Saturday 29 June 2013

Multilingual moods

Have you ever woken up in a language-bound mood? Or felt a sudden compulsion, at any time of your day, to speak, think, read, sing, cook, dress, in one of your languages, and only one of them? This happens to me all the time. Not that I go about summoning up language-related everyday behaviours at will: rather, these urges appear to strike whenever my intentional uses of my languages are off-duty, as it were.

I indulge these unscripted moods as a leisurely way of keeping my languages and the behaviours that go with them well oiled. They’re a welcome addition to my daily uses of them, which ebb and flow according to need – whether I’m working or relaxing with friends and family, for example. Whatever skills, fluency, ownership, flexibility, we acquire in our languages are neither inborn nor immutable: they arise through use and they rust without it. Such moods are also a natural consequence of being multilingual, not evidence of the legendary monolingual said to be lurking inside every multilingual. When I’m being Portuguese, for example, I’m being it with a flavour, not because there is a vanilla way of being Portuguese, from which I “deviate” as a multilingual, but because nobody has vanilla ways of being whatever they are – except perhaps in their own eyes.

If we happen to believe in pure languages and pure moods, we may be tempted to call these mood switches and colourings “mixes”. On condition, of course, that we then use the same word to describe, say, what conventional tourists do, including staunch monolinguals, when they bring home souvenirs from the places they visit. Why else do we keep and cherish bits and pieces, songs and food, behaviours and words from other cultures, if not because we want them to be part of new moods we wish to enjoy? Different languages likewise associate with different souvenirs, as reminders that you have experienced things in different ways. Our mobility in time and space, to use the word in Alastair Pennycook’s book title, Language and Mobility. Unexpected Places, imprints our selves, and so our languages. My point is that there are different “mes” to every single “I”, from any anylingual individual.

This is why questions requiring mono-minded answers like “Do you feel X?”, where X stands for the name of official nationalities (of all things!) don’t make sense. When I feel miserable, or happy, do I need to feel so and express what I feel in a nationality? Or in a language? Questions about moods, feelings, emotions, and “their” language(s) raise similar issues to the ones about thought and “its” language(s). Not surprisingly, perhaps, since António Damásio showed, in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, that the “neural underpinnings of reason” (p. xi) turn out to have quite a lot in common with those of emotion. So what exactly is it that we’re trying to find out by asking such questions, and why does it matter to know? And, of course, why aren’t questions addressing monolingual moods, feelings and emotions by name apparently as interesting to ask. Different languages, much like different clothes, are but one of the choices that some of us have available for expression, depending on who we’re talking to (ourselves included), and what we’re talking about, among other things.

Multilinguals naturally express their moods differently in different languages because different languages naturally reflect different things: languages belong to cultural heritages, not genetic ones. See, for example, Javier E. Díaz-Vera and Rosario Caballero’s article ‘Exploring the feeling-emotions continuum across cultures: Jealousy in English and Spanish’. The whole issue of the journal where this article appears, Intercultural Pragmatics, is of interest for the additional reason that it is a thematic issue on the topic of Metaphor and Culture. Metaphor does seem to permeate quite a lot of what we say, whether we’re being “emotional” or “rational”, and metaphorical devices as well as meanings certainly vary among different cultures, and so among different languages. The meaning of things like “big boys don’t cry”, for example, fits a particular culture and makes sense to those who have been initiated into that culture. And not all of us express loving moods by invoking a “little cabbage” or by hugging and kissing the object of those moods.

Photo: MCF

Metaphors also abound, understandably, in our expression of profanity. Next time, I’ll try to explain why this is interesting for multilinguals.
Díaz-Vera, J., & Caballero, R. (2013). Exploring the feeling-emotions continuum across cultures: Jealousy in English and Spanish Intercultural Pragmatics, 10 (2) DOI: 10.1515/ip-2013-0012

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual rudeness. Saturday 13th July 2013.

Saturday 15 June 2013

You speak so, therefore you think so.

In a previous post, I discussed the opinions that we like to entertain about people(s), on the strength of our judgements about their linguistic habits. Among those habits, accents rank high: research findings make it clear that we assign intellectual and personal accomplishments (or lack thereof) to fellow human beings, on the basis solely of their accent. But we appear to have similar difficulties refraining from passing judgement on people’s overall brain functions on the strength of overall features of their speech.

Despite our next-to-nil understanding of how thought and language(s) may interconnect, the conviction that they correlate has a long history. Among Western thought, one famous attempt at extricating thought from uses of language dates from the 17th century, when the English philosopher John Wilkins published An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. In it, Wilkins sets out to propose a “natural grammar” which, he clarifies, “may likewise be stiled Philosophical, Rational, and Universal” (p. 297), in that it should reflect the workings of the human mind, devoid of language-bound intrusions. This natural grammar should also constitute an improvement on the universal grammars created by his predecessors, who “were so far prejudiced by the common Theory of the languages they were acquainted with, that they did not sufficiently abstract their rules according to Nature” (pp. 297-298), and thereby mistook properties of the language(s) that they were familiar with for universal properties of language – an observation which applies as acutely to more recent creators of universal grammars. Incidentally, for some discussion of whether “Nature” might be interpretable through “a theory of everything” consecrated in a single, “special” language, see my review of Roy Harris’s book The Semantics of Science.

The contention behind Wilkins-inspired endeavours is that our thoughts may be beyond our immediate grasp because of meddling languages, but are nevertheless there and can therefore be retrieved as “pure” thoughts, as it were. That is, thought is one thing, languages are another. In contrast, popular views about language(s) and thought assume not only that thinking and speaking/signing mirror one another, but that the former can be inferred from the latter, in yet another example of the fallacy which equates (presumed) correlation with causality. That is, we turn the thinking-in-a-language conviction on its head, to conclude that thinking in tongues means speaking in thoughts. Samuel Johnson attributed this kind of reasoning to the ingestion of intoxicants, when he quipped that “One of the disadvantages of wine is that it makes a man mistake words for thoughts”, but sober thinkers appear to reason likewise.

The conviction that the uses of our languages bear witness to the uses of our grey matter surfaces, for example, in the way much language teaching deals with adult learners. The misperception that learners’ budding abilities in someone else’s native language reflect overall intellectual ability may well have originated from language teachers’ inability to interact with their students but through the language that they’re teaching. Child learners fare no better: young learners of mainstream/school languages go on being referred to “special” care, on the misunderstanding that academic underachievement reflects disorder rather than simple lack of practice of (new) academic uses of a new language – or a new language variety.

Children who are so referred to specialist care often see the reason for their referral snowballing into a clinical “condition”, rather than dismissed as unfounded. This is because specialists also speak (and think?) in tongues, and may not be aware of two things: one, that the child is learning the mainstream and/or school language, which often doubles as the language of intervention, under circumstances which do not and cannot match monolingual linguistic and cognitive milestones; and the other, that the child cannot therefore satisfy the demands of monolingual assessment instruments in that language. Inferring intellectual abilities from abilities in languages that we’re only just beginning to make sense of, whether we’re young or old, is unfair. If people do indeed think in languages, then multilinguals do not think in a single language.

The next couple of posts will deal with a few more monolingual-bound misconceptions about being multilingual.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual moods. Saturday 29th June 2013.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Thinking in tongues

One of the popular questions addressed to multilinguals is “In which language do you think?”

Image © Clipart from

Like other favoured questions, this one also assumes a singular answer, and therefore that it makes sense to ask such questions of multilinguals but not of monolinguals. Monolinguals are in turn assumed to think in one language because they have a single language – something whose rationale some of us might wish to question.

The other assumption is that we all think in some language. This is intriguing, in that a cursory look at the literature shows all but clarity in thinking (or talking) about thinking. We think individually, of course, but if we do think in tongues, then maybe our findings about thinking will vary depending on the language we’re using to think about these things. If we don’t think in tongues, what do we think in, and how do we convert our thoughts into some language that may make our findings known to fellow thinkers? And if we can’t convey our thinking in any language, is there a problem with the thinking or with the languages? And so on.

You can check out some of the players in this controversy by searching for “linguistic relativity”, or “Sapir-Whorf”, the surnames of the two linguists who most recently became associated with it. Their names usually come up in this order, though Whorf got there first and foremost, and in the context Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, meaning that any claims must be proved or disproved through empirical evidence, which is what hypotheses are there for. Facts are, however, that we’re still wondering what to think about all this: like multilingualism and other topics where we’re faced with too few data and too many theories, Whorfianism has also had its fashionable woes and joys. It went from a must-have approach to thinking about (and in) languages in the early 20th century, through academic tabooing, to desirable revival from the year 2000. Alison Gopnik was one forerunner of Whorfian rehabilitation: the title of her book chapter ‘Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing’ says it all.

Against this rather disconcerting background, I would like to offer a few thoughts (no pun intended) on a firm correlation that we nevertheless feel free to establish between thought and languages. I’ll deal with other assumed correlations in my next post. Please bear in mind that my thoughts might strike you (and me) differently, were we to use a different common language from the one I’m typing this in.

Parenting guides insist on the need for caregivers to develop one “good” language in their multilingual children. This is the language which usually turns out to be the one (also singular, yes) which the family’s community acknowledges as mainstream, or school language, or as having an enviable tradition in print, or all of the above. The reasoning here seems to follow two convictions. One, that there are languages which are (more) suited to thinking in, and which should therefore be chosen, top-down, for multilinguals. And the other, that we don’t so much think in languages because we have those languages, but that we need to develop a language in order to be able to think in it – or, perhaps, in order to be able to think at all. I have quite a few things to say about this presumed “language of higher thought” in my book Multilinguals are ...?. For instance, that if you are doomed to thinking higher things in only one of your languages, then you must also be doomed to having only lower thoughts in your other languages.

We can of course think about anything regardless of language, as thinking users of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages that (we think) we’ve identified worldwide make clear. We can do with any of our languages whatever we need (or want) to do with them, provided we do it, bottom-up. I can explain what I mean: one question which never fails to draw peals of laughter from my Singaporean students is whether we can discuss nuclear physics in Hokkien. In Singapore, Hokkien is a dialect (and “dialect” is a derogatory term), fit for the army and rough goings-on. The next question I ask of my students is why can’t we do with Singapore Hokkien (or with Singlish, for that matter) what’s being done with, say, Kreyòl in Haiti. Why can’t children, like all speakers of the languages that people do speak, “build solid foundations in their own language”? This Linguist site has more information on this Haitian project.

To me, attempting to assign one language to (higher) thought makes as much sense as attempting to extract other “privileged” single languages from within a multilingual, their “first, main, best” or their “dominant” one. It is clear that multilinguals have different languages for different purposes, but I don’t see how this must mean that multilinguals are stuck with the purposes for which they use their languages. Languages are as flexible as we make them, because languages have no claims to superiority over other languages: people have such claims over other people. If we do think in languages, the issue isn’t “in which language do we think”, but in which languages can we think.

Next time, I’ll talk some more about thinking, namely, about another correlation between language and thought that we seem to take for granted: if we speak funny, does that mean we think funny, too?
Gopnik, A. (2001). Theories, language, and culture: Whorf without wincing. In M. Bowerman & S. C. Levinson (Eds.), Language acquisition and conceptual development (pp. 45-69). Cambridge, UK/ New York: Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511620669.004

© MCF 2013

Next post: You speak so, therefore you think so. Saturday 15th June 2013.


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