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.


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