Wednesday 21 November 2012

“Wait... *Where* are you from?”

= Acknowledgement =
Muito obrigada, Karin and Ruchika,
for very enlightening correspondence concerning this post
and, not least, for inspiration for the post’s title!

Has anyone ever complimented you on how well you speak your native language? I don’t mean praise for those of us who may be professional speakers, I mean praise for ordinary speakers like you and me. It has happened to me, about Portuguese, from fellow Portuguese and in Portugal, on the grounds that I don’t look very Portuguese (apparently). Before I decided that such episodes were actually quite funny, I had to overcome the unsettling sensation that I had just been insulted by being complimented.

Certain features of speech seem indeed to be expected from certain facial and other physical features (apparently), in the same sense that you wouldn’t expect your pet dog to bray. This is all fine: we all have our stereotypes and associated expectations to live and judge by, which we actually develop in early childhood. But how do we, adults, deal with human beings whose looks and speech don’t match our expectations? We could revise our adult expectations in adult ways, of course, since facts are facts and stereotypes are fiction. More often than not, however, we attempt to make new facts fit old expectations, so we can go on entertaining these. I never understood why it seems so much easier to hang on to useless theories (of which expectations are a subset) which fail to explain observed facts, than to reject flawed theories, in the face of facts which contradict them.

Expectations come complete with labels, the problem being that expected labels cannot obviously account for unexpected facts. Not just labels about looks and speech, either. I remember, for example, a lengthy discussion in the major daily newspaper in one of the places I’ve lived, seriously asking (and seriously getting serious feedback on) whether women over 50 years of age should wear jeans. And I’m just rereading Notre-Dame de Paris, where the destitute Gringoire’s fleeting moment of solace on a day of complete debacle, personified by a dancing and singing young beauty whom he’s persuaded must be a fairy, a goddess, a nymph, is shattered by a sudden realisation: “Hé non! dit-il, c’est une bohémienne.” And Victor Hugo, canny observer of human nature that he was, adds: “Toute illusion avait disparu.” Other mystifying beings likewise cease to mystify once we choose to identify them by means of familiar labels: we can now deal with the labels, and stop bothering about the beings. Just look at the labels that go on being pasted onto multilinguals, as I discuss in my book Multilinguals are ...?

On several occasions, in my teens, revealing my nationality caused Gringoire-like disillusion among international (ex-)friends, who up to then had deemed me quite worthy of their polite company. I’m sure they had their reasons, but my point is that my answers to their questions about where I was from were as straightforward as their dismissal of me upon hearing them: I “was” indeed “from” Portugal, at the time, though I’ve come to doubt whether this place I am from provides the best definition of who I am, period. Or why it should.

Image © Succu 2010 (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

Place labels rank high in cataloguing practices: “where we have them” enables retrieval of appropriate decisions about how to relate to them, on the strength of their where. In the face (literally) of people who were, say, born in X from parents born elsewhere, grew up in W, had children in Y and T, then moved to R and Z and, to top it all, speak our language (among others) as well as we do, the same question crops up: “Where are you from?”, with stress on Where and a high-rising tone of bafflement which attempts to secure the “fact” that people must belong somewhere, in the same sense that your pet dog belongs to you.

A single somewhere, that is, because answers revealing pluralities, like “I come from Portugal and Sweden”, don’t seem to pass muster either. The “Wait...” bit in the question usually denotes glitches in processing multi-factual answers to mono-minded questions. Similar questions require simple, i.e. single(minded) answers to it: there must be an X, such that X stands for the place where your biological mother happened to go into labour, which then means that you belong to X. As if you belonged to places – or rather, as if places owned people. You can read a sample of other intriguing questions asked of multilinguals and multiculturals (and also a sample of my production when I’m in sarcastic mode) in this piece, ‘The bilemma in the bilingual brain’, published in Speculative Grammarian, “the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics”.

I’ll have more to say about multilingual “roots some other day but, next time, I’d like to turn to the effects that classificatory labels can have on children’s academic and overall development. 

© MCF 2012

Next post: Language therapy or language tuition? Saturday 1st December 2012.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Linguistic ghettos

“Ghetto” is one of those words we probably wouldn’t wish to have tagged on to us and those we hang around with. The meaning of the word denotes shared group behaviours which are perceived to differ from those behaviours shared by other groups, but connotes judgements of value = ‘not good’. Ghetto behaviour is also generally perceived to be minority behaviour – or it wouldn’t be deemed worthy of a special label. Like elite behaviour? Elites are also perceived as special minorities, the difference being that the word “elite” usually connotes judgements of value = ‘good’.

Judgements about “minority” behaviour don’t pass historical or geographical scrutiny – just look at judgements about multilingualism. What was yesterday and/or here the hallmark of a ghetto becomes mainstream hip today and/or elsewhere. The BBC recently reported on the current comeback of lederhosen and dirndl dresses in Austria, which I found all the more interesting because I didn’t know dirndl dress had ever been out, in the country: in the town just outside Vienna where my family lived, dirndl was what we saw all around us for shopping, working, visiting friends and eating out. Elite behaviours, in turn, become stigmatised, not least linguistic ones: see for example the discussion about the (no longer so) prestigious RP accent (Received Pronunciation) in these two articles, both dealing with choices of accents for purposes of language teaching, and both playing with the acronyms RP and RIP in their titles, one by Paul Tench and the other by Ronald Macaulay.

We seem nevertheless happy to stick to our habits of portraying linguistic uses as belonging to linguistic ghettos (or elites), by keeping the respective judgemental connotations of these words without having to use the words. In monolingual settings, we can equate our local mainstream linguistic standard with unqualified standards of language, and thereby feel entitled to issue judgements about outsiders to those standards. One of my children spent a term studying in northern Portugal, where she was gently chided, but chided anyway, for using the Lisbon dialect. This is the dialect my children inherited from me and which also counts as official “standard” in the country. There were misunderstandings, and there was, above all, lingering innuendos, from both parties involved, that the misunderstandings were due to the outsider.

In multilingual settings, we can let it be known, for example, that monolingualism is the mainstream standard. For language teaching purposes, we can also characterise one standard of one language as “the” good one (= ‘elite’ one), and either find ways of dismissing alternative standards, or set our choice standard as a learning goal which, for all practical purposes of language use, we nevertheless know to be either unattainable or irrelevant to learners.

We can further insist that immigrant communities (choose to) isolate themselves from other communities in their new country, forgetting that the country’s natives do exactly the same – in this connection, I must point out the title of a New Zealand-based academic journal, which I’ve only recently come across: AlterNative which, to me, puts talk of natives and nativeness in its right perspective. And we can say that learners and users of “our” language(s) keep falling short of (our) expectations concerning conformism to (our) standards. I have heard many language teachers lament, or empathise, that their students keep their new language well differentiated from taught versions of it, for reasons of “fossilisation”, or “identity”, respectively.

Some of us may indeed choose to remain in the cosiness of our ghettos, for reasons akin to self-defence. Loraine K. Obler, in an article titled ‘Exceptional second language learners’, had this to say about choices of accent in a new language: 
[...] one must be willing to sound like someone from another culture, but one must be willing to give up the protection that being foreign confers, since native speakers may make allowances for grammatical errors when the speaker is obviously not a native speaker and thus the person is protected from sounding foolish.

Some of us may instead choose to sway in and out of ghettos, according to which image of ourselves we wish to project in time and place, something that we learn to do as children. Ghada Khattab, in a book chapter titled ‘Phonetic accommodation in children’s code-switching’, showed that immigrant children use home-accented speech to heed home expectations of mainstream language use, and mainstream-accented speech to establish identity credentials among monolingual users of the mainstream language.

This ability to accommodate to the people who are significant to us, which I’ve addressed before and will come back to some other day, is of course a human ability, regardless of how many languages are involved in it. For multilinguals, however, it seems to associate with an uncanny inability to give simple answers to what some people take to be simple questions. Like the question in the title of my next post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: “Wait... *Where* are you from?” Wednesday 21st November 2012.


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