Wednesday 30 May 2012

Little multi-dialectals

Little multilinguals find themselves the object of much (undue) attention, because they are said to use different languages. Little monolinguals, in contrast, may fail to get (due) attention to their use of what is said to be their single language, which is taken for granted.

Myths surrounding monolingualism come complete with the notion that using one language means using it in the same way. I’ve addressed this issue before, for example in connection with (school) language learners: questions like “Do you speak X?” are loaded questions, because they take for granted the kind of X that you mean.

For those of us who are identified as multilinguals, the different uses that we make of language are said to be different languages – whatever “different languages” might mean). But all of us, including those of us who are identified as monolinguals, may be exposed to equally different linguistic uses in the same language – whatever “the same language” might mean. Whether in accent, grammar, vocabulary, or pragmatic features, different varieties of the “same” language can be as foreign to their respective users as “different” languages.

Children may grow up surrounded by different uses of language in different ways. So-called multilingual settings may be replicated in so-called monolingual ones: mummy may happen to be Honduran and daddy Peruvian, say, and everyone lives in Madrid, with a nanny who was born and raised in Andalusia. Schooling marks the beginning of a new life, including linguistically, because school environments are meant to standardise not only your knowledge, but also your uses of language.

Singapore is a case in point. There are four official languages, and education is bilingual, in that schooling takes place in the child’s (so-called) mother tongue, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, and English. That is, schooling takes place in official versions of these official languages, which do not necessarily match the varieties used by the children at school start, because languages, like pineapples or prawns, change with the environments in which they are found.

Take the case of English, to give an example of a language which is familiar to you and me, in Singapore, which is quite familiar to me. The English which is spoken in Singapore is called Singapore Standard English, where the country name in the label indicates that this is a different English from other Englishes which are standardised elsewhere. There is also Singapore Colloquial English, commonly known as Singlish, and commonly described as an English-based creole. Creoles are languages which first emerged through contact of different languages, for adult purposes like e.g. trading, to then become native languages, passed on from adults to children.

Singlish is a native language in Singapore, and a de facto lingua franca melding the local pot of heritages and ethnicities. It reflects Singaporean culture: Singaporean is not a language name. Singlish is as much “bad” English as Swiss German is bad German or Kristang bad Portuguese, by the way. Similar judgements of value about language uses abound in the discourse of those who fail to realise that standardised varieties and real-life varieties of language(s) serve different purposes. That’s what they’re there for. Or those who remain persuaded that lingualism means engaging in a subtractive competition, where (certain) language uses are weeds depriving (certain) language uses of rightful nourishment. That’s not what lingualism is.

Singlish is the English, or one of the Englishes (if we insist on calling Singlish a “variety” of English), with which Singaporean children come to school. Anthea Fraser Gupta reported on what happens to the children’s Englishes in school, in her book The Step-Tongue. Children’s English in Singapore. More recently, Rani Rubdy’s study titled Singlish in the school: an impediment or a resource? found that Singlish mediation, in the classroom, may well favour school learning rather than detract from it. I address similar issues, specifically concerning accents, in a book chapter, Learning English in Singapore: pronunciation targets and norms.

This research also shows that coming to school with unofficial uses of language is true of teachers too, and I’ll return to this matter some other day. My point here is twofold. First, that school languages and school language uses can only be nurtured in school: a well-rounded education includes awareness of linguistic etiquette, that is, of what to say to whom, when, where and how – and why. Second, that we, educators, must meet the child where the child is, for schooling purposes, if schooling is to make any sense at all. Especially language-wise. Nobody can be schooled productively in Foreign-Speak. Especially in Foreign-Speak disguised under labels which call it “your” language.

The next post looks at one way of integrating the rich variety of linguistic resources that we discover around us, as we grow up, into a cohesive whole which makes sense of who we are.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Mixes & matches. Saturday 9th June 2012.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Being multilingual in a single language?

Multilingualism in a single language – why not? I, for one, see no difference between saying Olá! vs. Hi! in what are said to be different languages, and saying Olá! vs. Ôi! in what is said to be the same language.

Let me explain. When Brazilian telenovelas first reached Portugal, we Portuguese found ourselves wishing they had come with subtitles. It wasn’t just the words, the rhythms and the intonations of the different varieties of Brazilian Portuguese portrayed in the episodes that were alien to us, it was the body language too, through which we tried to make sense of unintelligible lines. Things got better, in time, but only in time. With our eyes glued to the screen, we practised our daily listening to make intelligibility happen.

Several years later, I moved to Britain, where I came to have my first regular contact with Brazilians. One evening, I was watching a thriller on TV with one of my Brazilian friends. The good guy was leisurely making his way home, where we knew, but he didn’t, that horrid bad guys were waiting to do horrid things to him. I had to express out loud my jitters about the hero’s predicament, and the following drama took place in our room:

Act I
Me, the native speaker of Portuguese: Este tipo vai-se meter num sarilho...
My friend, the native speaker of Portuguese: Quê!?

[Interlude, while these two lines were repeated in measured and louder tones, with zero effect on intelligibility, until I decided to translate what I had said into (non-native) English.]

Act II
My friend: Ah! Esse cara vai entrar numa fria!
Me: Quê!?

Both my first line and my friend’s last one mean, roughly, ‘This guy is done for’ (in some varieties of English, perhaps?) – and I probably don’t need to explain what Quê and Ah mean. The bottom line is that we were both glad that we could resort to (English) subtitles, as it were, to make sense of our respective foreign Portugueses.

Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, cursory visual inspection of the two lines in question shows that we were speaking two different languages. This is why my Brazilian friends and me had huge amounts of fun making fun of our funny cross-Atlantic accents, turns of phrase and gestural habits, and accusing one another of “speaking like my grandmother” (this is a mild insult, by the way, in both versions of our language), which shows that historically-marked uses of language feature in both geographic and generational varieties. Daily practice ended up improving mutual intelligibility here too, but we remained, as George Bernard Shaw said of England and America, divided by a common language. I had more in common with the British, with whom I shared cultural traits, than with the Brazilians, with whom I shared a language. My friends felt the same about themselves and the Americans, as opposed to me. Maybe the labels Old World and New World are there for a reason.

The question is, then, why did we all call what we were speaking “Portuguese”? The reason we go on saying that we share a “common language” must be a matter of habit, drilled into us by whoever was drilled, in turn, to say so. A matter of political convenience (and probably correctness too), in other words. Politics in fact holds the clue to what defines a language: the sociolinguist Max Weinreich is credited with popularising the criterion which hits the nail on the head, when he quipped that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. What we call “a language” can no more be defined linguistically than what we call “a nation” can be defined geographically. Which also explains the urge of creators of new nations to decide which “national language(s)” to institutionalise.

Mutual intelligibility is sometimes used as the touchstone of language distinctiveness, in the sense that if I understand you, then we’re using the same language, and if I don’t, then we’re not. Questions arise here too, besides the ones illustrated in Acts I and II above. I may understand you, but you may not understand me, so where do we draw intelligible boundaries, and for whom? One of the reasons I found myself learning Spanish from my Spanish-speaking friends (in Britain too) was that they didn’t understand my Portuguese, whereas their American Spanishes were crystal-clear to me – although I can’t say the same of several European Spanishes.

Many of us become multi-dialectal in our language(s) the way I did – if that’s the right word to call it by. I learned when to talk about caras and frias instead of tipos and sarilhos, in Portuguese; I learned, in Britain, to say crisps for what my school textbooks said were chips, because chips are what you eat there with newspaper-wrapped fish, not what comes on its own in plastic bags; I learned, in Singapore, that you on and off the aircon; and, whenever I’m back in Portugal relaxing in lingua-franca-English among local and foreign friends, I do my best to avoid Britishisms and Singaporeanisms in my English vocabularies, grammars and accents.

Many of us grow up multi-dialectal too, perhaps in less fun-filled ways: monolingual children don’t always have it easy sorting themselves out in what adults call their language, in the singular. I turn to this matter next.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Little multi-dialectals. Wednesday 30th May 2012.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Language “integrity”

Deciding what a language is has never been easy, although we go on talking about languages as if we knew what they are. This is partly because we’ve become habituated to having language names used all around us, but mostly because we’ve become inured to the fact that names serve as convenient labels to help us talk about imaginary and abstract concepts, among other things. We can also talk about unicorns and hypotenuses, for example.

Labels like Arabic or Kimbundu do not designate ‘objects’: they are a handy notation to refer to ways of using language which are each found to be intelligible to other language users. The criterion of cross-(un)intelligibility is regularly invoked as an equally handy way of attempting to define one particular language as opposed to another – more on which in a coming post. Let me just add two things here: in some cases, the name we use for a language in fact refers to its printed form, for example when we talk about “the Chinese language”; and in many other cases, language names have become indistinguishable from nationality names, which further complicates the matter of defining what “a language” is.

If we can’t pinpoint language boundaries in any precise way, it then makes little sense to say that languages can suffer injury to their integrity. We nevertheless go on talking about languages as if they owned territorial rights to what can be done with them. Difficulties in delimiting languages relate to both historical and geographical factors. Whether in monolingual or multilingual communities, grandparents and grandchildren, say, or African and Asian users of the “same” language don’t use it in the same way. There are virtually as many ways of using each of these abstract entities called “languages” as there are individuals – sociolinguists even devised a label for this observation, idiolect. This is one of the reasons why no one has ever produced a “full” grammar of any language, and this is the reason for the scare quotes in the title of this post.

Whatever we use, we necessarily change, because using things means making them ours, so they can serve our needs. “Things” like languages are no exception. For sequential multilinguals, for example, those of us who learn our languages at different times in life, one common observation in the literature is that our earlier language(s) affect the way in which we use our later one(s). This has been called “first language interference”, and means that we use our younger languages in ways that remind of our use of our older ones (for reasons why this may be so, regardless of learning order, see a previous post).

But research shows that the converse is also true. The Norwegian-American linguist Einar Haugen provided us with the first comprehensive report of how a later language (English) interfered with an earlier one (Norwegian), in his 1953 book The Norwegian Language in America. A Study in Bilingual Behavior. More recently, and particularly concerning accent, two other studies reported similar findings. In an article titled Gestural drift in a bilingual speaker of Brazilian Portuguese and English, Michele L. Sancier and Carol A. Fowler observed interference from English in the production of consonants of a native Portuguese-speaking adult learner. My own report on my children’s learning of English, a language which they acquired in school, Prosodic mixes: strategies in multilingual language acquisition, showed use of English prosody in their home languages.

Given these observations, it may make better sense to conclude that using our languages cannot threaten their “integrity”. Speaking in metaphors about abstract entities (like saying that “languages affect languages”) is just that, speaking in metaphors about abstract entities. In an earlier publication, The analysis of linguistic borrowing (1950), Haugen also reacted to the unhelpful use of such imagery. Discussing shortcomings in the metaphorical use of the word mixes to describe what multilinguals do with their languages, he had this to say:
A further inaccuracy is introduced if the resulting language is called ‘mixed’ or ‘hybrid’. It implies that there are other languages which are ‘pure’, but these are scarcely any more observable than a ‘pure race’ in ethnology.

Using our languages is what we are supposed to do with them. We decide. In the introductory chapter to my book Multilingual Norms, I argue that multilingualism is not about what we do to the languages, it’s about what we do with them. If you want to read more about this, you can download the full chapter, titled Multilingualism, language norms and multilingual contexts

But doing things with languages is surely true of monolingualism too. Next time, I’ll have a look at why we associate threats to the “integrity” of particular languages more with multilingual than with monolingual users of them.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Being multilingual in a single language? Saturday 19th May 2012.


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