Wednesday 16 March 2011

First, main, best

If the title of this post reminds of the Olympic motto, it should: it’s pure competition out there. Which language, in the singular, tops the lot? Despite lingering suspicion that all languages of a multilingual should preferably stand on equivalent footing, ranking languages ex-aequo is not a preferred option.

Let’s see. First, first. What comes first comes before anything else, in time or space, so your first language is the one you have after you have no language. People can have more than one first language, of course, if they’re brought up multilingually from birth. But speaking of several first languages generates confusion when “first language” is represented as “L1”, which might have been a usable way of naming the L in question when everyone was assumed to start life in monolingual worlds. Since this is not so, and since confusing labels about language matters have a habit of persevering, you can then have several el-ones, which looks and sounds funny because if something is found to be suitably represented by the single unit “1”, then it cannot be suitably represented by several unit “ones”.

The confusion increases when multi-el-oners go to school and learn new languages. These languages, whether one or more, become their el-twos, because they are all second languages. The confusion peaks when the word first in “first language” is taken to mean not ‘first’ but ‘main’, in the sense that, say, a First Lady is a Main Lady, or ‘best’, in the Olympic sense that whoever comes first is best.

Main, then. This is variously taken to be the language you spontaneously use when initiating an exchange, the language you dream or swear in, or the language you do your maths in, for example. The problems are that when you’re initiating talk, you’re preparing to talk to someone, who also has at least one language, so you choose language not on instinct but according to what you know about your interlocutor’s language(s); that you dream and swear in whatever languages became relevant for what prompted your dreams and swearwords; and that maths is something that you learn, usually in school, from someone who must speak to you in some language, which then becomes your maths language.

Next, best. Really tricky, this one. Best for what? Or does “best” mean something like ‘best quality’, in which case do we mean quality grammar, or vocabulary, or fluency, which, again, must be best for specific purposes? For example, English is my best language for work, and also the main one and the first one that comes to me when I think about work matters, but I wouldn’t honestly know how to answer a simple yes/no question about whether English is my best language in absolute terms.

I believe that we need to shed the absolute nature of terms like first, main and best, when talking about our languages, and start thinking about them in terms of their uses rather than their properties. We’ve known this ever since the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski wrote, all the way back in 1923, that:

“A statement, spoken in real life, is never detached from the situation in which it has been uttered. For each verbal statement by a human being has the aim and function of expressing some thought or feeling actual at that moment and in that situation, and necessary for some reason or other to be made known to another person or persons – in order either to serve purposes of common action, or to establish ties of purely social communion, or else to deliver the speaker of violent feelings or passions.”

This is what we have our languages for, and each one will naturally shift from best to subsidiary to first and then back again, depending on which uses we go on making of them. But what happens, then, when we want to use our languages, and develop our skills in them, and find little or no support for this in our community? The next post, a guest post, gives us some answers to this.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Learning to read in a multilingual society: challenges for Africa, by Viv Edwards. Saturday 19th March 2011.


  1. I guess you would disagree with some who claim that to be bilingual and acquire the "minority" language, a child should be exposed to it by at least 30%. This is something I have seen printed many times in advice to parents, yet I find it troubling.
    My daughter, learning 4 languages, stands no chance (mathematically)!

  2. Annabelle: it’s not so much that I disagree as that I would really, really like to be able to understand what these percentages are all about, in practical, everyday terms. Then I’d be able to agree or disagree with such claims.

    30%, say, of what? Of the total linguistic exposure a child has? How do we count that (home, school, friends, TV, internet, books, magazines, etc., per day, week, etc.), and up to what age? Do we also count the time the child is thinking, for example, and try to guess in which language that is going on? And when/if we find a reliable way to count all this, how do we reckon the “minority” percentage and how do we enforce it, in practical, everyday terms?
    Plus, as you ask, what about trilinguals, quadrilinguals, pentalinguals, etc., etc.?

    Really, honestly stumped, here...


    1. Interesting. I guess some are calculating it by counting all these things you mention: TV, home, school, etc. but I don't think it goes to the extent of thinking or even books.
      The number apparently stems from a misquote from Genesee but it is going round parenting blogs as a scientific truth!
      P.S. i wish I had 'met' you when I was writing my thesis! Many thanks for your great blog.

  3. Misquotes and related misconceptions, Annabelle: our daily multi-bread, right? I’m sure you’ve seen this post, How do we know?

    Please don’t worry about this other mis-, mistimed meetings. There’s so much to discuss and understand about multilingualism that I think any time to start talking about it is a good time!

    You made my day, letting me know that this blog is relevant to you. That’s exactly what I created it for. Obrigada!



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