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.


  1. A very interesting topic indeed, Madalena. That is why I have started to talk about the dialect "foreign Swedish (utlandssvenska)" to mark that this is one type of real Swedish (or actually many depending on what country you live in). I hate it when I come home to Sweden and everyone has to point out that my kids speak with an accent.

    We have many dialects in Sweden that are different grammatically compared to official Swedish, and should therefore be able to extend the range to also include new dialects such as Rinkeby Swedish and foreign Swedish. To label the results of a child's Swedish as bad Swedish, when they struggle to learn Swedish in Sweden or their mother tongue abroad... well, I find that ignorant and respectless.

    Swedish is labelled a pluricentric language through the existence of Finnish Swedish in parallel with official Swedish. I do not mean that it is correct to include Rinkeby & foreign Swedish in this definition, but it is time to admit that they both have the right to exist as multicultural phenomenas.

  2. Hej Lena! Thank you for these important observations. I believe we are witnessing, live, the birth and development of “Swedish as a Lingua Franca” – a label that I find fitting for the multilingual and multicultural traits which the language is acquiring, would you agree? Being one of *my* languages, I am very, very curious to follow this development, since my other languages had their lingua franca status acknowledged long before I was born.

    And I absolutely agree with you: monolingual versions of languages give us no usable “standards of correction” to discuss multilingual versions of them, whether in accent, grammar, vocabulary or pragmatic uses. It’s up to us multilinguals to spread awareness of how languages can serve all of our needs, monolingual and multilingual, which is what keeps languages alive.

    Exciting times we’re living!



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