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.


  1. Brilliant column. Especially your comment on the dichotomy of immigrant communities and how they avoid the natives and how the natives do the same. It would be ironic if it weren't so sad.

    Many thanks. Keep up the good work.

    Greetings from London.

  2. Gracias, Cubano! I agree with you: the irony of it all is that we forget that we all behave in exactly the same ways.

    As we say in Portugal, “Ninguém olha para si, que se entorta”. Roughly (*very* roughly....) translated, ‘When we look at ourselves, our eyes cross’. These things definitely lose oomph in a different language, no need to tell you this!


  3. This is excellent. I'm so glad I found this blog. I keep mixing up the languages I know with each other in their head. There's no ghettos in there...

  4. No ghettos here either, Jessica, and mixes in very good working order, too :-)
    Thank you for letting me know that you enjoy the blog!



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