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.

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