Thursday, July 15, 2010

On bilingualism and dictionaries

My work stole me away from the Internets for a while, but I'm back! Unfortunately, work also slowed my reading down a bit, so here are the only books I have finished recently...

23. Bilingual: Life and Reality by François Grosjean

A great, great book for everyone who is interested in bilingualism, is bilingual, or is someone who is struggling to figure out a good way to raise their children bilingual or maintain their own bilingual abilities. The author refers to his more academically written book for more information, analysis and statistics while this book is kept very accessible on purpose.

It tackles all the most pervasive myths about bilingualism in both adults and children, such as that bilingual children will develop slower than monolingual children, or that being bilingual means you have to be a perfect speaker of two languages and anything else is not true bilingualism. For the author, bilingual is a person who uses every day (more or less) two languages. Because most people use different languages in different situations--such as one at home and one for official business--it automatically means that they cannot be perfect in both languages. Or rather, a person who is perfect in all the languages he or she is using is a rarity. As a personal example, I can talk about computers easily in English, but I was totally screwed back in Finland when we were trying to buy a motherboard. I had no idea what it would be called in Finnish--the language I had been primarily using up until my twenties!--and not only that, I had a hard time even explaining what I wanted to the shopkeeper without sounding like a dimwit (plus he tried to sell me a hard-drive when I knew for sure that's not what I wanted, so he didn't seem to know what was going on, either...). I realized that there was no Finn in my life with whom I would have talked about computers as extensively as I had done in English. The reverse happens when I try to talk in English about, say, building structures: not only are homes often built differently in the US and Finland and thus would require different vocab, I just had not had an opportunity to talk to anyone in English about building materials before someone asked me whether Finns sauter their pipes... The problem was not that I don't understand the concept of sautering--it's that I had never heard that word before in English.

I had never dared to call myself a bilingual before because of these myths: how could I be truly bilingual when I was not raised bilingual at home or in my living environment. I was told, even on college level, that if the language you have learned was learned at school, you can't call yourself bilingual. I can't be a true bilingual because there are situations where I don't know the vocabulary. I can't be a true bilingual because I have an accent. Reading this book was a huge relief for me and a revelation: duh, of course I am bilingual because I communicate in two languages on a daily basis. That's all you need. What a relief!

24. The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch

After the fairly dry history of how the first English dictionaries came about (except the part that disses Samuel Johnson in very delicious terms!) the book dives straight into the debate of what is proper English and what is not, and who are to blame for some very nonsensical rules. The best parts of this book were the sections where Lynch discusses why English spelling reformation will never, ever happen although it should, and why criticism of non-standard Englishes like AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) usually is nothing more than attempts at trying to thinly veil one's classicism and racism in academic concerns on the status of "proper" language usage. Somehow when a black person says "I axed" it's an infuriating bastardization of language, but it's fine if Samuel Johnson has so said and written back in the day.

Also, Lynch takes on people who believe that English language is going to hell in an iPhone docking station because of the language kids use in text messages. Curiously enough, the much-advertised high school essay that was full of gr8ts and LOLs has never been found, and Lynch deems it nothing but a "a friend of a friend of mine once saw..." urban legend. It seems that kids still do understand that most of the time there is a time to use the standard English they learn at school, and that it's fine to play around with language in other venues. As an example of this, Lynch mentiones LOLcats, where you take a picture of a cat, and photoshop a caption onto the picture in ungrammatical English. Although some academics have gotten their ascots in a twist over this and see lolcats as definite proof of English's downfall, Lynch reminds people that lolcats creators know how English language works, and they write badly on purpose. If lolcats peeps really did not know how to write standard English, they would not be able to write hilarious captions where horrible sounding English has a logic (such as use an -s plural for irregular plurals, like in my favorite lolcat where a budgie stands in a plate of mac and cheese, saying "IM IN UR MACARONIS WARMING MY FEETS.")

Oh, and about the English spelling reformation. I did not know about this: apparently the reason why English spelling is so messed up is because the first printing presses used only letters found in Latin. People were too lazy to hew additional letters to match English sounds, and thus they ended up discarding letters like the thorn and frantically tried to come up with letter combinations that would reflect the same kind of a sound. Tut tut. Also, one of the reasons (and you should check out the book for the rest, because they are all fascinating!) for the spelling reform failing is that people are not aware of how they pronounce words, and thus they would not be able to produce in writing accurately what they say (reformers want English to be written the way it's pronounced.) Most people would think that to make plurals out of dog and house is the same: you just add an -s. But when you now pronounce the new words, the -s is pronounced differently in these words. For houses it's more like a z. So, I guess after spelling reform, people would be spelling house as haus or hauz. Additionally, there would be even more variety because spelling reformers seem to have forgotten that there is no one English in existence: there is a ton of variety. Even within the United States. So in order to start implementing a "one letter-one sound" rule for English, they would have to choose one lucky variety of English that everyone would need to learn to pronounce in order to communicate with each other in writing. Otherwise, writing would be nonsensical because every dialect would write words down differently (just think of a simple word like house: haus, hauz, aus, oos, haas...). Had the printing press boys just carved those extra letters and used them in printing English texts, we would not be in a mess where a kid is lauded nationally for being able to spell a word correctly upon hearing it...

Lynch has a very level-headed approach to English language, especially when it comes to varieties: we should not be talking about "bad" English if someone does not speak like we do. Instead, we should talk about appropriate English, because not all varieties of English--including standard English taught at schools--are appropriate at all times.

Let me have a fan-girl moment here. Lynch <3

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