Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some thoughts on language and culture

Late last year I raised the issue of accents in relation to language-learning. I was thinking about the way my French teachers had exaggerated the importance of getting the accent right (over fluency and effective communication). There was a element of snobisme in this. For example, there was a joke about one of my high school teachers (of Social Studies, not French, though he later taught in the Italian Department of my university). The cosmopolitan Mr. Lionel Lobstein was known to speak ten languages – all with the same accent. (Very funny it seemed at the time.*)

I liked the man, actually. He was charmingly awkward and wore strange, brightly-coloured woven ties (of which he clearly had a very large collection). He used to tell us about his Greek holidays which he seemed to spend sipping drinks and talking in shady, paved courtyards. The Greeks, he said, had their priorities right and valued conversation above practical household tasks and duties like mowing the lawn (or paying the bills?). There was a hint of sexist double standards in his attitudes, even a trace of misogyny, but one had the sense that he had been disappointed in love.

Getting back to the theme of language, however, we don't expect the French or other non-native English speakers to eliminate their native accents (and in fact tend to be rather disappointed if they do), so why should we try to eliminate ours?

But, of course, the goal of a 'perfect' accent was always, in classroom contexts at least, aspirational only. The actual goal was not so much to eliminate as merely to tone down or minimize the learner's inevitable (and unconscious) tendency to apply elements of the sound system of his or her native language to the language being learned.

In fact there is a lot to be said for general prescriptive standards with respect to accents and language generally (as well as for other aspects of social life) so long as they are sufficiently elastic to allow scope for a certain degree of individual variation and sensitive to wider currents of social and cultural change. Changing standards reflect a changing world.

Standards can be associated with perceived prestige and can change quite rapidly. Certainly, perceptions of the status and desirability of various British accents have changed dramatically in recent decades and the same probably applies to other languages.

But, while perceptions from within particular linguistic communities can change quickly, global perceptions shift more slowly and tend also to be associated with geopolitical and economic factors. A form of British English persisted as an international standard long after the power of the British Empire had faded. Cultural prestige, you could say, is a lagging indicator of a nation's geopolitical fortunes.

Given America's recent global dominance, it is hardly surprising that American English is currently riding high, the vast majority of learners aspiring to master American English and the accent known as General American – even if the United States is now seen in many quarters as a fading (and increasingly unloved) centre of power. And because so many non-native English speakers have in recent times learned English in school from an early age, typically using American-produced materials, their English is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from that of Americans born and bred.

English may seem a bit like today's equivalent of Latin in medieval Europe, a universal language, but a better comparison might be with Koine Greek in the Mediterranean world circa 2000 years ago. Medieval Latin was primarily an ecclesiastical language and a language of scholarship and the law defining a pan-European cultural and scholarly elite, whereas English, while it has become the international language of science and scholarship, is perhaps even more significant (as Greek was in the Roman world) as a language of commerce and popular culture.**

Though not having to learn a second language to get on in the world can be interpreted as an advantage accruing to native English speakers, there may also be a downside for them, especially for speakers of the standard forms. Leaving aside questions of the various intrinsic and extrinsic values which are sometimes associated with bilingualism – and of course there is nothing stopping English speakers from learning another language – there is another issue which is worth noting. Namely, that native speakers of English generally, and American speakers of General American in particular, may be seen to have suffered a strange kind of cultural loss in that they no longer have 'ownership' of their own language.

They can never retreat into that familiar and intimate linguistic realm defined by common ancestry and shared culture and memories which a native language has traditionally provided.*** For them language and accent have, to a large extent, ceased to operate as a badge and guarantor of cultural identity.

Moreover, native speakers of the standard forms of English have effectively lost control of their language as it becomes the common property of – and will increasingly be shaped to meet the needs of – the many hundreds of millions of people from very different cultural backgrounds who have adopted it.

* Something similar, I later learned, was said of John von Neumann. But when one is a supreme mathematical genius the small matter of an entrenched Hungarian accent is beside the point (or even an asset perhaps).

** The enthusiasm for all things Greek in Roman times – it was fashionable to have a Greek slave to tutor your children, I understand – is another example of cultural prestige long outlasting the power and wealth of the originating nation.

*** A linguistic matrix of this kind has been a key feature of most human cultures – the bedrock, in fact – and an important driver of creativity. For example, vernaculars formed the basis of much modern European culture, and early literary works (in, for example, the Romance languages or English or German, or, later, the Slavic languages) were often seen as social and political statements, implicitly affirming the value not only of the particular language but also of its associated culture.