Saturday 25 June 2011

How do we know?

Few people would contest, I suppose, that hens (or chickens, whichever way you prefer to call them) lay eggs, although not many of us have actually observed egg-laying live: most of us know that hens do it because somebody told us that they do it.

“Somebody told us”, or showed us, or sms-ed us, describes quite accurately how we get to know most of what we know. The American sociologist Charles Wright Mills, in an essay titled The cultural apparatus, put it this way:

“The first rule for understanding the human condition is that men live in second‐hand worlds. They are aware of much more than they have personally experienced; and their own experience is always indirect. The quality of their lives is determined by meanings they have received from others [...], crowds of witnesses they have never met and never shall meet. Yet for every man these images – provided by strangers and dead men – are the very basis of his life as a human being.”

We gather most of our knowledge through language, in other words, by receiving meanings through the particular languages that we happen to share with others. If for some reason we’d better make sure that hens do lay eggs, we can always go and check. Rather more difficult would be for every one of us to confirm by empirical observation that, for example, the Earth orbits the sun, or that Anopheles mosquitoes transmit malaria. Which raises, of course, the next question: how do they know?

In addition, what we and they know is not just a simple collection of (what we take on good faith for) empirical observations and sound arguments that explain them, because human beings are not inert database storage units: in some way or other, all of us come to be part of groups of individuals that matter to us, and that thus come to mediate our knowledge. Wright Mills adds:

“Every man interprets what he observes – as well as much that he has not observed: but his terms of interpretation are not his own; he has not personally formulated or even tested them. Every man talks about observations and interpretations to others: but the terms of his reports are much more likely than not the phrases and images of other people which he has taken over as his own. For most of what he calls solid fact, sound interpretation, suitable presentations, every man is increasingly dependent upon the observation posts, the interpretation centers, the presentation depots, which in contemporary society are established by means of what I am going to call the cultural apparatus.”

Our knowledge, and our opinions about it, flow with the times and the tides. We know different things at different times, and we react to the same things in different ways, because knowledge is bounded by time and space. This is why the process of knowing looks more like a seesaw than like a steadily climbing line.

Riding the flow of knowledge.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

What we know about multilingualism follows the same pattern: here, too, interpretation centres and presentation depots shape what dead people and strangers have had to say about it. And here, too, we rather like to take the see, or the saw, for the see-saw. We welcome and propagate headlines that obey two conditions. First, they agree with what we already know, because it happened to us or to our people in town, at work, or on Twitter. These are the people we’ve allowed to (RSS-)feed us their personal headlines, and vice versa, and this shared knowledge then becomes the things that “everybody knows”. Second, the headlines match the currently trendy see, or saw, which “everybody” currently and trendily also knows to be indisputable.

What we think we know often prevents us from knowing, because it prevents us from asking questions. Where the facts tend to be few, as is the case for what being multilingual is all about, the opinions tend to be many. From what is going on about multilingualism out there, I sometimes wonder whether the questions we’re asking ourselves aren’t more like “What do we want to go on believing?” than like “What do we know?” and “How do we know it?”. Sometimes, it may well be the case that we don’t want to know.

But what (we think) we know also makes us know quite a few things that we don’t know that we know. I’m not just playing with words: what we are fed, knowledge-wise, and what we consciously absorb, are only one side of the story. Like digestion, what’s there to be processed plays as big a role in shaping us as what is not there. I’ll explain what I mean in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The effects of monolingualism. Saturday 2nd July 2011. 

Saturday 18 June 2011

People see, people do

Creativity seems to be a defining characteristic of human beings. If we human beings weren’t creative, the reasoning goes, we wouldn’t have made it to where we are now (whatever that means) – and we wouldn’t, of course, be able to extol creativity as the path to getting there (ditto).

Our languages serve our creativity. In Western parts of the world, we learned this in 1836, when the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt published his book Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (translated into English as On Language), and remarked that language “makes infinite use of finite means”.

Humboldt meant that we can do with our languages whatever we need to do to make them work for us. The way we learn to do this, however, doesn’t seem to be all that creative.

Photo: MCF

Children do not only end up using their languages the way somebody else does, whether at home or in school: their language learning is deemed successful only when they actually do so. I’m not arguing that we learn our languages through simple imitation: my work on child language makes clear my views on this. I’m saying that like the proverbial apple and its tree, linguistic ripeness seeds its own orchard.

I can give one example, from Singapore. Little Singaporeans are known to say things like the following, where I transcribe in ordinary spelling what is heard:  

          I miss a class this morning. 
         That happen a long time ago.

Why do little Singaporeans say this? Because that’s what they hear big Singaporeans say. I’m talking about Singapore English here, by which I mean the standard version of the language that is used in the country, not Singlish. These uses of verbs have been ascribed to ignorance of past tense forms, or to other ignorance subsumed under general labels like “incomplete learning” of the “correct” forms. For both little and big ones, by the way.

Now, because I’ve lived in Singapore for many years, because I’ve listened to a lot of Singapore English, and because I found it odd that a whole country should go around speaking incomplete English, I decided to check matters out. Instead of the grammatical deficiency with which Singaporean speakers were diagnosed, my study, Past tense suffixes and other final plosives in Singapore English, found a phonological issue, one that is besides shared by other speakers of English throughout the world: the well-known instability of [t] and [d] at the end of syllables.

In Singapore English, present tense trust and bend can sound like ‘truss’ and ‘Ben’, both present tense send and past tense sent like [sen], and past tenses left and went like [lef] and [wen]. A Singaporean’s best friend, with no verbs involved, is as much a [bes fren] as the [-st] of missed is [-s] and the [-nd] of happened is [-n]. In other Englishes, the next world is also the neck’s whirl, the past is pass, and facts are fax. Singapore English is just/juss one more example of this. You can listen to the corpus of speech data on which I based my study.

The issue is this: if children fail to conform to the linguistic models that are available around them, they also fail to acquire linguistic appropriateness to their daily environments. But if they do conform to models that for some reason are not deemed acceptable, then they, and whoever seeded those models for them, risk their reputation as appropriate users of language. Similar issues of serving as you have it served arise, for example, among self-labelled OPOL families. There was a time when researchers puzzled over “OPOL” children’s mixing of their languages. The puzzlement vanished when the presumed OL-users, who already were or had by then become multilingual, were found to do likewise, despite reporting in good faith that they didn’t.

What we say and what we think we say can be two quite different kinds of language. Those of us who doubt this might want to pursue some very entertaining fieldwork, listening to what we actually produce, speech-wise. We often (mis)take ourselves for users of desirable, standard conventions, which is fine: self-flattery is another defining characteristic of human beings. The problems begin when we take non-standard uses of language, whose label reflects factual observations, for sub-standard uses, a label that reflects opinion. From there to “wrong”, and so in need of correction, takes but a small step.

Standard uses are also the ones contemplated in assessment instruments. A child’s linguistic input, from elders as well as peers, is accordingly part of routine observation, in speech-language clinics. Taking into account a child’s natural way of copying uses of language is a necessary step to deciding between difference and disorder. Sharynne McLeod discusses similar issues in her blog Speaking my Languages.

I’ve now returned several times to matters of assessment, in this blog, and to the kind of knowledge that allows us to trust both our assessment instruments and our judgement when using them. Next time, I’ll deal with a rather broad issue about knowledge itself. Namely, how do we get to know what we know? Or perhaps I should say: how do we get to know what we think that we know.

© MCF 2011

Next post: How do we know? Saturday 25th June 2011. 

Saturday 11 June 2011

Fluent mumbles and precise vagueness

In cases of suspected or actual disruption to communication, we tend to repeat exactly what caused the glitch, only louder, and slower. A bit like turning the ignition key on a dead engine more and more fiercely, and more and more deliberately, in the hope that sustained, precise action will induce cooperation. We believe, in other words, that intelligibility is best procured through disfluent delivery. On the other hand, utterances like “And then, er... it just went on, y’know, just like that”, which are sometimes said to be disfluent, are perfectly intelligible in their contexts.

It is true that vague wording and mumbled articulation are not usually associated with desirable linguistic practice. They go under cover labels like “verbal crutches”, and they are attributed to all sorts of speech-language shortcomings, from poor vocabulary, through syntactic indecisiveness, to (clinical) disfluency itself. We’ve formed such opinions from what our elders and betters keep telling us about the great language users. On close inspection, however, the greatness of these uses turns out to have been preserved for us mostly through print.

The big revolution that sound and video recording technology brought to language studies was the insight it gave us into how we actually use our languages, and so into what constitutes evidence of language ability in spoken or signed modes. What we actually say or sign doesn’t look good in print, because print is not its mode, and vice versa.

We are learning that apparent imprecision and hesitation in fact mark proficient language use. When we say and what not or thingamajig, we’re signposting what we said before, or relevant material in the surroundings where our exchange is taking place, for example. Umming, ahhing, and falling silent fluently also assist spoken interaction. We thereby highlight content (saving us the trouble to say ‘now listen carefully, what I’ll say next is really, really important’), keep conversational turns (‘wait, wait now, I’m not done talking yet’), and buy time when we’re looking for the right turn of phrase or attempting to repair a botched start to an utterance. Michael Erard’s book, suggestively titled Um..., tells us about this. Celeste Kidd, Katherine White and Richard Aslin, in their article Toddlers use speech disfluencies to predict speakers’ referential intentions, in turn explain how we learn to make use of these devices, as we learn our languages.

It seems, then, that there is more to language building than the w o r d-based constructions that we have assumed of child learning, and so immortalised as recipe for school learning too. (Or was this the other way around now??)

Languages are not this:

Photo: Ralf Roletschek (Wikimedia Commons)

but this:

Photo: Wamito (Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Cauldwell first proposed this analogy, in a 1992 paper titled ‘Of Streams and Bricks: new ways of presenting the spoken language to learners’, published in Speak Out!, the Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group.

Fuzzy devices flow naturally along the characteristic prosody of each language, and give us clues about their speakers’ favoured vowels and consonants: have you noticed that we erm... and ahh... and nnn... differently in different languages, when we’re thinking about producing language? They also match culture-bound body language, gesture, gaze, that give precise meaning to face-to-face linguistic interaction. In her multilingually-titled article And stuff und so, Maryann Overstreet analyses vagueness in two related languages. This Linguist question and summary of replies lists a wider sample of vague words in several languages.

We are further learning that language users in fact expect vagueness and mumbles in meaningful interaction. These are both linguistic tools, in that they have their own grammar, and communicative tools, in that their use reflects shared knowledge of what the interaction is about. Your interlocutors expect you to let them be part of what you’re saying by letting them fill in what you’re not saying.

So now you know: if you want to sound really fluent in your new languages, stop trying to engage with le mot juste or the model syntactic rule that you remember from page 672 of your textbook, and engage instead with your interlocutors, here and now, by tossing in a vague word or two, and mumbling a bit from time to time. This is why Joan Cutting, in her book Vague Language Explored, recommends inclusion of these devices in school language syllabuses.

Learning to use languages from what we experience around us, in school or at home, probably reflects the major single difference between the two kinds of learning, as I’ve said before. In both cases, however, what we do indeed learn can be taken as evidence not of good learning but of faulty learning abilities. Know whadda mean? Aahm... oh well, next time I’ll talk about that kind of stuff anyway.

© MCF 2011

Next post: People see, people do. Saturday 18th June 2011. 

Saturday 4 June 2011

“I hate that guy.”

When I was studying in Britain, Julio Iglesias was all the rage. Julito, as we besotted Latinas at my halls of residence called him, in raptures and in his native tongue, with sighed ay, ay, ay in assorted tones. The rage was such that, in all of the four years I spent in the country, his were the only non-English words that I ever heard on national radio.

One evening, my other gang, of linguistics students of which I happened to be the only foreigner that day, were doing what students do best in their free time, quaffing beer at the local pub, when Un Canto a Galicia came on. To me, the Canto was a special treat. Julito sings it in Gallego, which fitted in smoothly with the Spanuguese-Portunish that the besotted gang were developing at home in order to achieve successful communication.

The friend sitting next to me at the pub tensed up as the first words were heard, but before I could turn to him to comment on what I took for shared delight, he mumbled: “I hate that guy.” Like that, matter-of-factly. The Earth is round, water freezes at 0º C, and he hates Julio Iglesias. I had to ask him why, and he told me why: “He’s all over the place. And I don’t understand a word he’s saying!”

I would have said Hey!! Hey, but the voice, the delivery, the feeling, the *music*? Do you need to understand words to understand that?!, if two other things hadn’t struck me at the same time. How new it must have been, to my friend, to hear unintelligible words, and how disturbing, to have them imposed on him on national radio. So much for the “universal” language of music. For a second, I forgot that much of it comes complete with lyrics, and that lyrics come in tongues.

The tongues are the issue, and the ways of using them. My friend’s reaction wasn’t all that different from the ones that other recorded voices were found to trigger. Granted, we’re talking about different languages in one case, and about different language varieties in another, but the bad blood towards otherness, with or without intelligible words, flares up as heatedly.

Intelligibility is one of those language-related concepts that everyone talks about and nobody knows what it means. It serves, for example, as a handy (read: ‘futile’) trick to assign inexistent boundaries to languages, which are said to be mutually unintelligible, versus dialects of the “same” language, which are said not to be. On this issue, I refer to Spanportishese, as above. We human beings in fact appear to be the only species for whom unintelligibility is an issue: Russian horses, say, and Brazilian ones seem to have no trouble communicating with one another, as far as we human beings can ascertain.

Intelligibility hinges on what we are familiar with. It is not, in other words, one-size-fits-all. When you’re making yourself understood, in the ways in which you usually make yourself understood to those who you already know will understand you, you’re not making yourself understood. You just happen to be understood, out of humdrum communicative habits. But humdrum things aren’t born humdrum, so this also tells us that if you are indeed intelligible to someone else, and vice versa, that’s because familiarity breeds intelligibility: you and someone else have somehow become mutually intelligible. The key word here is become.

Awareness that we need to become intelligible, and make others behave likewise towards us, comes from exposure to variety and from practice with it, for the purposes that we deem worth the trouble of learning to accommodate to otherness. We all know how to do this, whether with our own small children or with the local vendors of the delights that we covet on our chartered tours to Exotic-Land. Intelligibility is a matter of will, both across and within languages, and from both you and me.

I comforted my friend at the pub by telling him that his language was, like Julito, also all over the place on other national radios, and that if I hadn’t learnt it I would have missed out on two things: on the hearty discussion about foreign languages and foreign behaviours that had by then generalised to the remaining linguists at our table; and on drinking choice English beer in the country of its birth.

Next time, I’ll offer a few other thoughts about intelligibility, among them the belief that  s p e a k i n g   l o u d   a n d   c l e a r , like this, is the key to communicative success.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Fluent mumbles and precise vagueness. Saturday 11th June 2011. 


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