Friday, January 7, 2011

A long absence

Well I've not blogged for a long time. Unfortunately my mother was diagnosed with cancer last year and didn't chose the easiest way of fighting it (lots of flights to get treatment rather than treatment near home). Unfortunately, despite the cancer probably being in control, the chemotherapy was too potent for her body and it caused her a horrible death. Not something I'd wish on anyone.

Anyway, I'm in the process of doing a blog on minority languages as there's much happening in that space, at least to document the onward spread of the English language and regionally dominant languages.

Monday, September 6, 2010

66% of people are vile cretins

This article was in the paper the other day:

It basically says that a large majority of people would not report child abuse if they became aware of it. It should surprise me yet it doesn't. I've seen how people conveniently turn a blind eye because they can't deal with conflict or are too afraid to impinge upon the sanctity of the family.

It really doesn't leave me much hope for humanity.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Non-native speakers bringing up bilingual children

I've recently received some requests for some of my history as a bilingual person given that I learnt one of my languages from a non-native speaker. In my case, I was raised in Australia which is a very monolingual English-speaking country. However, I speak French natively although lack of use for many years has left it a shadow of what it was in my late teens.

My biological family is monolingual English-speaking. When I was very young, a car accident destroyed my family, leaving me effectively fostered with family friends for several years. From the age of 5, I lived with a family friend who was a French teacher and francophile, being an Australian who had learnt French at school, lived in France for several years then had returned to become a teacher and had decided to speak French to her kids. Although not a native speaker, her French is impeccable with only a slight accent when speaking. Being at that perfect age for language acquisition and fortunately having well above average language skills, I took to French like a duck to water.

One thing about my experience which I've found to be fairly atypical of children speaking a non-societal language is that I cherished French as something very special that I had that none of my peers had. I gained immense satisfaction from being able to say things that nobody else could understand, and with a couple of my French-speaking friends we had our own 'secret language'. Most bilingual kids I grew up with were indifferent to their 'other' language.

I took French at school as one of my languages and was gifted with several brilliant teachers who fostered my intense interest in the language. There were luckily 3 other bilingual French-speaking kids in my class, 2 of whom were as a result of non-native, French-speaking parents and one girl with a French mother . The 4 of us were given special exercises to do, had access to all the senior reading material available, plus there were several exchange teachers from France with whom to chat. Out of the 4 of us, 3 were language buffs and one had virtually no interest at all, he just did the language for easy marks.

I went through a stage in my teenage years of only reading novels and comics in French. I would read my neighbour's copy of Le Monde most days. By the time I left school my French was on par with my English. It was so gratifying when I finally went to France in my late teens that people didn't realise I wasn't French until I told them, although my accent was a bit of an odd mix due to the circle of French speakers I had grown up with being from just about every country in the Francophonie. Parisians just assumed I came from a regional area (just more regional that they anticipated).

In my mid-teens, I spent a year in Japan as an exchange student where I picked up Japanese. Whether it is my natural love of languages or my bilingualism or both, my Japanese after that year was better than most speakers of a European language achieve in that amount of time and certainly my accent is very close to native, to the point where I've had short telephone conversations with people who haven't realised I wasn't Japanese. When I came back to Australia after not having spoken English for a year, I struggled to cope with the onslaught for a couple of weeks, and my English was often garbled.

I can really understand how people can lose a native language through non-use. A university friend had an Australian father and Japanese mother. Her mother had lived in Australia for 25 years, only ever spoke to her in English (and indeed had barely spoken Japanese at all since moving to Australia). This girl felt that she had not had a proper relationship with her mother because her mother had never really learnt English well. So as an adult this girl had gone to Japan to learn Japanese, and she returned to Australia with fluent Japanese. She expected to have an awakening of her relationship with her mother now that she could speak her mother's native language, but her mother's Japanese had deteriorated to the point where it was worse than her English. It really hit this girl hard how much both her mother and she had lost, as her mother had basically ended up alingual and that there would be so many things that she could never share with her mother.

My languages have shifted over the years as I have lived in France and Japan, which have brought those 2 languages to the fore at those particular times in my life. I spent the first 10 years of my working life working for Japanese companies, speaking Japanese more than English despite living in Australia, so I was very comfortable in my Japanese. The one thing that I can truly say is that I never feel 'all me' in just 1 language. There are so many words, expressions and cultural concepts that only belong in my 'other' languages. Whenever I'm with bilingual friends, code switching is the norm and provides a much freer and complete means of communication.

To those of you who are bringing up your children speaking a language that you do not speak natively, don't worry. Your kids will be native speakers. As native speakers, they can polish their grammar, their idioms and their accent in a way a non-native speaker can't. I have friends who are native speakers of various languages because it was their family language due to it being a lingua franca of their parents, despite neither parent being a native. Around the world for hundreds of years (and probably millennia) people have been learning languages from non-native speakers due to migration, immigration, colonialism and conquest. As long as your kids have some contact with native speakers or native language material, they won't end up speaking pidgin even if their parents' language use is a bit dodgy. In fact, you'll find that your seven year-old will be correcting your grammatical mistakes and commenting on any mispronunciation like a patronising university lecturer.

Don't think of your kids as learning a language, because that's not what very young kids do, they grow in the language. The language isn't outside of them, it's in them, it's just part of how they perceive the world.

This post was done as part of the Bilingual Carnival, have a look at more blogs contributing to the Carnival at Enjoy!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another language shift

I've recently moved city and so my routine has been thrown out of whack. With all the fluster of a new job, new house and no TV I haven't had a chance to watch French TV at all for a while. I finally bought a new TV (which was promptly stolen as my house got burgled, so no TV again), but what did hit me when I turned it on to watch the French news on SBS (our multicultural broadcaster) was that I really needed to pay attention to what was being said to understand it, whereas before I'd just keep half an ear open.

This is the first time I've ever struggled to understand anything in French in my entire life which hit me quite hard. It's nearly 20 years since I spoke French on a daily basis and a few years since the last of my francophone friends left Australia, so it was inevitable that the language would slip. The feeling was similar to when I came back to Australia after living in Japan as a kid, it took me several weeks before I stopped being overwhelmed by all the English coming at me and struggling to put a coherent, grammatically correct sentence together.

So I guess that I need to make an effort to socialise in French again so as to stop the rot, as well as start thinking about my Japanese usage which will soon take a similar turn. It's a reminder that language, even if it's a native one, needs to be used or lost.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Monotonously Monolingual

Living in a monolingual English-speaking country as a native speaker of 2 languages with fluency in several more, I am constantly amazed at people's perceptions of language. Whilst people who come from monolingual countries whose language is not English may have some misconceived ideas about language, the dominance of English creates its own linguistic paradigm.

Recently, there has been some legislation aimed at bilingualism in the US. Some of the discourse around the policy displays unease at the increase in Spanish speakers in the US, and there have been calls to recognise English as the official language of the US supported by the likes of these guys. In Canada, the acrimony between Québec and the "Rest of Canada" continues unabated. In Australia, the Northern Territory government, which covers a large percentage of Australia's indigenous languages, has publicly stated that it will roll back education in indigenous languages in favour of English. This in a country that has already killed off over half of its indigenous languages.

There's a view that if you speak English, there's no need to speak any other language or that speaking a second language compromises your ability to speak English. Then there is this assumption that the dominance of English is somehow due to it being superior than other languages so its success is akin to some kind of linguistic Darwinism. Darwinism it may be, but likely economic, political and cultural and not intrinsically linguistic.

I was reading an article from a few years ago in the Times Online that claimed that there was no point learning or supporting Gaelic because it was an inferior language. His main linguistic piece of evidence? The fact that Gaelic has no word for 'yes' or 'no'. I was gobsmacked. As a multilingual person, I'm acutely aware that all of the languages I speak have words, expressions and grammatical structures that don't exist in the other languages. Gaelic may not have a direct equivalent of 'yes', but English only has one word versus 2 in French and German ('oui/si', 'ja/doch'). Does that make French or German twice as good or useful than English? No, it's these differences that provide a rich diversity between languages.

The view amongst dominant monolinguals towards those who don't speak the dominant language or who wish to maintain their own linguistic traditions tends towards antipathy. When you suggest to those English-speakers that they learn another language, you're greeted with derision. I read a couple of blogs about language politics in Québec: AngryFrenchGuy and Chronicles of a Pure Laine. What gets to me in the pervasive attitude of English Canadians that the French should all speak English, but the English shouldn't learn to speak French. The hostility towards the French trying to protect their language against a tsunami of English is palpable, anglophones seem to take it as a personal affront.

Yet Canada has this incredible opportunity to become bilingual if it wanted to, instead it's drifting towards monolingualism and proudly so. Apparently there's nothing wrong with a francophone being forced to speak English in Québec despite French being the official language, but could you imagine the reaction of the English-speaking media if someone turned up to a hospital in Vancouver and the doctor said "Sorry, you'll have to speak in French because I don't speak English". There would be pitchforks and flaming torches in the streets baying for blood. Yet the English are confounded by francophone hostility. Four legs good, two legs bad.

This phenomenon isn't unique to English. The French are doing a good job at wiping the likes of Breton from the face of the planet, the Chinese are doing their best ethnic cleansing with the Tibetan language, South Africa has killed off the Bushman languages, Bo died just recently. However, due to its sheer population, China will soon replace the US as the dominant power in the world. Given the official Chinese attitude towards diversity, English might be a distant memory in 200 years at the hands of Mandarin, victim to the same phenomenon that caused its rise.

Language policy reminds me of the Borg from Star Trek. I fear for the day that the planet becomes just one monotonously monolingual monoculture.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The power of illiteracy

This is my first post, I'm in the process of moving house so it will be fairly short and rushed, so my apologies...

I read this article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day: It posits a change to conventional spelling based on mobile phones and the internet leading to simplified spelling conventions.

I understand that Professor Crystal is no fan of convention, but even he notes in the article that "Kids have got to realise that in this day and age, standard English spelling is an absolute criterion of an educated background". This is what worries me the most. As someone who works in a professional role, I'm encountering an increasing number of yopung people whom I supervise and interact with who have poor spelling and poor grammar. I don't blame just modern technology on this phenomenon (educational practices should shoulder a fair bit of blame), but what worries me is the growth in language "haves" and "have-nots". I've no objection to using abbreviations and text speak when appropriate, but if people don't also have the ability to write and speak in 'proper' English, then the reality is that they will be discriminated against. I for one can't use a lawyer, PR person or assistant who can't speak correct English. It would be a shame to see an underclass develop of people in a diglossic society where some can only write txtspk and others English.