ones that dictate the spelling of each of these words. However, in contrast to the natural acquisition of conventional word uses and word meanings that we all go through as we grow up, the conventions of spelling (orthography, its fancy name) need to be specifically taught, at a specific time in child development. They cannot be understood without the level of cognitive maturity required for this purpose – which is why it makes no sense to claim, for example, that two-year-olds can “learn spelling”.

Being conventional, and hence arbitrary, literacy skills do not transfer automatically from one language to another. They have to be learned, for each language and for each script. This is so across languages that each have different scripts (like Hindi, Korean and Czech) and for which different scripts have been developed (like Chinese characters vs. pinyin for Chinese languages, or Arabic vs. Roman script for Malay). Perhaps less obviously, the same is true for languages whose scripts represent the “same” units, e.g. syllables or sounds, like Thai and Norwegian, and for languages that share scripts (like Cantonese and Mandarin, on the one hand, vs. English and Spanish, on the other). One piece of evidence for the latter case is found in English-speaking football commentators’ common pronunciation of the word “Real” in Real Madrid to suggest the existence of a Fake Madrid, too.

The implicit reasoning in the questions I get matches the belief that children come equipped with the “knowledge” that languages are composed of the spelling-friendly constructs that some linguists, all of whom have been literate for a long time, indeed break up languages into. A bit like assuming that black holes are black and are holes just because someone invented the name black hole in order to be able to talk about something that we have no clue about. On the strength of this belief, all that the children need to work out is which spelling-friendly bits go with which printed symbols. Multilingual children should have no trouble either applying their “knowledge” of spelling-friendliness across their languages. If children show no signs of “phonological awareness”, as this assumed knowledge has been named, then there’s something wrong with the children. Not with the assumption. I’m not joking. And neither are the people who so assume.

The next post discusses some of the consequences of taking (linguists’) assumptions about early literacy for (language) facts.

The next post will also be a first, in this blog: a guest post. Several specialists have kindly accepted my invitation to contribute insights about being multilingual, in their areas of expertise. I am very, very grateful to them, and very happy to be able to diversify the contents of this blog in this way, beyond my own topics and concerns.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Language diverence or disapility?, by Laura B. Raynolds. Wednesday 12th January 2011.

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Speech passes, print endures

Our distinguished ancestors, the Romans, once put into writing their thoughts about writing:
Verba volant, scripta manent.
In rough translation from Latin, this means: spoken words are here now, gone forever, written words are here now, and forever. An alternative translation gives something like the title of this post.

The Romans wrote this to perpetuate not just a statement that they deemed worth perpetuating, but also their persuasion that written language topped other language modes: things set in print (or in stone, in a variant of the same persuasion) thereby acquire an aura of authority. The assumption, I presume, is that no one would otherwise take the trouble to set them in this way.

I don’t know how their reasoning would work out nowadays, because the Romans had no access to sound and video recorders, on the one hand, or to email, the internet and social networking, on the other. The former preserve language in ways whose accuracy is quite distinct from printed accuracy, a point to which I’ll come back in future. The latter encompass printed forms of language whose raison d’être is not necessarily to endure. And I don’t want to even think about how the Romans would have encrypted their cybermessages by means of their Roman numerals. Maybe that’s what prevented them from inventing the internet. If, by the way, you’re interested in Latin as a living language, check out Nuntii Latini, a news service based in Finland that has broadcast news in Latin since September 1989.

In any case, like with the Ancient Greeks before them, we also seem to have learned this ancestral lesson well. Many of us are still persuaded that printed language means “the” language, and that speech should therefore match print. It would certainly be fun to hear people say things like Dear Sir or Madam and Yours sincerely to each other, or pronounce the print in night, through-threw or bread-bead-beard. Not so long ago, one of my students told me that the word blog is bad English because it’s not in “the dictionary”, a copy of which he waved in class to make his point. I forgot to ask which “the” he meant, I confess, but I was interested in his need for imprinted evidence of “the” language. And speaking of teaching, the reason why so many lecturers consistently send their audiences to sleep might also have to do with idiosyncratic interpretations: the (Latin) word lectura means ‘a reading’, that is, speaking according to something that was printed beforehand.

In communities where the use of printed language is widespread, its prestige accompanies it. Literacy, the exploration of its mysteries, expectedly takes a prominent role in schooling. I suppose I am not alone in having been told, when I first faced alphabets and alphabetisation in school, that letters (in the case of my languages) are the faithful mouthpieces of sounds, syllables and other bits and pieces that, as I was also told, were constitutive of my languages. Printed forms of language are said to have been meant to do just this, reflect and “preserve” speech, as the Romans noted. How well they do it will be, as said, the topic of another post. But the underlying assumption that languages do contain constitutive bits which can be rendered in print has turned from a working hypothesis shared by some linguists into a “fact” shared by all of us, and duly set in stone: not only do these bits “exist”, they are “psychologically real” within us, to use popular phraseology about this issue. 

Characterising representations of sounds and syllables as imprinted in the brain instead of in papyrus, paper or computer screens also means that these assumed language bits must somehow “exist” regardless of languages. I’ll have some more to say about this in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: (Im)prints in the brain. Saturday 8th January 2011.


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