Saturday, July 31, 2010

on more than one language

Hey so, I speak some languages! And I am very interested in the structure of languages, and how they work, and how languages contribute to our thinking! I am one of those people who enjoys learning many languages. (I speak three, from time to time, four if 'a sort of Manglish-Malay patois' counts as a language. And I enjoyed learning German for a year and a half! But then I moved and didn't find a new class. Anyway.) I like being able to communicate with lots of people! I like reading about languages! As if I was some sort of language nerd! Also, I lament that I didn't do linguistics at university (sometimes I wish I did chemistry, too).

So hey: this is a post about languages (as opposed to language, which will be another post later).

A few blogs have been linking to and/or discussing this New York Times article: As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. The article itself talks about Indonesians who cannot speak Bahasa Indonesian, or speak it badly; speaking English instead. But as Michel S at Ruminations on a Distant Homeland* points out, there are reasons why this is a little less dramatic than the article articulates. Bahasa Indonesian was adopted as the national language only in 1928, so for huge chunks of Indonesia, the official language is not actually their first language anyway.

Similar issue in Malaysia. I have friends (or family of friends) who, despite growing up in Malaysia, never learnt Bahasa Malaysian (BM) very well. When you grow up in a house speaking (for example) Cantonese, and go to an English speaking school, and all your friends speak Mandarin, well, BM becomes just another subject you have to do, and some people are good at it, and some people aren't.

That's not me passing comment on whether one should have to learn the national language. That's just, you know. An anecdote.

Speaking of national languages, in the USA there's some concerns the opposite way, that sometimes people don't speak English in public, and therefore English is at risk (?!) and maybe it should be the national language. My word, what a fucking outrage. So What if Nobody Speaks English Anymore at is a look at that, and asks the question: does it matter?

THIS MAY SHOCK YOU (note: if it does, I am very concerned), but maybe speaking more than one language is kind of cool, and possibly even useful! The WSJ has an article up that doesn't say anything new, but is a nice summary of research that demonstrates that language shapes the way we think: Lost in Translation. Here is a large excerpt:
Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?

Take "Humpty Dumpty sat on a..." Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say "sat" rather than "sit." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) change the verb to mark tense.

In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.

In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you'd use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you'd use a different form.

Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?
In fact, here is a 2009 essay on exactly this research! How does our language shape the way we think? I highly recommend this piece, it is a good essay and I refer to it often.

I think it's really cool and interesting, the way that language shapes thought. And I mean, I think about this all the time in another way (removing ableist, transphobic, homophobic, racist, etc, words from casual use), but talking about the impact that grammar patterns have on thought construction is really cool too. What influence does language have on our personalities? On our cultures and traditions?

Anyway, given how cool it is, it's funny, then, that there's a rumour getting around that the Chinese government is looking to limit the amount of Cantonese on Chinese TV. Almost as if there's an attempt to impose a national language that was only made a national language in the last hundred years. It's been kind of a concerted effort. And here's an oldie but still relevant: Language is Power; Let us Have Ours:
Much of the evidence the world over suggests that bilingual and multilingual language processes accelerate one's capacity to acquire English. So why are Aboriginal children being treated as if this were not so? Why is the role that parents and grandparents play in teaching their children being diminished?

Aboriginal languages, for the most part, are not officially recognised and, therefore, sit outside the nation's formal structures.
So here's the thing about Mandarin, and also Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Malay, and in fact English, too: they're kind of dialecty. Sometimes they're not what you're expecting. Mandarin in Beijing is different from Mandarin in Xi'an. The Cantonese my family speaks (being from Malaysia) is totally different from the Cantonese spoken in China. The English I speak in Australia is quite different from the English I use in Malaysia (sometimes referred to as 'Manglish').

Which is why I like this article: Standard English and the Literate Argument.
Is literacy so important to credibility here? Or, let me rephrase: Is Standard English literacy so important to credibility here? Or, let me rephrase again: Is white, upper-or-middle class English literacy so important to credibility here?

When we discount people and their arguments because of their command (or lack thereof) of grammar, what we are really saying is: Your thoughts are useless because you don’t use the kind of grammar I’ve come to expect from literate people on the internet. What we are also saying is far worse: You don’t have the privilege to have learned the “correct” way of writing or speaking, and, therefore, your ideas are worthless.
OH SO MAYBE, just maybe, a push to a national language is some sort of defensive bullshit thing? Maybe there's some racism and/or classism involved? What an unexpected and surprising conclusion to my post!

I don't want to hear anything from anyone about how learning a second language is a privilege or any crap like that. Because I think it's pretty clear that learning a second language is, in many cases, something so built in to a society that you don't even notice - many people know more than one language before they go to school (if they get to go to school). And for many people, learning the 'national language' (official or not) is already learning a second language. Or a third language. My mum was speaking five languages before she started attending school, and she was from a really poor family. So you know, the argument is at the least very erasing. I'll accept 'in a poor urban white monolingual family in the middle of Perth it's hard to attend language classes,' or something. And I'm certainly not accepting 'it's hard to learn another language so therefore we need a national language and no-one can speak anything else in public or have tv in any other language' or anything. That's crap. Also 'omg we all need to communicaaatteeee.' Often, that argument is used against people who already went out of their way (or, to be honest, could hardly avoid) to learn someone else's language.

Some further reading and anecdotes on the things I have discussed above:

*please note, the blog I have linked to has only one blog post on it! And no introductory! So I don't know anything about it, other than that I liked the solitary post.

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