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. 


  1. Brilliant post. I just wish educators (especially in "standard English"-obsessed Singapore can read AND appreciate this!

  2. ‘Anonymous’: I agree that life would be much easier for all of us if we started asking ourselves why people use their languages the way they do. Everyone uses them in specific ways, ‘models’ included. Thank you for your comment – and sorry I was so late out responding!


  3. Just discovered your blog by chance tonight, and even though (or perhaps because) I've grown up surrounded by multilingualism, everything I've read so far is so relevant and intriguing; thank you!

    I spent a while the past few months teaching English to Swahili-speaking teens in Tanzania, and after a while you notice all the repeated grammatical mistakes. Your Singapore example reminded me of one that had to do with the ends of words: final s's were often left out, and words ending in -t or -d often had an ee sound added at the end (e.g. cooked = cook-dee). We surmised it might be because Swahili words all end in vowels. (Any similar comparison for your example?) But then there's also other "mistakes" (e.g. in word order) that we can't really find analogs for in Swahili. Can such "mistakes" often be attributed to features of the speakers' native languages, or...?
    Also, I was always unsure of how strict or lenient to be about grammar or word usage when teaching English because after all, that's just how people speak English there: whoever said American/British English is the correct English?

  4. amyzc (Amy, I presume? Sorry if not!), there have indeed been attempts at explaining language learners’ errors through ‘interference’ from their native languages. This is what Contrastive Analysis (CA) was all about, starting in the 1950’s. What native languages had, or didn’t have, in contrast to school-acquired languages, was said to be the key to what learners added to, or omitted from, their new languages.

    Other examples, since you ask, are Portuguese speakers’ substitution of the “lispy” TH-sounds of English by [s] and [d] e.g. in thin and this, respectively (lisps are speech defects to Portuguese ears.....), or English speakers’ pronunciation of Portuguese words like gato (‘cat’) with vowels that sound something like French gâteau.

    The Singapore English examples that I give here have also been analysed in CA ways, invoking influence from e.g. Malay and Chinese languages, where verbs are uninflected. The trouble is that English is currently a native language for many Singaporeans, and Singapore English goes on sounding like Singapore English. Plus the fact that learners’ new languages have different varieties, and what is considered an ‘error’ in one variety may be the ‘standard’ in another. And so on. CA didn’t survive long, in other words.

    The matter of strictness or leniency that you mention must, I believe, be decided according to the goals of both teaching and learning. We can all learn to sound ‘correct’ in many different ways, according to different standards of native or other correctness – if we so wish.

    Great comment, you really got me going here....! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!!



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