Wednesday 30 November 2011

Language and language

In case you haven’t noticed, language may well be at risk of death. If you’re in the habit of gathering information through headlines and ignoring the small print, this is what you’ll learn from the title of this 2009 BBC report, The death of language?

If, however, you decide to read on and find out what this report in fact reports, you may agree with me that the headline is not about the death of language, but about “language death”, a concept which became standardised in discussions of the demise of particular languages. Alternatively, you may agree with the official who responded to the comment I sent to the BBC about this at the time, and who dismissed it on account of my unawareness that “the death of language” and “language death” mean the same thing. As you can see, the report and its title are still there, both unchanged.

Whichever the case may be – and unless, of course, my non-native intuitions completely fail me –, the mismatch that I’m quite aware of between the title and the contents of this report illustrates the ambiguity of the English word language. The word has a countable meaning, as in ‘one language-many languages’, and a mass/uncountable meaning, as in ‘language ability’ or ‘acquisition of language’. Which means that there are actually two English words language, just like there are two English words thought, as in ‘one thought-many thoughts’, and in ‘human thought’ or ‘thought development’, respectively.

By this quirk of English vocabulary, the singular form of the count noun language and the mass noun language are homonyms. This is fine, homonymy and ambiguity and confusion about what words might mean are probably the rule rather than the exception, in any language. But the problem is that ambiguity and confusion percolate through to (assumedly) scientific accounts of language, by means of the current so-called “language of science”. Most writing (and probably thinking) about linguistics is available in English, so it is indeed unfortunate that the language we’ve come to associate with talk about language lacks the lexical means to distinguish language from language.

Conflation of both “language” meanings/words abounds in English-medium academic publications – which may explain why English-medium popularisation of research about language doesn’t bother to tell those meanings apart either. Similar blurring of meanings recurs in languages with similar homonymy, one example being Swedish and its word(s) språk. I’ve often wondered whether the confusion stems from deliberate word play, or from “natural” fogging up of thought paths on account of formal similarity between words of a particular language, be it a language that we choose to use (if we have a choice there) or a language that we have to use (if we don’t). In Portuguese or in French, for example, things are crystal-clear here: the linguistic ability shared by all human beings is linguagem and langage, and specific tongues shared by specific human beings are língua(s) and langue(s), respectively.

Terminological imprecision of this kind is what explains that we find English-medium publications where “language acquisition” means ‘acquisition of one language’; where “first language” regularly appears in the singular; where introducing talk about language means introducing talk about a particular language; and where “language ability” invariably refers to ‘ability in particular languages’. You can read my most recent review of this resilient English-bound confusion in a chapter on First language acquisition and teaching, included in a collection of studies dedicated to folk beliefs about “language” across the board, Applied Folk Linguistics.

Tolerating vague uses of the core term(s) of a discipline which prides itself on describing a “unique” human feature has, predictably, resulted in loose judgements about those human beings for whom language does not mean a single language. The next post, by a guest whom I’m proud to welcome to this blog for the second time, gives a state of the art appreciation of what clinical assessment of multilinguals has meant.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!, by Brian A. Goldstein. Wednesday 7th December 2011.


  1. Rebecca Helm-Ropelato15 December 2011 at 22:01

    Hi Madalena -- the increasing problem of terminological imprecision in news media outlets is a major problem, I agree. A particular bugbear for me is how this (mal)practice has become especially corruptive in political reporting and commentary, as "ideology-creep" insinuates itself into the work and co-opts terminology to serve a prejudice that goes unacknowledged. In the case of the error in the BBC headline, it is careless and clumsy. You were fully justified in bringing it to the editors' attention (your "non-native intuition" is right-on). We can hope that it is the blindness of only one editor in this case. I, for one, really appreciate your attention to this matter.

  2. I’m very glad I’m not the only one worrying about these matters, Rebecca! All words are vague, we know that, but it does irk me to see professionals turn to using them in ways that obscure understanding even further. How can we make sense of things, when we need to stop at every word to wonder what so-and-so means by their use??
    Thank you for your support!


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