#FLmultilingua 2: language and power

Week 2 of #FLmultilingua:

  • explored what it means to speak ‘good English’ and to have one’s language scrutinised for observance of rules of sound and grammar
  • looked at the power that lies behind the authority to decide whether a language is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and to impose some standards over others
  • reflected on the concepts of ‘language deficit’ and ‘language plenty’, and about the ways in which language policies work to establish which languages have value, and which don’t

Learning to live in a multilingual world

Exploring language and power in the context of globalisation: the expectation to speak ‘good English’ has the power to institutionally re-define an individual’s affective relationship with the language of their family and ancestors.

Verbal hygiene: can or should we clean up language?

‘Verbal hygiene’ is a term coined by sociolinguist Deborah Cameron in the first edition of her book, published in 1995.

As Cameron (2012) defines it, verbal hygiene refers to the “[…] motley collection of discourses and practices through which people attempt to ‘clean up’ language and make its structure or its use conform more closely to their ideals of beauty, truth, efficiency, logic, correctness and civility”(p. vii). Central to Cameron’s discussion is the idea that, behind the ostensible desire to regulate language and ensure standards, verbal hygiene practices hide a range of deeper social, moral and political anxieties.

All very emotive, but the rest of the step was unrelated to these issues, making instead the case against state monolingualism (or societal language; just substitute Danish for English):

Speaking English has become a touchstone in discussions of what it now referred to as social ‘cohesion’, ‘integration’ or ‘inclusion’. Essentially these terms are code for ‘assimilation’: both new immigrants and settled minorities must demonstrate their allegiance to British culture and values.

More verbal hygiene: book | vid | article.

Quiz intro: “Language is the site of power struggles. Verbal hygiene may be an unavoidable component of our capacity to reflect on language and is not necessarily always negative. However, the imposition of norms and rules hides power relations and should not just be taken at face value. Questions about who has the right to prescribe, for whom, what they prescribe and for what purpose can be asked to expose these power relations…Many of the answers you give here will be correct. This is another way to demonstrate the nuanced aspects of verbal hygiene. While there are subtle differences in understandings, consider which of these definitions you prefer for your situation.”

  1. Verbal hygiene is…a set of practices that aim to prescribe specific grammar rules | newspapers’ style guides and ‘politically correct’ language | requests for migrants to learn the language of the country where they now live
  2. People engage in verbal hygiene practices because…they worry about a language disappearing or becoming impoverished | they are concerned that some words or phrases may be offensive or inaccurate | they wish to ensure that people can communicate effectively and understand each other
  3. Verbal hygiene practices are not simply about language. They also…stand for anxieties about social change and become more widespread at times of economic or political insecurity | are symbolic of demands for assimilation made of particular groups of people and of anxiety or fear about the ‘alien other’ | express unequal power relations between those who can prescribe forms of linguistic conformity and those who have to adapt to this (or resist it).

What is the danger in letting some languages die?

Are there any dangers in adopting fewer languages worldwide? Like ecosystems and biodiversity, are languages something that should be actively protected?

The Unesco Atlas of world languages in danger estimates that today there are as many as 2465 languages with varying degrees of vulnerability. This…raises important questions about their future, the cultures which they represent, the cultural identity of their speakers, diversity of ideas and the linguistic diversity in the world.

Language, especially our mother tongue, is something we very often take for granted. We acquire it at a very early stage in our life and imitate linguistic behaviours, eg politeness or directness of people in our surroundings. These concepts, which usually have been taken for granted, become less obvious when we start learning another language and new cultural norms…

[David Crystal] compares a language system to an ecosystem in which, what is important, is not the individual unit but the interdependence of its various elements and their harmonious functioning. Similarly to biological species, languages do not function in isolation but develop by contact with others. If one of them were to die, this might have serious consequences on other languages in the same ecosystem. Diversity, he adds, is important for the survival of mankind. If we have a look at the natural ecosystem, evolution is what makes species stronger and guarantees their survival. The greater the variety, the stronger the ecosystem is…

Language is also an important part of one’s identity. This is a tool which connects and identifies us with other members of the same language community. Losing a language could therefore mean a loss of who we are.

From Being human at Language Fest:

We don’t all have one language in common. Without ‘naturally’ shared cultures and languages but with the desire to communicate and connect, we are at each other’s mercy. Falling back into English, a ‘foreign’ language to us all, and one that most people in the room are only just learning, is not an option. There is no ‘neutral’, no ‘pure’ way to communicate. We can’t easily cloak our communicative difficulties with a (supposed) lingua franca. There is no easy way to artificially smooth the sharp linguistic edges of our intercultural communication. Insisting on English now could mean silencing this group’s self-expression, dismiss their Lebenswelt and suppress those unexpected encounters that might be potentially meaningful to us all. But how then to connect when all we can bring is good will and our linguistic vulnerability?

On languaging

Swain defines languaging as a (2006: 98) “process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language”, with language learning a process rather than a definable outcome, a journey taken by language learners through which they have an opportunity to explore and discover new meanings, learn and internalise new knowledge and expand their range of experiences.

Example: French immersion programmes in Canada in which students were tasked with writing a story in French; students carrying out the exercise required used both French and English; English to negotiate meaning and mediate differences between the languages, to help students to organise their ideas, negotiate the differences in meaning between French and English as well as to internalise new meanings.

Their research supports Vygotsky’s view that the language learner ‘uses…the native language as a mediator between the world of objects and the new language’ (Vygotsky, 1986: 161). Learners very often build their new linguistic identity and their newly acquired understanding of the country (or countries) where the language is spoken through the experiences and knowledge of their mother tongue.

While our mother tongues are necessary to negotiate new meanings, it is a newly acquired language that expands our knowledge and self-understanding in a profound way. Mikhail Bakhtin observed that ‘language is a social event’ and as such profoundly affects the learners’ understanding of the world around. The more languages one speaks, the more alternative modes of knowledge one can create and, consequently, comprehend.

From the quiz:

  • languaging…can be defined as having a go, trying a new language…a process in which one creates new experiences through language…does not concern itself only with learning a language
  • learning a new language involves…using one’s mother tongue as a mediator between two languages…creating a new identity through analysing our first language…expanding our knowledge and self-understanding

Alison Phipps (2014) in her TED talk ‘ Learning to live in multilingual worlds’ looks at languaging as ‘having a go,’ ‘trying a new language and learning to live in a multilingual world.’ This means that one needs to leave a zone of linguistic comfort and perfect articulation of their mother tongue in order to embark on a bumpy journey of discovering a new linguistic and cultural world; “one language cannot fully explain all the meanings encapsulated in the world”. She calls for a more ethically-oriented way of conceiving the value of languages:

I think it’s really important we learn the languages which have shaped the histories of the places where we grow up and where we live. So within Scotland, those would be the languages that have shaped our religion, but which have also lived amongst us. It would be important here for us to really understand Gaelic, and Scots alongside English, but also to understand ancient Greek, Hebrew, Latin, languages which have shaped the culture, the buildings, you see roundabout us, being part of the projects of making a land and a country.

But equally, at this moment in time, it’s really important that we learn the language of our neighbours, that we ask the question, what is it the languages of our neighbours are, and how might we meet one another and greet one another in some of those different languages? It’s important that we learn to speak the language of trade, but also of humanitarian aid.

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