Wednesday 4 May 2011

(Non-)native common ground

Suppose you get an email where your correspondent wrote:
Additional documentation can be download from this site.
And suppose you know this correspondent to be a native user of English, whether you yourself are one too or not. What would your reaction be? And now (you knew this was coming...) suppose you know that your correspondent is a non-native. Etc. etc.

My guesses are that, in the first case, you might attribute the glitch to, say, a slip of the keyboard. Or to the person having made a last minute decision to change the syntax of the sentence from, say, the active form You can download... to the passive, and then forgetting to add the missing bit where it should go. Or some other benign excuse. In the second case, you might note that your correspondent made a grammatical mistake. As expected, you might add. If you are a language teacher, you may even nod and conclude something like “probably due to incomplete learning”. If you and the person both happen to be non-native users of English and besides share a native language, you may additionally blush in utter embarrassment at this (further) evidence of your fellow citizens’ mangling of English. We tend to cringe most at features of our own language(s) that we detect in someone else’s. No excuses.

We also tend to let our expectations shape our judgements. Different reactions to identical native and non-native productions show that value judgements about language quality are seldom absolute. Things that are good, or bad, are good or bad to particular people. From particular people too: we do count on funny linguistic behaviour from non-native users of a language, but only if we know that they are non-natives. Matched guises experiments, which were first developed by W. E. Lambert and his colleagues to investigate Evaluational reactions to spoken languages, provide ample evidence of this.

The consensus has been, as Neriko Musha Doerr discusses in her book The Native Speaker Concept. Ethnographic Investigations of Native Speaker Effects, to think of native speakers as “ideal” language users, whose standards of correctness the (less-than-ideal) learners should strive to match. The assumption behind this requirement is that people need (or want) to learn languages in order to communicate with their native users.

Let’s see. First, the consensus. Less-than-ideal communication takes place among native users too, which casts some doubt upon the accuracy of the label “ideal” to describe the presumed all-round correctness of their uses. The American lawyer Clarence Darrow once vented similar vexations, about English: “Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?”. In addition, recommendations to use a language “the native way” beg the question “which way?”. Adopting a native model, the one on offer where the learner happens to be learning, does not secure successful communication with any native user. Taking English as example, a cursory look at any native section of IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) should help quash the myth that native versions of a language vary minimally among themselves, standard versions included. The profusion of jokes, stand-up sketches and anecdotes out there, from natives about other natives, also does the job nicely. One of my favourites comes from the book In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, that a colleague brought to my attention (thank you, Judy!):
[Fermor is writing about his stay at an old Raj Government Guest House in India, 1976]
“The only other occupant was a nice sad chap from Perth, Western Australia, called Stan Hardisty, advising the Himalayan government about apple growing. We were dining together one night, talking about the faults of Indian fruit-tree planting and eating a blazing hot curry, when he put his fork down and said earnestly that they did not use enough spice, which seemed to me odd, as I was on fire. It took me some time to twig that he meant the Indians didn’t plant their trees far enough apart.”

Second, the assumption. Making oneself understood to the natives has been a historical necessity, as reported, for example, in the Missionary Linguistics series, and may remain so in a number of contemporary cases. This is not the case for a global language like contemporary English, as argued in a previous post. The issue is one of intelligibility, to which I’ll come back in future but, here too, it takes two to tango: you are (or not) intelligible to someone. Native speakers of global languages need to familiarise themselves with local native variants that differ from their own, if they wish to partake of the global cake (some of us would rather die locally than survive globally, but that’s a different story): one example, from 2008, comes from mobile phone technology. With human beings, going the extra mile is sometimes just a matter of gaining confidence in your ability to understand other users of your languages, as Tracey Derwing, Marian Rossiter and Murray Munro show in Teaching native speakers to listen to foreign-accented speech.

We have come to think of natives and non-natives as representing two significantly different kinds of language use because, well, we have kept ourselves busy looking for differences between the two. If we choose instead to look for similarities, the results may surprise us. It is as unfair, to the non-natives, to assign to them the brunt of communicative disruption as it is, to the natives, to portray them as glitch-free users of language. Ah!, the argument goes, but there is a crucial difference: you need native intuitions about a language in order to use it properly. Fair enough: the native English speaker who wishes you a Happy Birfday has birfday intuitions about how to say the word birfday. So, two questions – and please explain your answers: would you, the non-native, want to say birfday too, like a native? And if you, the non-native, already say birfday, like a native, will you need to revise your own intuitions about the pronunciation of this word?

I suppose I can offer another safe guess here: your answers will have to do with matters of opinion. Our attitudes towards factual uses of language leave us all, natives and non-natives alike, wondering which master to serve. Our opinions about learning languages, in turn, which bear on ever-elusive, moving targets constituted by “native standards”, have it as a well-nigh hopeless endeavour. But is it really that difficult to learn a new language? The next post, a guest post, tells us about this.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Why not learn another language? How about Chinese?, by Irma Lachmund. Wednesday 11th May 2011.

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