Saturday, 9 March 2013

Glitches, false starts, and dead ends

Languages don’t come in ready-to-use packages. Their use is what makes them, because languages don’t exist without users. Languages are not “gifts”, either. Their acquisition takes time and commitment even when, as tiny infants, we don’t know we’re spending time or honouring commitments.

Language acquisition is a process, one which never ends, in fact. All of us are still learning all of our languages, because languages themselves are processes, as Wilhelm von Humboldt reminded us two centuries ago: Sie selbst [die Sprache] ist kein Werk (Ergon), sondern eine Thätigkeit (Energeia). We say that languages are “transmitted” from parent to child by force of habit, like we say that the sun “rises” and “sets”. Languages don’t (re)emerge unscathed by human interference across generations, for two reasons: they don’t have a life of their own, and we aren’t neutral conveyors of anything that we “pass on”.

We do end up using our languages like somebody else, for the simple reason that all of us, young or old, learn somebody else’s languages, from somebody else. But we do this our way. When we learn, we change, both ourselves and what we learned: just like there are no languages without users, there is no learning without learners. Our children don’t imitate us. If they did, they wouldn’t say gween for “green” or call every grown-up male in sight “daddy”, and our languages would be, today, exactly like they were ever since we started calling them “languages”. Child uses of language, whether monolingual or multilingual, don’t follow a script, because languages aren’t scripts.

Our children are not being “taught” our languages either, they are learning their own. Acquiring things means making them ours. When we acquire languages, we need to adapt to them and adapt them to us, whether our purpose is to ask to have a nappy changed, or provide a referee report for an academic paper. The interesting thing is that we can’t learn to do any of these things without, well, doing them. The trick is in the doing.

I like to think that we’re doing something new whenever we’re doing something. This is what fascinates me, for example, about the theatre and other live performances. I know there must have been rehearsals, I know there’s some kind of script, and I know the performers are trained professionals. But then, aren’t we all, when it comes to using our languages? I like to think that our uses of language are as unique as any other live performances – and I like to think that any glitches, false starts, and dead ends are part of the performance. The Roman “circenses” wouldn’t have had half the appeal they enjoyed if everyone knew exactly what was going to happen.

We may have been brainwashed into thinking that language acquisition in home environments is glitch-free, because we’ve been brainwashed into believing that “later” language acquisition is, by definition, glitch-full, but the facts are that any language acquisition will have glitches, false starts and dead ends. We say ser for estar in Portuguese, and tycka for tro in Swedish, or vice versa, and we say fink for think and think for sink in English, to mention but these acquisitional goodies in each of these languages. We speak like mummy when we might want to speak like daddy, or vice versa. We stutter and stammer, and fall silent in search of missing words or in bafflement at just-uttered bits and pieces of language that we suddenly realise we have no idea how to parse. We finish thoughts that we haven’t started, and we hit linguistic walls when we should be finishing the thoughts that we did start. And we do this most of the time.

Whoever believes that we all speak in what linguists call “words” and “sentences” has never bothered to listen to real-life speech (whoever believes that we *should* speak in words and sentences probably also believes that words and sentences are real-life beings). Glitches, false starts, and dead ends aren’t evidence of faulty language learning, they’re part of the learning process. They’re evidence that we’re using our new linguistic tools for what we need to say and do with them. Again, whether we’re young or old. Again, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual.

Next time, I’ll go back to small children, and to what they teach us about the way they learn.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Children speak child-speak. Saturday 23rd March 2013.


  1. Very interesting article. My 3 year old English-German bilingual son has his own Germ-lish words, e.g. mif (blending of 'mit' (with) and 'with' pronounced with f instead of th)

  2. Thank you for this, Ella! I love your example. My children had similar bouts of multilingual creativity. They still do, actually, now in their twenties, and now deliberately... And so do we, the parents :-)

    This is what I think is the whole point of being able to use languages: exploring them, to see what we can do with them!



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