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.

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