Saturday 30 June 2012

Fitting in

Finding niches, and snuggling around in them, seems to be in our genes. Just see how small children love playing cubbyhole, and how bigger children can’t wait until they’ve moved out of parental abodes into a flat (or equivalent-sized cubbyhole) of their own.

These sequential or simultaneous places-to-be are what we call our homes. We begin life by finding ourselves in someone else’s home(s), those environments in which we are socialised as infants, and with which we naturally merge because there’s not much we can do about it – human beginnings are rather helpless, both physically and cognitively. We then start realising that we can question our “belonging”. This happens at around age 3, when we develop awareness of our surroundings as independent from ourselves, and of ourselves as just one of many actors in them. It’s now up to us to embark on socialising journeys of our own: we will (want to) merge with what appeals to us, from wearing the same clothes as our little friends in school to buying the same cars as our big friends at work. That is, we go on finding ourselves in someone else’s home(s), only now by choice rather than by accident – human development is rather predictable, both physically and cognitively. Imitare humanum est, we could say.

As we search for friendly environments, we hone our adaptive skills by becoming acquainted with what makes us (un)acceptable to other people, and vice versa. This is particularly true of the ways in which we use our languages, in that language pervades human socialisation processes. The American linguist William Labov showed that we can vary our uses of language to fit our wish to either identify with other people, or to detach ourselves from them: we make our linguistic patterns converge with theirs or diverge from theirs, respectively. This is why many of us use motherese (a technical term for ‘baby talk’) to accommodate small children’s budding linguistic skills, and why many of us resort to legalese, doctorese, teacherese or bureaucratese (rather less technical terms for ‘gobbledygook’) to fend off inquisitive common mortals – more on which in a coming post.

We can react to our awareness that there are differences among people and among their linguistic resources in other ways too. One of them is aggression, actual or potential. A number of years ago, in response to an article on language diversity, a Scientific American reader had this comment to offer: “Different languages are a menace to a friendly world.” Besides mooting the intriguing issue that you shouldn’t feel threatened in worlds where everyone around you uses the same language because they’re all your friends, the comment draws on f(l)ight instincts which associate any deviation from what people come to identify with their comfort zones as an actual or potential threat. Fitting in, to like-minded people, means fitting in with their “world”.

This reader’s comment struck me as a perfect example of Dostoyevsky’s observation, in Crime and Punishment, that “what people fear most [is] whatever is contrary to their usual habits”. We fear what we don’t understand, in other words. Which means that we won’t ever get to understand what we don’t understand if we go on not daring to understand it – or not wanting to. Dealing with difference, instead of fearing it, starts with awareness that if we, whoever we are, don’t understand them, whoever they are, then they are as likely to not understand us either. This is the kind of awareness that tells you that differences are bridgeable – if we, and they, so wish. Whether we prefer to complain about other people not adapting to us, or about our own difficulties adapting to them, we might be well-advised to remember that fitting in is a two-way road. 

Photo: MCF

I’ll have more to say about this, next time.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Intelligibility rules. Saturday 14th July 2012.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Mixed recipes

Recipes involve mixes. The point I want to make in this post is that the converse is also true: mixes involve recipes. There are reasons why multilinguals mix, which means that there are patterns in both the ingredients and the methods of mixing.


Like multilingualism itself, mixes have had a mixed fate in the literature that purports to clarify their use. In the 18th century, the English critic and essayist Samuel Johnson likened mixes to “contamination” (a French word, incidentally), when he wrote that “To use two languages familiarly and without contaminating one by the other, is very difficult; and to use more than two is hardly to be hoped.” In 1950, Einar Haugen reviewed research from the late 19th century to the effect that mixes presuppose competence in the languages which are (being) mixed, in a piece titled The analysis of linguistic borrowing.

Twenty years later, scholars went on disagreeing about what mixes might mean. Mixed child speech, for example, was claimed as evidence that multilingual children operate both with a single linguistic system and with distinct linguistic systems. In different publications, of course, which nevertheless highlights the crucial difference between a finding, in our data, and the interpretation that we assign to that finding, in our theory.

Whether taken as proof of linguistic muddle or linguistic lucidity, the consensus has long been that mixes should be avoided, on the understanding that languages are there to be kept intact, each in its proper linguistic container. This is the same consensus which identifies a multilingual with what I’ve called a multi-monolingual. A bit like saying that when you’re making an omelette, you should take care to keep the eggs whole. To my mind, the true muddles plaguing multilingual matters stem from an interpretation of multilingual data as deviations from monolingual norms of language use, which cannot make sense of what multilinguals do and what multilinguals are.

Mixes are a multilingual norm of language use. So much so, in fact, that typical patterns of mixing help diagnose atypical development among multilingual children, as Sean Pert showed in Bilingual language development in Pakistani heritage children in Rochdale UK: intrasentential codeswitching and the implications for identifying specific language impairment. Working with Carolyn Letts, in a study titled Codeswitching in Mirpuri speaking Pakistani heritage preschool children: bilingual language acquisition, he also found that children’s utterances containing mixes/codeswitches were longer and more sophisticated than their utterances in a single language. The obvious explanation must be that only multilingual settings allow multilinguals to make use of their full linguistic repertoire.

Patterns of mixing occur in all walks of multilingual life because they serve multilingual life. They may involve words (perhaps the most familiar kind of mixing), grammatical structures and sound structures, including prosody, of the languages in question. Switching language altogether in a communicative exchange also serves a purpose. Multilinguals follow suit on the language of an exchange by default, that is, unless there are reasons to switch language. My children, for example, came home daily from their English-speaking school in English-speaking mode, the language that they naturally had to use to describe school-bound happenings. We parents switched to our respective languages in our replies and comments to the children’s descriptions because, at home, we were in Portuguese and Swedish modes, and the children used English to comment on our comments. And so on, until our home languages eventually took over for the children, which they did, also daily. The children switched languages among themselves too, not because the language to/from which they switched matched any specific purposes, but because the act of switching language is meaningful in itself. Switching language served pragmatic goals, be it to emphasise a point they were making, or to make it clear to a sibling that their funny jokes were not being funny any more.

Mixes involve overall culture-bound behaviours, which don’t come in tamper-proof containers either. One example is in Eduardo H. Diniz de Figueiredo’s study, To borrow or not to borrow: the use of English loanwords as slang on websites in Brazilian Portuguese. Phonetic mixes are what became known, particularly in the literature on foreign/second language acquisition, as “a foreign accent”. And if you are part of a mixed family which celebrates Christmas, or Vesak, or Hari Raya, or Deepavali, you are likely to celebrate Christmases, Vesaks, Hari Rayas, or Deepavalis with mixed cultural accents. You can have a look in my book Three is a Crowd?, for extensive exemplification and discussion of all these kinds of mixes.

Mixes are matches, in that they build bridges across the different environments that make up our lives. I’ll have some more to say about how and why we find our niches, next time.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Fitting in. Saturday 30th June 2012.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Mixes & matches

Switching ways of using our language(s) follows naturally from our realisation that languages are all but one-variant-fits-all archetypes, and that switches among variants help us fit in with the different people who matter to us. Whether we’re monolingual or multilingual, we don’t behave in the same way, including linguistically, in a job interview or when catching up with friends, for example.

Monolingual switches of this kind go by respectable-sounding customised names like sociolect or register (you can look up what these words mean here), whereas multilingual switches are generally termed mixes, a word borrowed, complete with connotations, from less specialised topics of conversation. Calling things by different names appears to reflect understanding that we’re talking about different things, and so encourage continued understanding that there is a difference in what we’re talking about. But in terms of linguistic and communicative competence, we’re actually doing the same when we switch from Cool, dude! to This was a very pleasant evening indeed!, or from Med vänliga hälsningar to Best regards. Both kinds of switches draw on our awareness that there are choices, and that we can pick and choose according to need: multilinguals switch sociolects and registers in their languages, just like monolinguals; and they switch languages, for exactly the same purposes, because they are not monolinguals.

I like to think of multilingual switches in terms of what I’ve called The Buffet Effect:

Image: © Anders Jonsson (Wikimedia Commons)

Suppose you don’t know what goes with what, or whether that thing over there is gravy, dip or soup – children are among those who don’t, for either food or languages. You then have a couple of alternatives. You can wait for confident-looking people to tuck in, and proceed to replicate their choices and their confidence in making them. You can ask a connoisseur: someone in a toque blanche, or some other duly identified master of ceremonies, may be standing by to tell you what (not) to do. You can also do what you feel like doing. Say you’re having breakfast: you can choose bacon and eggs or congee, or both, or skip the eggs to have bacongee instead. Sounds yucky? Yummy? You don’t know unless you try. You decide, since you are the one doing the eating.

You may end up committing what masters of ceremonies will call mixes. You can then ask them: when someone first decided that white wine goes with fish courses, wasn’t that a mix? It is now a match, because if you choose red wine with your Sole Meunière you may be giving signs of faulty sense of propriety. In some circles, of course. In other circles, doing just that will be chic, because chic, in some circles, is a chic name for ‘unorthodoxy’ – which, by the way, must make us Portuguese très chic, because we’ve routinely served red wine with our bacalhau.

So it all depends, yet again, what people choose to call what you’re doing. The issue, for multilinguals, is that each (new) experience comes associated with a language. In my family, for example, we pepper our talk with filhós (deep-fried pumpkin puffs) in Portuguese, and with pjäxor (ski boots) in Swedish, whatever the language of the current exchange, because filhós match our Portuguese experiences and pjäxor our Swedish ones. We also talk about sudoku, basquetebol (the official Portuguese spelling of English basketball, in case you’re wondering) and fåtöljer (the official Swedish one of French fauteuils). Just imagine not being allowed to say jeans or internet or hamburger in your language(s), because you’d be “mixing” by doing so.

That some mixes become orthodox has nothing to do with the mixing itself. All mixes, like all other features of any language, were once new. Proof that both accepted mixes and less accepted ones find their niche in whatever language they occur is that they all flow seamlessly with the prosody of that language. In English, for example, you don’t stop to pronounce, say, déjà vu in its original French accent when you want to say déjà vu in English. Try, for fun? The German linguist Hugo Schuchardt conducted research on what we all do with our languages, to conclude, as early as in the second half of the 19th century, that “Es gibt keine völlig ungemischte Sprache” (‘There is no completely unmixed language’). To confirm (if needed!) the absolute truth of this statement, have a look, for example, at the table of contents of this recent issue of the journal English Today.

Virtually all that we do to find our own niches as we grow up and grow old involves mixing and matching. When meeting a group of people for the first time, for example, be it our playmates at our new school, or our colleagues at your new job, we don’t know either what to make of them, or who goes with whom, or with us, and how. And we won’t know unless we start mingling and choosing what and whom we find palatable to us.

Mixing things to find palatable matches is also what prized chefs do to deserve their prizes. Which means that it takes a connoisseur to mix things properly. Next time, I’ll argue that the same is true of language mixers.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Mixed recipes. Wednesday 20th June 2012.


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