Saturday 22 December 2012

Roots and wings

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote that children should be nurtured to grow roots and wings (“Zwei Dinge sollen Kinder von ihren Eltern bekommen: Wurzeln und Flügel.”).

Knowing Goethe’s thought, his juxtaposition of two apparently contradictory upbringing requirements can neither have meant “roots” in the sense of ‘motionless’, nor “wings” in the sense of ‘restless’: he must have meant that we can’t find roots unless we’re able to go look for them, and that we can’t fly unless we also can perch. Roots expand towards where their nutrition comes from, and flying creatures thrive in the homes that they choose to build for themselves. Likewise, we learn to seek what makes us grow and thrive, and flee what doesn’t.

I was reminded of Goethe’s quote years ago, when I read a fascinating book, Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders. In it, Peter McConchie reports one elder as saying: “We always knew the people were okay because they would come home” which, to me, describes the feature which makes a cultural community acknowledge someone as their own: these people knew that they had a home to return to, which means that they had been taught to leave it. And the elder adds: “They knew to get home, it’s instilled in them, in their spirit and in our stories.” I particularly liked this formulation: their individual, winged spirit, was nurtured by our stories, the roots of our culture.

We all start sprouting root feelers as soon as we realise that “home” is just, well, wherever you feel at home. We find our individual bearings in a multitude of environments, whose distinctive cultural, linguistic and personal habits we can only appreciate once we learn to let go of them, so we also learn how to go back to them, if we so wish. There’s nothing like distance, physical or intellectual, to teach us how to take flight and stay rooted which, to me, is what learning about ourselves is all about.

Image © Copyright Hugh Chevallier
Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Gianpiero Petriglieri gives a real-life account of what Moving Around Without Losing Your Roots may involve (obrigada pela dica, Karin!). If you read German, Wurzeln und Flügel discusses the topic of this post with the added bonus of two other of my favourite Roots-and-Wings books, Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgerssons Underbara Resa genom Sverige and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I would definitely include in this list Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, with which I grew up when I was learning to take flight.

I wonder whether I’ve just given you a couple of ideas to go and visit, or revisit, these books. I’ll certainly do the latter. Reminiscing about them also reminded me that this is the perfect time of year to find a cosy place from where to fly away by means of cosy reading. I’ll be back next year. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll be able to take time to savour your own roots and wings, too.

© MCF 2012

Next post: What causes what? Saturday 5th January 2013.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Speech and language

Generally speaking, speech concerns physical abilities, whereas language concerns cognitive abilities. Speech is what we say and hear, in actual linguistic interactions, language is what allows us to produce and perceive speech as mediating meaningful interactions. This is why speech bubbles are called speech bubbles and not language bubbles.

Image © Marian Sigler (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

The medium of speech is sound, although language ability does not exhaust itself in sound-mediated languages: sign languages are a case in point, making it clear that speech and language are independent abilities.

Both speech and language feature in the job description of clinicians dealing with spoken means of expression. We can produce and perceive what sounds like intact speech but might not be cognitively processed as meaningful interaction, as John Cleese demonstrates in a lecture about the human brain; and we can have intact language abilities without being able to produce intact speech, as when we stammer or stutter: Cleese’s Monty Python co-star Michael Palin explains what led him to create the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.

Stammering and stuttering are a source of concern among parents of multilingual children, judging by the amount of queries I receive on this topic. The usual question is whether multilingualism can “cause” these disfluencies. The answer is that it cannot, because multilingualism is a matter of language, not speech – and because multilingualism does not “cause” any problems of any kind (I’ll have more to say about “causes”, scare quotes included, in a coming post). Stuttering and/or stammering are well-attested consequences of something else, small children’s newfound abilities to string words together by means of grammatical constructions, and newfound eagerness to say everything they want to say at the same time, as I noted before. This is why children may stutter/stammer in one of their languages, but not in the others, and these are developmental rather than pathological issues, which sort themselves out in time.

Other features of child speech may have similar or different explanations. Having “trouble with ‘r’ sounds” (another common question I get) can also be developmental. These speech sounds are among the last ones that children acquire, because their production involves quite sophisticated control of articulators and airstream. Many of us have trouble with ‘r’ sounds throughout life, in early or later languages: just do a web search on e.g. “rolled r”, or “learn to trill”, or “pronouncing r”, to see what I mean.

In contrast, “not pronouncing the letter ‘s’ at the end of words”, as one parent once wrote, may be worth investigating further. Sounds represented by ‘s’ are also a typically late acquisition, and avoiding their troublesome articulation by omission is then a developmental speech issue. However, depending on factors such as the child’s age, or linguistic environment, absence of ‘s’ sounds at the end of words may point to a grammar issue, and so to a language issue: in several languages, including English, word-final ‘s’ sounds represent grammatical noun plurals or person/number verbal inflections, of which the child may not be developing cognitive command, as in, for example, SLI (Specific Language Impairment). My Ask-a-Linguist FAQ ‘Child language acquisition’ gives a brief overview of typical language development, meant to help caregivers make informed decisions about whether and when to worry about children’s speech and language development.

Language ability can be gauged through speech – though not exclusively. A bit like driving ability can be gauged by the way you drive a car, though not exclusively. Analysis of speech samples collected from clients is one of the many ways through which speech-language clinicians acquaint themselves with their clients’ abilities, in order to decide whether and how clinical intervention is required for speech, for language, or both. The ASHA site has more information on speech and language in clinical settings. And Charles Sturt University has just launched an online resource dedicated to Multilingual Children’s Speech. It includes a downloadable Position Paper, created by the International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech, of which I am a proud invited member.

The next post will have something to say about a well-known cause (no scare quotes) of our speech-language abilities: the ways we’ve learnt to adopt and shed cultural traits which characterise our different environments.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Roots and wings. Saturday 22nd December 2012.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Language therapy or language tuition?

The titles Speech-language Therapist and Language Tutor name different job descriptions, different qualifications and, therefore, different professional competencies: speech-language therapists (or speech-language pathologists, in alternative terminology) do therapy, language tutors do tuition.

In practice, however, the distinct services that these professionals provide are sometimes not so distinct. One reason might be the resilient confusion between two meanings of the word language, in English and other languages. Both job descriptions include this word, although language therapists (let’s call them so) deal with overall language ability, whereas language tutors deal with specific languages. Another reason stems from both specialists being called upon to intervene in a child’s life because there is a problem, or a suspected problem: language therapy addresses problems which affect all of the child’s languages (e.g. language delay), whereas language tuition solves problems with specific languages (e.g. everyday or specialised exposure) which bear no relation to the child’s other languages.

Interestingly, the merger of professional competencies works one-way only: you probably wouldn’t dream of entrusting your child’s possible language disability to a qualified language tutor, whereas you do expect qualified language therapists to address deficiencies in particular languages. I’ve had reports of therapy-for-tuition services of this kind from a number of countries in Africa and Asia, although I doubt that they are restricted to these parts of the world. I would be very interested to know whether the same situation holds elsewhere.

Let me try to work out why this situation arises at all. Children naturally acquire the language uses around them, from elders and/or peers. These uses may not match what parents or schoolteachers deem to be desirable ones, where “desirable” means ‘standard’. In matters of language, the word “standard”, in turn, means ‘good’, whereby non-standard uses of language are ‘bad’, that is, in need of remediation. By the same reasoning which recommends clinical assistance for bad health, cure for bad language should also be sought from a qualified clinician.

I mean the word cure quite literally. An increasing number of typical child language features have also come to merge with features of disordered development, drawing on current standards of normality which are as usable, in practice, as current standards of physical beauty. Almost 70 years ago, in her Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy depicting life in the English countryside in the 1880’s, Flora Thompson saw it coming :

“The general health of the hamlet was excellent. The healthy, open-air life and the abundance of coarse but wholesome food must have been largely responsible for that; but lack of imagination may also have played a part. Such people at that time did not look for or expect illness, and there were not as many patent medicine advertisements then as now to teach them to search for symptoms of minor ailments in themselves.”

Any label which remotely hints at clinical disruption, tagged on to a child, will drive zealous caregivers to appeal to those whose job descriptions likewise include clinical labels.

Zealous teachers stand for the lion’s share of such moves, despite cautionary reports exemplified by Jeff MacSwan and Kellie Rolstad’s ‘How language proficiency tests mislead us about ability: implications for English language learner placement in special education’. The article reviews evidence that the bulk of referrals of young language learners to special education, in the US, has nothing to do with the learners, and all to do with assessment policies and poorly designed language tests. This is the case elsewhere around the world, as also reported in my book Multilingual Norms.

Misguided referrals of this kind count as false positives, where typical multilingual behaviour is mistaken for language disorder. In time, cumulative practices “identifying” multilinguals as disordered become standard practices, in yet another interesting meaning of the word “standard”: as Brian Goldstein quotes in a previous post: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Accepted habits boost reluctance to revise mindsets and practices, with two consequences: overworked language therapists, squandering time and resources tuned to atypicality on typically developing children; and blindness to false negatives, which mistake disorder for typical multilingual behaviour and thus fail to identify disordered multilingualism.

A third consequence, perhaps the direst of all, is the stigma which sticks to the children who get singled out by means of special labels. Not just because “special” is Correct-Speak for ‘not-quite-up-to-par’, but principally because labels go on deciding our opportunities for us.

Next time, I’ll deal with the bit that I missed, in this post, in the label speech-language therapist.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Speech and language. Wednesday 12th December 2012.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

“Wait... *Where* are you from?”

= Acknowledgement =
Muito obrigada, Karin and Ruchika,
for very enlightening correspondence concerning this post
and, not least, for inspiration for the post’s title!

Has anyone ever complimented you on how well you speak your native language? I don’t mean praise for those of us who may be professional speakers, I mean praise for ordinary speakers like you and me. It has happened to me, about Portuguese, from fellow Portuguese and in Portugal, on the grounds that I don’t look very Portuguese (apparently). Before I decided that such episodes were actually quite funny, I had to overcome the unsettling sensation that I had just been insulted by being complimented.

Certain features of speech seem indeed to be expected from certain facial and other physical features (apparently), in the same sense that you wouldn’t expect your pet dog to bray. This is all fine: we all have our stereotypes and associated expectations to live and judge by, which we actually develop in early childhood. But how do we, adults, deal with human beings whose looks and speech don’t match our expectations? We could revise our adult expectations in adult ways, of course, since facts are facts and stereotypes are fiction. More often than not, however, we attempt to make new facts fit old expectations, so we can go on entertaining these. I never understood why it seems so much easier to hang on to useless theories (of which expectations are a subset) which fail to explain observed facts, than to reject flawed theories, in the face of facts which contradict them.

Expectations come complete with labels, the problem being that expected labels cannot obviously account for unexpected facts. Not just labels about looks and speech, either. I remember, for example, a lengthy discussion in the major daily newspaper in one of the places I’ve lived, seriously asking (and seriously getting serious feedback on) whether women over 50 years of age should wear jeans. And I’m just rereading Notre-Dame de Paris, where the destitute Gringoire’s fleeting moment of solace on a day of complete debacle, personified by a dancing and singing young beauty whom he’s persuaded must be a fairy, a goddess, a nymph, is shattered by a sudden realisation: “Hé non! dit-il, c’est une bohémienne.” And Victor Hugo, canny observer of human nature that he was, adds: “Toute illusion avait disparu.” Other mystifying beings likewise cease to mystify once we choose to identify them by means of familiar labels: we can now deal with the labels, and stop bothering about the beings. Just look at the labels that go on being pasted onto multilinguals, as I discuss in my book Multilinguals are ...?

On several occasions, in my teens, revealing my nationality caused Gringoire-like disillusion among international (ex-)friends, who up to then had deemed me quite worthy of their polite company. I’m sure they had their reasons, but my point is that my answers to their questions about where I was from were as straightforward as their dismissal of me upon hearing them: I “was” indeed “from” Portugal, at the time, though I’ve come to doubt whether this place I am from provides the best definition of who I am, period. Or why it should.

Image © Succu 2010 (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

Place labels rank high in cataloguing practices: “where we have them” enables retrieval of appropriate decisions about how to relate to them, on the strength of their where. In the face (literally) of people who were, say, born in X from parents born elsewhere, grew up in W, had children in Y and T, then moved to R and Z and, to top it all, speak our language (among others) as well as we do, the same question crops up: “Where are you from?”, with stress on Where and a high-rising tone of bafflement which attempts to secure the “fact” that people must belong somewhere, in the same sense that your pet dog belongs to you.

A single somewhere, that is, because answers revealing pluralities, like “I come from Portugal and Sweden”, don’t seem to pass muster either. The “Wait...” bit in the question usually denotes glitches in processing multi-factual answers to mono-minded questions. Similar questions require simple, i.e. single(minded) answers to it: there must be an X, such that X stands for the place where your biological mother happened to go into labour, which then means that you belong to X. As if you belonged to places – or rather, as if places owned people. You can read a sample of other intriguing questions asked of multilinguals and multiculturals (and also a sample of my production when I’m in sarcastic mode) in this piece, ‘The bilemma in the bilingual brain’, published in Speculative Grammarian, “the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics”.

I’ll have more to say about multilingual “roots some other day but, next time, I’d like to turn to the effects that classificatory labels can have on children’s academic and overall development. 

© MCF 2012

Next post: Language therapy or language tuition? Saturday 1st December 2012.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Linguistic ghettos

“Ghetto” is one of those words we probably wouldn’t wish to have tagged on to us and those we hang around with. The meaning of the word denotes shared group behaviours which are perceived to differ from those behaviours shared by other groups, but connotes judgements of value = ‘not good’. Ghetto behaviour is also generally perceived to be minority behaviour – or it wouldn’t be deemed worthy of a special label. Like elite behaviour? Elites are also perceived as special minorities, the difference being that the word “elite” usually connotes judgements of value = ‘good’.

Judgements about “minority” behaviour don’t pass historical or geographical scrutiny – just look at judgements about multilingualism. What was yesterday and/or here the hallmark of a ghetto becomes mainstream hip today and/or elsewhere. The BBC recently reported on the current comeback of lederhosen and dirndl dresses in Austria, which I found all the more interesting because I didn’t know dirndl dress had ever been out, in the country: in the town just outside Vienna where my family lived, dirndl was what we saw all around us for shopping, working, visiting friends and eating out. Elite behaviours, in turn, become stigmatised, not least linguistic ones: see for example the discussion about the (no longer so) prestigious RP accent (Received Pronunciation) in these two articles, both dealing with choices of accents for purposes of language teaching, and both playing with the acronyms RP and RIP in their titles, one by Paul Tench and the other by Ronald Macaulay.

We seem nevertheless happy to stick to our habits of portraying linguistic uses as belonging to linguistic ghettos (or elites), by keeping the respective judgemental connotations of these words without having to use the words. In monolingual settings, we can equate our local mainstream linguistic standard with unqualified standards of language, and thereby feel entitled to issue judgements about outsiders to those standards. One of my children spent a term studying in northern Portugal, where she was gently chided, but chided anyway, for using the Lisbon dialect. This is the dialect my children inherited from me and which also counts as official “standard” in the country. There were misunderstandings, and there was, above all, lingering innuendos, from both parties involved, that the misunderstandings were due to the outsider.

In multilingual settings, we can let it be known, for example, that monolingualism is the mainstream standard. For language teaching purposes, we can also characterise one standard of one language as “the” good one (= ‘elite’ one), and either find ways of dismissing alternative standards, or set our choice standard as a learning goal which, for all practical purposes of language use, we nevertheless know to be either unattainable or irrelevant to learners.

We can further insist that immigrant communities (choose to) isolate themselves from other communities in their new country, forgetting that the country’s natives do exactly the same – in this connection, I must point out the title of a New Zealand-based academic journal, which I’ve only recently come across: AlterNative which, to me, puts talk of natives and nativeness in its right perspective. And we can say that learners and users of “our” language(s) keep falling short of (our) expectations concerning conformism to (our) standards. I have heard many language teachers lament, or empathise, that their students keep their new language well differentiated from taught versions of it, for reasons of “fossilisation”, or “identity”, respectively.

Some of us may indeed choose to remain in the cosiness of our ghettos, for reasons akin to self-defence. Loraine K. Obler, in an article titled ‘Exceptional second language learners’, had this to say about choices of accent in a new language: 
[...] one must be willing to sound like someone from another culture, but one must be willing to give up the protection that being foreign confers, since native speakers may make allowances for grammatical errors when the speaker is obviously not a native speaker and thus the person is protected from sounding foolish.

Some of us may instead choose to sway in and out of ghettos, according to which image of ourselves we wish to project in time and place, something that we learn to do as children. Ghada Khattab, in a book chapter titled ‘Phonetic accommodation in children’s code-switching’, showed that immigrant children use home-accented speech to heed home expectations of mainstream language use, and mainstream-accented speech to establish identity credentials among monolingual users of the mainstream language.

This ability to accommodate to the people who are significant to us, which I’ve addressed before and will come back to some other day, is of course a human ability, regardless of how many languages are involved in it. For multilinguals, however, it seems to associate with an uncanny inability to give simple answers to what some people take to be simple questions. Like the question in the title of my next post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: “Wait... *Where* are you from?” Wednesday 21st November 2012.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Secret languages

One of the most disheartening feelings I’ve experienced, as a multilingually-engaged parent, relates to the realisation that being multilingual may be, and often is, interpreted as a deliberate sign of unfriendliness towards those who share one of our family languages. The reasoning seems to be something like “If you can speak X, which you know I understand, why else should you be speaking Y, which you know I don’t?”

In playgrounds, as our children were growing up, comments ranged from severe “We speak X, here” to commiserating “Oh, can’t the children speak X?”, where X stands for the name of the local mainstream language; in school, teachers recommended X monolingualism at home, not only as the usual (and misguided) safeguard against assorted developmental shortcomings, but also to protect the children from bullying which might arise from their unwitting public shows of Alien-Speak. Understandably, well-meaning officials added. You can read a detailed report on these issues in Chapter 9, titled ‘A new language: intruder or guest?’, of my book Three is a Crowd?

The scenario repeated itself, from extended family gatherings to more or less formal dinners where our family, for example as hosts, caused the smoothly ongoing conversation to suddenly come to a halt. Guests would glance at fellow guests, to make sure that what they had all heard was discourteous gobbledygook indeed, and someone was finally bound to ask: “Sorry, what was that you just said?”, with tones and facial expressions which made it very clear that the question was not about “what”, but about “why”.

We parents, let alone the children, weren’t even aware that we were using Private-Speak, so naturally it came to us. Which meant that the generalised malaise struck us all the more painfully: we felt guilty of speaking our language(s), as charged. We felt as rude as if we had publicly whispered secrets in a shared language.

Photo: MCF

It doesn’t help that people who feel excluded in this way also seem to believe that we use our secret languages to talk about them, probably because so many of us tend to assume that our pet conversation topic, ourselves, unquestionably extends to others. This is not surprising, really, given that Oxford English Corpus frequency counts for written English, for example, report that one of the most common words is “I”. It might be hard to persuade those people that our secret conversations concerned banalities like Stop picking your nose, Do you want to go potty?, Let go of your brother’s leg, or Can I have your cake, daddy, if you’re not finishing it? and I want to go play with their goldfish. I often wondered whether I shouldn’t have asked these people two things, a) what do they talk about with their children, and b) in which language.

Things did get better, in time, as everyone got used to everyone else’s linguistic quirkinesses in the different places where we’ve lived. Not least, we parents came to feel free to switch language to our children, when they became aware of what linguistic politeness is all about, and thereby realised that it tops any feelings of personal offence, on their part, to their own language policy habits.

The children themselves came to put their secret languages to good use: when receiving their friends at our home, it happened that they deliberately switched to one language that they knew their friends didn’t understand, in order to ask us parents, for example, whether their friends could stay on for dinner and sleepover combos. This was the only strategy they could think of, as they explained to me, to protect their friends from assuming that they were not welcome, in case the answer had to be “no”, for some logistic reason.

Languages can indeed be used as strategic tools in more than one way. One well-known example relates to the “uncrackable” codes used by Code Talkers in World War II – their own languages. The site of the Navajo Code Talkers explains how the coding took place, and how its success seamlessly drew on native cultural tenets.

My next post looks at other linguistic codes, which also appear to be successfully uncrackable for the same reason.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Linguistic ghettos. Saturday 10th November 2012.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Friendly speakers and friendly listeners

The title of this post draws on Olle Kjellin’s take that speakers of a shared language would do well to nurture what he calls a “listener-friendly pronunciation”. Raising awareness that speaking is about thoughtfulness towards whom we are speaking to may come as a Why-didn’t-I-think-of-this-before epiphany, for those of us bred among the traditional one-size-fits-all kinds of accents that learners keep being fed in language classes.

Sensitivity to the linguistic comfort zone of other human beings certainly is, to my mind, a good thing to nurture. It’s also a matter of etiquette. It makes others feel good in our company, and it makes us feel good, too, because awareness of our surroundings allows us to feel in control. Not least, this kind of sensitivity is usually reciprocated, whether we’re being hosts or guests, including in our languages. It’s not that difficult, either: as newcomers to a party or a business meeting, say, we use the same mechanism to monitor the ongoing atmosphere, so that we may gain entitlement to merge with it. Or not, of course: if we find ourselves surrounded by deliberately hostile merrymakers and moneymakers, or by speaker-unfriendly listeners, it doesn’t matter how mood-friendly or how listener-friendly we strive to be. It’s a matter of will, and of awareness that all of us, habitués or rookies, have been “ongoing” too, for more or less extended periods of time, around more or less varied kinds of people, with the effect that our speaking and listening habits have become set, in what may feel more or less like stone.

Linguistic friendliness matters, both ways, because there is a sophisticated interplay between speaking and listening, rooted in a law which is very, very familiar and very, very dear to all of us: The Law of Least Effort. As speakers, we’re quite reluctant to disturb the comfy humdrum routines that we’ve patiently trained our vocal tracts to observe. As listeners, we simply stop listening to whatever threatens to engage skills beyond what we deem to be our territorial listening rights. Call it laziness, if you so wish. I prefer to say that our human speech and hearing hardwares are optimised to account for effort-effect tradeoffs: less effort from speakers means added inconvenience to listeners, and vice versa. Never has “Do Unto Others” had such a practical, everyday application.

One sure way to create linguistic friendliness is to literally tune into the rhythmical patterns which characterise our fellow speakers. By this I mean their body language, facial expressions, visible and audible articulatory movements, anything that can help us decode the cadences underlying the ways in which our interlocutors use their language(s). Speakers and listeners are individuals, like you and me: the Upanishads put it precisely the way I believe matters of “languages” should be put, with the remark that “It is not the language but the speaker that we want to understand.” It’s all about people, like you and me.

All cultures, as far as we know, have developed characteristic ways of harnessing human vocalisations and body movements as a means of nurturing commonality. This is what we came to call “song” and “dance”, respectively. Steven Mithen, in his book The Singing Neanderthals, draws on archaeological, neurological and other evidence to propose a unified account of The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, as in the subtitle of the book. More recently, Gustavo Arriaga, Eric P. Zhou and Erich D. Jarvis, in an article titled Of mice, birds, and men: The mouse ultrasonic song system has some features similar to humans and song-learning birds, report that fellow mammals share with us what we already knew we shared with songbirds, the ability to communicate through the use of learned vocalisations, which we fine-tune to match what we hear around us.

Falling in with other people cannot then be rocket science: even when simply strolling around with somebody else, we end up moving with a shared rhythm which makes everybody happy, because our heads bob in synchrony so that we can talk to one another easily. Cadences form a core part of our survival: breathing, chewing, sleeping, digesting, pumping blood through our bodies take place in cycles of natural tempos, amplitudes, frequencies, durations. Small wonder that our languages follow suit: facts are that we can’t open our mouths, in any language, without assigning tempos, amplitudes, frequencies, durations to the sounds we produce. In short, without prosody.

This is why linguistic prosodies are not just niceties, a waste of our precious executive learning time, cherries on cakes, and so on, even if we’ve never been told about these things in our language lessons. Even if we believe that this is irrelevant at preliminary Me-Tarzan-You-Jane stages of acquisition, and even if we believe that language learners must go through Me-Tarzan-You-Jane acquisitional stages, which is far from a universal truth.

“Me dance you?”

Image © 1966, NBC Television (Wikimedia Commons)

Even at this supposed learning stage, are you telling Jane your name and hers? Or are you asking, or repeating what Jane said, or are you expressing stupefaction at a sudden realisation that people can have such names, or names at all?

Prosody is so central to our languages that we felt the need to create, for them, meaningless carriers of meaningful prosodies, precisely because prosody is enough. Nearly thirty years ago, Melvin J. Luthy conducted a pioneering study on Nonnative speakers’ perception of English “nonlexical” intonation signals, which found that core American English-bound melodic signals were either missed or misinterpreted by newcomers to the language.

If you also happen to be a newcomer to American English, have a look at how Judy B. Gilbert implements listener-friendliness in the classroom, in her book (aptly!) titled Clear Speech. One of her teaching mottoes is that “Small chunks of language should be learned like little songs.” You can also watch a video of one of her presentations of her teaching method.

Next time, I’ll take back everything I’ve said in this post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Secret languages. Wednesday 31st October 2012.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Teaching *about* languages

What does it mean to say that you “know” a language? The English verb know can refer to different kinds of knowledge, two of which are especially relevant to matters of language and language learning.

One kind of knowledge, sometimes called procedural knowledge, involves know-how: you know how to tie your shoelaces, for example, because you’ve practised doing it over and over again, without necessarily being able to explain what is involved in shoelace-tying. The other, declarative knowledge, involves know-that: you may talk about what people do when they tie their shoelaces, without necessarily being able to do it yourself.

All of us have know-how knowledge of the languages that we need to use regularly, simply by using them regularly. In contrast, know-that knowledge about our languages, that is, awareness of the machinery which makes them work and of the technical terminology that describes it, comes through deliberate study. Knowing the latter kinds of things about languages is the job of linguists – or grammarians, which often amounts to pretty much the same. Linguists and grammarians may know, declaratively, that Portuguese has personal infinitives and double negatives, say, without knowing, procedurally, how to use them.

The issue is then what do learners mean, when they enrol in language courses because they want to “know” a new language. Some of them will be happy to acquire both kinds of knowledge of that language, which is fine: it’s a matter of choice and of learning preferences. But most, I suspect, will just want to be able to use the language. To me, choice and learning preferences are precisely the issue: I think it odd that imparting declarative knowledge of languages to learners has virtually become synonymous with language teaching across the board. You can read an account of the resilient confusion between linguistic know-how and linguistic know-that, among specialists and laypeople alike, in my paper ‘First language acquisition and teaching’, included in a collection titled Applied Folk Linguistics.

Assuming that language learners must learn the components and workings of their new languages is like assuming that in order to be able to use a mobile phone device you must learn what microprocessors, amplifiers and bandpass filters are, and what they do to make your phone work.

Teaching the grammar of a phone in order to teach how to use a phone?

Image © Techie111 (Wikimedia Commons)

Maybe this assumption explains why so many of us have come to see language learning as boring, difficult, useless, technical and “not for me”?

The belief that what language learners really want is to become linguists could have its roots in the perception that know-that knowledge is (more) easily testable: the learner ticks boxes for questions like “Is this an example of active or passive voice?” or “How many short rounded close front vowels do you hear in Example 26?”, or underlines the object complements in a couple of example sentences, to match the set answers in a marking key. Or it could be that knowledge of grammar has long enjoyed the reputation of enhancing intellectual abilities and thus promoting civilised (linguistic) behaviour. Deborah Cameron, in a piece titled ‘Fantasy Grammar’, adds to this the “collective cultural fantasy” which has conceptualised the teaching of grammar “as a way of inculcating the values grammar stands for – discipline, order and respect for the rules.” (Thank you for pointing me to this article, Sunita!)

Someone, in the classroom, must of course know about the language you’re being taught – and, if you’re lucky, also about your other languages. That will be your language teacher, who is trained to use this knowledge in order to help you make sense of your new language for your purposes. I nevertheless find it also odd that the specialist knowledge about language “properties” which is routinely taught to language teachers and, through them, to language learners, turns out to be a rather selective kind of knowledge. We do have to learn about plural umlauts, the passé composé and noun phrase concord affixes, but seldom, if at all, about what makes a spoken language a spoken language: its prosody, which remains a source of breakdowns in spoken communication, by all (specialist) accounts known to me ever since I first set out, many years ago, to investigate how and why this is so.

The next post will have something to say about how and why prosody is crucial for hassle-free language use.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Friendly speakers and friendly listeners. Saturday 20th October 2012.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Unconnected speech?

Unconnected, yes. I wonder: what do we mean when we talk about *connected* speech? We must mean that there is at least one other kind of speech, which is not connected, so that it makes good sense to talk about its connectedness at all. But I would very much like to know who uses it, unless we’re perhaps talking about the so-called one-word stage in child language development, when spoken utterances appear to consist of single words, or expecting speech to and from interlocutors who look like this:

“Klaatu... barada... nikto...”

Image © The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, via Wikipedia

Qualifying speech with the modifier connected also means that we somehow take “connected speech” as a special case of speech – or it wouldn’t need qualification by means of a dedicated adjective. This is the same kind of reasoning which identifies some people through the qualifier multilingual, thereby leaving it understood that there’s no need to identify in any special way whoever is not multilingual, because there’s nothing special about their lingualism. In the same way that monolingualism came to represent default lingualism, unconnected speech represents default speechiness. One language at a time is desirable linguistic behaviour, and so is one word at a time (whatever the word word might mean, incidentally, since nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory definition of what a “word” might be).

I wonder why. It could be that the only way we might hope to identify the words of a language is by looking at them (assuming, in turn, that we do know what “a language” might be, which is another big linguistic mystery). If you listen to a language you never heard before, chances are you’ll have serious trouble attempting to single out its words (assuming, in turn, that all spoken languages have words, which is yet another moot question). If you see a spoken language, you may have better luck. Printed representations of speech, for those languages which have them, may show spaces separating what in some of them we’ve come to call words. Others won’t, because speech and whatever we choose to call its components cannot be adequately represented in print. It’s like attempting to represent a landscape in speech. It’s like putting a girdle on things. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but pictures of words tell you very little about the thousand different ways they are pronounced, even for those languages which may share printed representations that you recognise.

Take my language students, who mostly come to me after years of traditional vocabulary + grammar language learning, where “vocabulary” means lists of words (for what “grammar” means here, see my next post). They keep insisting that speech forms like wanna and doesn’t, or j’sais pas and t’as vu, or fàchavor and tá bem, are “bad” language. They keep reminding me that even native speakers of their new languages tell them that they use their language “better”, because they learned it the “proper” all-words-in way, whereas natives tend to become “lazy” when speaking – more on which in a future post, too. And I might as well confess that some students thought better of having me as a teacher, given my tendency to attempt to wrestle pens and paper and books off their hands and concentrate on training speaking and listening. This for students who come to me because they, or their own language students, are unhappy about matters of intelligibility from and to users of their new languages.

I don’t blame them. In the textbooks that they were taught by, and taught to abide by, wannas and tá bens are either glossed over or treated in special chapters, whose titles include the phrase “connected speech” and which come after all the chapters dealing with speech forms which apparently need no special treatment and so must be the “real” speech forms. But how do you learn to understand and use a language by first spending chapters and years memorising and spelling out citation forms of visually unconnected words? To me, the disconnect between language teaching and language use is the problem: not that you say things like gonna and you’d and perhaps write them too, but that so many learners are not told that people say and write these things because this is how people speak their languages.

Next time, as promised, I’ll deal (sorry, I mean I will deal) with the “grammar” part of the traditional vocabulary + grammar language teaching methods.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Teaching *about* languages. Wednesday 10th October 2012.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Vocal versatility and vocal fossilisation

Vocal versatility, described as the ability to make your vocal tract do whatever you want it to do, is usually discussed in connection with professional voice users. In contrast, vocal fossilisation, described as the inability to make your vocal tract move beyond what you’ve grown used to move it for, is usually discussed in connection with language learners. This makes it sound like vocal tract users neatly divide into distinct subspecies, skilled and unskilled, respectively. The point I wish to make here is that vocal versatility and vocal fossilisation are related, because as far as vocal uses are concerned, we’re all pros.

The first observation is that we all come equipped with the same vocal tract model. Since all languages are equally difficult to pronounce – or equally easy, if your outlook on life tends towards optimism – because each language has a signature sound to it, the second observation is that the way we sound relates to the uses to which we put our vocal equipment, rather than to the equipment itself. In the literature on language learning, the (mortifying) label fossilisation stands for ‘routine vocal behaviours’. From learners, as said. For some reason, the word doesn’t apply to petrified accent models that the corporate textbook industry continues churning out, as I’ve argued before.

Routine behaviours are automated and taken for granted to such a degree that you come to believe that they cannot be characterised as specific behaviours at all, and so that there is nothing that can be changed about them because they’ve never changed, as far as you can remember. But fossilised behaviours, vocal or otherwise, are in fact acquired behaviours. For language learning, the issue is then to identify the steps through which we all learned to condition our natural vocal versatility in order to sound proficiently fossilised in at least one language. We could also call this the ways in which we learned to speak with intelligible accents.

Let me try to explain what I mean with an analogy: dancing.

Image © Tannon Weber (Wikimedia Commons)

Getting our steps right involves training muscles and coordinating their movements to match specific rhythms. There is a very similar choreography going on in our vocal tract whenever we speak and, like actors and opera singers, we learners need a choreographer, whom we could also call our language teacher, to help us get our vocal movements right. Teaching you how to get things right doesn’t mean teaching you the technical jargon used to describe vocal tract actions, which is familiar to language teachers. You don’t need to know a third conditional by name either, in order to use it appropriately – an issue that I’ll address some other time. Teaching you means making you aware of what you do and what you can do, when you speak those languages you’re comfortable speaking, so that you become aware of what you need to do, in order to sound the way you want to sound in your new languages: you’ll need “a guided tour of your vocal tract”, and you can treat yourself to a preview of what this feels like in Chapter 5 of my book The Language of Language.

As with dancing lessons, the age at which you start your vocal training programme is irrelevant, and so is the alleged brain shutdown which is allegedly restricted to language learning. Learning means instructing your brain to work in ways that it hasn’t worked before. With competent guidance, and lots, and lots, and lots of practice, your brain will follow suit because that’s what brains do. One day you’ll wake up in the morning to find out that your vocal tract remembers things that you don’t remember teaching it to do, and that you had no idea it could do. But it could do them.

The training of your vocal skills through awareness of your vocal skills is routinely available to professional voice users. But unlike these professionals, who only need to give the impression that they can speak the languages that they’re speaking onstage, we amateurs learn languages because we need to speak them in real life. This is also why we need real-life guides to assist us in our learning: if we learn to samba and to speak from printed images, we’ll samba and speak like printed images.

The next post deals with a strange conception which, to my mind, could only have become a standard conception in matters of language teaching and learning if one assumes that language teaching and language learning proceed, by default, through printed materials.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Unconnected speech? Saturday 29th September 2012.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Vocal intelligibility

Making yourself intelligible involves awareness that you may not be intelligible, just like making yourself presentable involves awareness that you may not be presentable. This kind of awareness arises from exposure to different people and different situations, that is, from exposure to different intelligibilities.

As children, we develop our linguistic skills largely unaware that we are making ourselves intelligible, in the sense that we would not be able to explain what we are doing in so many words (there is a very significant difference between what you do and awareness of what you do, whether you’re using a mobile phone or speaking a language, more on which in a coming post). Nevertheless, monitoring and constructing intelligibility is exactly what typical language acquisition involves: we progressively learn to attune our inbuilt speech production and speech reception equipment (our vocal tracts and our ears) to uses which satisfy the speech reception and speech production counterparts, respectively, of those around us.

The key factor here, to me, is “those around us”. When children eventually end up sounding like those around them, that is, when they end up making everyday linguistic sense to and from those around them, their acquisition process is deemed complete (or “perfect”, as some analysts might prefer). It seems to me that the same applies to language learners across the board, because you learn a language in order to use it, and using a language means making it work for and with those around you. Barring disorder, we are all intelligible to someone and someone is intelligible to us, which means that intelligibility is not a feature of the speaker, or of the listener, but of what both end up negotiating in order to make sense. Just like there are no “ideal” speakers, there are no “ideal” listeners either – something to which I’ll come back soon too.

Intelligibility is also a feature of the here and now, because speaking and listening are bound by real-life settings, in place and time. One of my multilingual friends, who uses English for work-related purposes, has developed fluent understanding of Texan English from his Texan business partners. But only in one-to-one situations. When two (or more) Texans meet in his presence, all hell breaks loose, as he describes it – and not just because they eventually start talking about football (N.B.: not “soccer”) teams and other Texan entities unknown to him. Besides their vocabulary, they also change their accent and their overall ways of expressing themselves in English. They do this not because they want to exclude my friend (though some of us may sometimes deliberately want to adopt similar strategies for this purpose), but because it’s only natural to switch among the different ways of making ourselves intelligible that we’ve learnt to navigate along our lives. We all do this, we all can do this – if we so wish. Perhaps monolingual speakers, of English and other languages, will have similar stories to share?

My friend could also learn to understand and produce Texan in-house vocal ways – if he so wished. Users’ wishes are the reason why I believe that sticking to the one-standard-fits-all policies which go on guiding production of traditional language teaching materials makes little sense. I’m not saying that we should strive to prepare as many teaching materials as there are varieties of languages: this is as unrealistic a goal as attempting to make sense of multilingualism through cumulative descriptions of the number and the combinations of particular languages involved in each multilingual setting, as I noted before. I’m saying that textbook standards are best used as guidelines for what learners actually need. In some cases, the book-prescribed accent may match the learners’ needs. In other cases, learners may end up becoming unintelligible, for their purposes, precisely because they were trained to reproduce intelligibility in varieties of their new languages which fail to serve the reasons why they decided to learn a new language in the first place. And maybe this is one of the reasons why so many of us routinely get bad press about our “non-native” uses: maybe we’re just being differently native?

Since there are no ideal language users, there can be no ideal language uses either, unless by “ideal” we mean ‘flexible’: accommodation to accent variability is the key to intelligible speech production and perception, as I’ve argued in a paper titled ‘Multilingual accents’. So why not start in the classroom, because we have to start somewhere and because classrooms are where this whole business of language learning starts for so many of us? The next post has some more to say about this.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Vocal versatility and vocal fossilisation. Wednesday 19th September 2012.

Wednesday 29 August 2012

“Good”, “standard”, and other intriguing language qualifiers

We can start discussion of this topic with a little survey: what does it mean, to you, to speak “good X”, or “standard X”, where X stands for the name of a language that you speak? And what does it mean, to you, to be a competent, or proficient, or good user of a language? You can also ask your friends to answer these questions, and have some fun collating the results.

You will have fun, I promise you. Attempting to describe qualifiers like “good” and “competent” in connection with uses and users of language is extremely entertaining, in that you can spend your whole life trying to find “the” answer to these questions. It’s not just that these labels have all come to mean the same: I can safely guess that your survey will show, for example, that good X means standard X and that both mean correct X, or that competent users of X are proper and/or native-like or even accentless users of it, or vice versa. It’s mostly that these labels are judgemental – just think of what their opposites mean, on which you can also conduct a revealing survey. To a linguist like me, judgement values about language are interesting as expressions of personal opinions, not as expressions of linguistic facts, which is what linguists busy themselves with.

In this spirit, I once suggested a project topic to my class of beginner linguistics students in Singapore, where they were to survey what Singaporeans understood by labels like good English and good Singlish. The former label was readily accepted as a viable survey question, but the latter drew baffled silence. Singlish is a native Singaporean language which, according to official Singaporean takes on the matter, is neither native nor a language: it’s just ‘bad English’, a statement which is about as accurate as stating that Principense, say, is ‘bad Portuguese’. The students were reacting to my apparent ignorance in attempting to collocate an adjective like “good” with something that is as inherently “bad” as Singlish. So I decided to speak some Singlish, and the students again stared blankly at me – those who did not burst out laughing, that is. “That is not Singlish!”, some of them finally giggled. “It is”, I insisted, “it’s bad Singlish.” I think I was able to drive my point home, because the discussion of their survey results on both questions turned out to be extremely interesting.

The thing is that some uses of language have become associated with prestige, another judgemental label which has nothing to do with linguistic facts, and thereby assumed as the only “proper” uses of language. This is why standardised varieties of different languages also became synonymous with the labels identifying those languages by name, sometimes in ways that users of those languages find it hard to recognise, let alone implement in their everyday life.

What users of X do use, that fails to meet “the” standard X, is thus dubbed bad X, or improper X, or accented X. Multilingual mixes, that I’ve addressed several times before, are a favoured target of language guardians. But monolingual uses are fair game too, whether in grammar, prosody or vocabulary. So-called “contracted” forms (another intriguing label to which I’ll come back soon), for example, like aren’t and they’re, are also bad language, and so is what many of us call “slang”, a word which we often use even without knowing exactly what it means (yet again), but to which we nevertheless attribute overall negative connotations. You can do another survey, to check out what it means to say “That’s slang”. But if you do, don’t tell your informants about this newly published book, titled precisely Slang. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but its subtitle, The people’s poetry, and a look inside seemed to me to show that Michael Adams agrees with my definition of what lingualism is all about: it’s about what people do with their languages.

Persuasions and practices based on ill-defined judgemental labels don’t help us understand what’s going on and what’s required in language learning, for children and adults alike. They merely create the illusion that the labellers know what they’re talking about, which is probably the reason why they go on impacting language education policies. The articles collected in Multilingual, Globalizing Asia. Implications for Policy and Education give an appreciation of current language policies, in multilingual Asia. And Rosina Lippi-Green’s book, English with an Accent. Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, explains the role played by policy makers, schooling and even Disney cartoons in perpetuating myths about language uses as tenets of what she calls “standard language ideology”.

In particular, such persuasions and practices have little to do with fostering linguistic intelligibility which, to me, is the end purpose of learning to socialise through learning languages. I’ll come back to this matter next time.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Vocal intelligibility. Saturday 8th September 2012.


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