Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A shortcut to ignorance

In my constant search for ways to stimulate my linguistic needs, I recently got my hands on a copy of the book titled Arabic for dummies by Moroccan author Amine Bouchentouf.

It’s a handy and fairly pedagogic guide to learning the basics of what is known as Modern Standard Arabic. It’s my intention to post a later entry discussing my experience with this book once I’ve read it all the way through and, hopefully, have acquired some degree of understanding of this interesting and important language. However, at the moment I will focus on one issue that caught my attention while reading the opening chapters.

As the title suggests, this book is very much intended for laymen with no previous knowledge of Arabic or linguistics in general. The author makes an effort to carefully explain even basic concepts such as nouns, adjectives and definite/indefinite article, while filling the margin with icons identifying paragraphs as cultural wisdom or grammatically speaking.

A quick glance at the table of contents confirms that this book is indeed aiming to teach the reader how to make basic small talk and get by in an Arabic speaking country or region – only one chapter is devoted to grammar, while other chapters have titles like ‘as-salaamu alaykum!: Greetings and Introductions, This Is Delicious! Eating In and Dining Out and Ten Favorite Arabic Expressions. The structure is similar to a school text-book with chapters focusing on specific everyday situations and presenting various phrases and key words useful in these contexts.

As Bouchentouf is/was living in New York City, the book is clearly written with an American (English speaking) audience in mind. The first chapter is titled You Already Know a Little Arabic, and starts with a short list of words that are similar in both English and Arabic, due to loans and influencing in both directions. This section is obviously intended to spark an interest for the Arabic language, and to make it seem relevant to the average American. While this list really adds nothing to the book except for a fun facts value, the uninterested can simply skip past the section and move on to the introduction of Arabic letters and pronunciation.

However, this is where the targeting of (American) English speakers becomes a real problem. Bouchentouf introduces the consonants and vowels of the Arabic language along with concise pointers on pronunciation, such as sounds like the “d” in dog or sounds like the “f” in Frank. This strategy becomes more troublesome when it comes to sounds that have no direct equivalent in English, and the author uses sounds from other languages such as like the Spanish “r”, rolled really fast or sounds a lot like “Bach” in German or “Baruch” in Hebrew. These descriptions require some previous knowledge of other foreign languages.

Even bigger problems arise with sounds peculiar to Arabic, or at least uncommon in other large language groups. For example, try to work out the pronunciation from this description: No equivalent in English; imagine the sound you make when you want to blow on your reading glasses to clean them; the soft, raspy sound that comes out is the letter. Now the reader is required to have bad eyesight?

It really is an admirable attempt to explain these exotic sounds to an American audience using simple, non-technical terms, but such an approach unavoidably has its drawbacks. Certain sounds may be uncommon and only appear in very few languages, and it’s important to understand that sounds not learned in the early childhood can be difficult to produce later in life, even with practice. Furthermore, all second language learners should be aware that nuances in the pronuncation of foreign languages can be almost impossible to spot if such distinctions are not used in one’s native tongue.

This issue has previously bothered me when trying to explain the pronunciation of Swedish words and sounds to native English speakers. More importantly, I encountered the same problem while studying the Chinese language at university. Some Chinese sounds appear exotic to speakers of both Swedish and English. In the common pinyin method of romanization, these sounds are represented by letters or letter combinations such as x, sh, q, ch, z, c etc. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols used to represent these sounds are, in the same order, as follows: [ɕ], [ʂ], [tɕʰ], [tʂʰ], [ts], [tsʰ]. If these symbols do little or nothing to help you, rest assured that you are far from alone.

I will not discuss the actual pronunciation of these sounds any further in this entry, since it is irrelevant to the topic. My point is that second language learners are rarely expected to have mastered the IPA phonetic symbols beforehand, and that they are unlikely to do so unless given extensive education on the subject of articulation. Since such education would be a side-step from the actual language learning, and would require a certain amount of time allotted to subjects other than the second language as such, teachers often use shortcuts to the pronunciation of exotic sounds, hoping that these will be more comprehensible to students.

The obvious problem with this method is that the more familiar explanations of unfamiliar sounds may be too arbitrary to actually be helpful. My Chinese teachers used the common Swedish sj sound as an approximate to the Chinese sh, and in order to produce the Chinese x I was instructed to move the place of articulation toward the teeth. Since the students in my group came from many different parts of the country, they also brought different dialects to the classroom, and with different dialects comes different pronunciations of even those sounds most common to the language. The various methods used by the students to produce the sj sound could be described, in more technical terms, as denti-alveolar, alveolar, palato-alveolar etc.

In Swedish, these different points of articulation when producing this particular sound are all accepted as allophones of the same phoneme. What this means is that they are seen as variations to one basic speech sound, so that varying the pronunciation in this manner makes no difference to the meaning of the word, or to the meaning of the sound itself. It would seem justified, then, to ask which one of these allophones best approximates the Chinese target sound, and indeed if any of the allophones are adequate for this purpose. The question becomes even more problematic when we consider some of the sketchier descriptions used by Bouchentouf. It seems unlikely that all people produce the same sound when cleaning their reading glasses, and thus we need to know which version of this sound best approximates the Arabic target sound.

Let’s not forget that the IPA is there for a reason. In fact, in second language learning an objective, non-ambiguous description of unfamiliar speech sounds is absolutely indispensable. Referring to speech sounds in the native tongue of the learner as approximations of sounds in the second language is problematic for two major reasons. First, as I have discussed above, there is rarely, if ever, one absolute standard for the pronunciation of any sound in any language, which raises the obvious question of which one of the naturally occuring variations is supposedly similar to the target sound.

But perhaps more importantly, this method leaves second language learners largely in the dark about finer nuances of pronunciation. What is implied is that you will never understand this distinction, so don’t even bother trying. Considering the fact that second language learners make the effort to learn a whole new language, it is my opinion that teachers could be expected to teach that same language without taking shortcuts.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who the blood clot wrote this?

Going off on a tangent to the previous entry I would like to briefly discuss my experience as a second language learner of English, and specifically one of the problems that I have dealt with in becoming a fluent speaker, namely accent.

This entry was actually triggered by a Youtube comment that caught my eye earlier this week. Browsing through random dancehall songs and videos I stumbled upon a comment posted by a user apparently annoyed with the Patois style of writing used by many other authors in the comment section:

so many scrots on here talk gibberish wanna be yardy probably from uk usa or germany . i have listened and love reggae 20 years know every artist but talk english as i am English and white . people should understand you can like something without being a total prick mi dun bullet sei ! and yes i have just kissed my rass clot bumba pussy clot blood clot teeth get my point

This comment is intriguing on several levels. The main point seems to be that users should stick to their own local accent/dialect/slang when commenting, and not adapt the Jamaican slang used by the artist in the video. The author states his nationality as English, and then goes off on a rant in Jamaican slang to prove the point that while he’s well-versed in this style of writing/talking, he normally uses a more standard British English to convey his message. Apparently his dialect includes no upper case letters (except sometimes the initial E in English), a mandatory blank space before every full stop, and a general lack of other punctuation and conjunctions.

Am I simply mocking this person? No, I’m quoting this comment because it represents an approach to accents with which I fundamentally disagree. While I believe that the author has a point in that there’s no real purpose for native speakers of various English dialects to alter their style of writing to better suit the contents of the video in question, other parts of the comment appear to me much less helpful.

My immediate response to reading this comment was What English dialect should Germans be using? Should they imitate a British or an American accent? A New York or an Alabama accent? Perhaps an Australian or a New Zealand accent? Or should they all be deliberately speaking English with a German accent, just in case? And does it make any difference if it’s a white German or a black German?

I battled with much the same questions during my school years. Attending an International Baccalaureate school here in Sweden I was often encouraged to imitate a British accent in speech, though it was never stated which one. Mainly because most students were more familiar with American English through television and movies, however, teachers soon gave up on this goal and replaced it with encouraging students to stick to one particular accent, as if interchangeable use of the words petrol and gasoline would somehow make a text incoherent.

At first, the justifications given by teachers were simply that British just sounds better and that British is the standard English. The former is of course a subjective viewpoint, while the latter is a strange/false/ill-informed statement. As any teacher of the English language should know, the details of language use on the British islands are changing with time, just like in every other area on Earth. Would it not make more sense, based on these arguments, for students to imitate Shakespeare or Chaucer? Or perhaps IB schools should go all out and teach 5th century Old English?

Later on the justifications changed form, with teachers now urging students to sound like a native. Although sometimes justified when commenting on unnatural pronunciation or poor grammar, it always bothered me when a student was corrected with the words this would immediately betray you as a non-native speaker. On these occasions I would always object by saying So what? I won’t be working as a spy. Because in what other contexts would your nationality be top secret? Why should we be so concerned with hiding our linguistic origins?

We shouldn’t. In fact, this reasoning could only be valid if students had been taught many different accents so that they could later somehow blend in with native English speakers from different parts of the world. Obviously this strategy is both impractical and unnecessary. After all, a German speaking flawless British English would only be mistaken for a native in Britain. In the company of, let’s say, Australians it would seem to make very little difference if this same person could be correctly identified as a German, or if he would be mistaken for an Englishman.

Thus I’m back to where I ended the previous entry: You are the only one speaking exactly like you. Suppressing your accent is hiding your past, and I can’t think of many situations in which this would be necessary or even desirable. I won’t say that making oneself understood is the only, although it’s certainly the main, purpose of language, but even when striving for beauty or artistic value these qualities may be closer than expected.

Re-reading the Youtube comment quoted at the beginning of this entry, it strikes me: Had the author not explicitly stated his nationality, I would never have guessed it. Either this user is not recognized as a native by his fellow Brits, or my teachers were wrong.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Does this make sense?

I’ve recently been pondering the relationship between native speaker dialects, and accents displayed by second language speakers of the same language. We might ask why it is that we perceive one accent as simply a dialect, while another accent will lead us to assume that the owner is not a native speaker, but to me the more important question would be why a dialect is accepted by native speakers as just a non-standard variety while foreign sounding accents are often condemned as bad [insert language].

As any linguist would tell you, it’s not entirely obvious that there actually is a thing such as bad language. The goal of spoken language is communicating, which means that any oral communication that is not failing in conveying the intended meaning could not in any useful sense be labelled bad. Language, especially written, could be considered ugly, unpleasant, annoying, overly complicated and much more, but so long as the message is clear complaining about the form in most contexts seems pedantic and pointless.

It’s when language is illogical that real problems arise. Although the norms of any natural language are constantly evolving, some governing rules do exist or communication would be impossible. Children acquiring their first language are extremely attentive to such patterns, to the point where exceptions to a rule are ignored in early phases. In fact, irregular verbs and adjectives are generally treated by children in a certain phase of language acquisition as if they were regular. For example, a child might say I catched a butterfly and only later learn that the standard past tense form for catch is actually caught. Since this and other irregular conjugations are exceptions to a general rule, they cannot be learned as a chunk but are instead acquired one by one.

So what does this have to do with the topic? Well, it seems to me that while slightly different pronunciation or slightly expanded/altered vocabulary is accepted by all but the most conservative as simply a small variation of the standard, slightly different grammar will be frowned upon by many as bad language. Cases of non-standard grammar are often considered mistakes in communication. A child using the non-standard plural form deers is more likely to be corrected by its parents than one speaking with, for example, slightly more open vowels than the parents.

Pronunciation is the major difference between many dialects. Taking British and American English as examples, any native speaker of either of the dialects would instantly be able to tell the difference from pronunciation alone. Although the sound values of consonants may be essentially the same in both dialects, they are easily told apart by differences in prosody and the pronunciation of vowels and certain words. However, the same grammatical rules are shared by both British and American English. These are clearly two varieties of the same language.

Non-standard grammar seems to be considerably more difficult for native speakers to look past, and language containing such deviations is often thought of as sloppy or wrong. In my opinion, much of this view may stem from the instinctive feeling that non-standard grammar makes language illogical since deviations are mixed in with the normative rules, and/or that the vocabulary of one language is mixed with the grammatical rules of another.

Upon closer examination we may however find that the perceived illogicality is actually perfect logic based on rules unfamiliar to us. For example, a native speaker of English is likely to correct a second language speaker for saying I have hunger instead of the standard I am hungry, even though such a construction is the standard in many languages, such as French (avoir faim). If the speaker is French it is reasonable to assume that this construction is a direct translation of how she would express herself in her native tongue.

The point is of course that non-standard grammar is rarely just random mistakes but more likely has a pattern and logic of its own, and this pattern may have developed among native speakers or been brought in from a different language altogether. This goes to the core of the questions that I posed in the beginning of this post. If it is the case that non-standard use of a language does have governing rules in the same sense as the standard, then what exactly is the difference between a variety considered a dialect and one considered a foreign accent?

My answer is that the origin of an accent is often obvious to us through other means than careful analysis of grammar. We might for example know that no first language speaker regardless of dialect would use a certain construction, thus we can safely conclude that the speaker is not a native. Alternatively we might draw conclusions based on the appearance of the speaker, or our knowledge of the prosody of the speaker’s native language might betray her (some languages exhibit a bounded stress system, for example Finnish where the main stress is always on the first syllable of a word).

While we can obviously distinguish between a dialect and a foreign accent in most cases, there is no practical reason for doing so in everyday situations. In a time when different cultures, ethnicities and languages are widely exposed to each other, it makes no sense viewing a language spoken with a foreign accent as a flawed imitation of the language as it should be. It is more useful to accept a foreign accent as just another dialect, but coming in from a different angle.

Language is a continuum, and regardless of your native tongue you are the only one speaking exactly like you. It is an important lesson for all of us to learn that the idea of the one true variety of any language, from which every dialect ultimately stems, is nothing but a myth. This is the first step toward changing the question from Does this sound right? to Does this make sense?