Language learning, or, who you callin’ a dialect?

When people talk about formal versus informal learning, or training versus instruction, or similar after-the-conference-but-still-in-the-bar topics, I tend to watch for hidden discriminations–clusters of things that are different, tucked into a conceptual container and wrapped in paper that says “generalization.”

Take “learning a language,” about as good an example of a complex skill as you could find. What do you mean by “learning?”  In fact, to me there’s a curious time-travel aspect to it: someone who’s learning a language clearly has a way to go; someone who’s learned a language is evidently a skilled user — but how did she get from the one state to the other?

When linguists get together, of course, they ask, “What do you mean by ‘language?'”  Or maybe they don’t, because most of them know about Max Weinreich, the linguist, who said:

אַ שפראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמײ און פֿלאָ
A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot.
(A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.)

(I did come across a variation: a language is a dialect with a missionary.)

To me the relevant point is that, at least for adults, it’s the learner who decides what a language is, and who (probably with help) decides on what learning means. It might be the learner accepts the definition of other people, like the language program in a college. Or he may have a more pragmatic definition, like “get a job in Norway,” and uses that to help him choose what learning Norwegian means (reading, writing, and speaking it well enough to earn a living).

I’ve been mulling this over in terms of my own efforts to be more fluent in French. And like “learning” and “language,” “French” is a covert discrimination. Despite the eye-rolling that most Americans like to do when (once every six years or so) they think of l’Académie française, millions of people worldwide who are effectively if not officially part of La Francophonie don’t lose sleep over whether le week-end is in l’Académie’s dictionary.

There are the Acadiens, for instance, scattered over North America. The singer Zachary Richard gave a stirring performance of his song Réveille at an Acadien festival in New Brunswick a few years ago. I wrote about it and included an English translation of the lyrics here on my French-language blog, though I want to highlight what he said in his introduction:

I appeal for help on behalf of the Acadiens of Louisiana. We have fallen off the cliff, but we have not yet struck the ground.  The next generation in Louisiana will probably be the first in two hundred years not to speak French, or to understand that preserving the French language does not mean preventing the assimilation of Anglo-American words into our vocabulary — but preventing the assimilation of the French-speaking community on the border.

So what are they doing to (better) learn their language?  This video is in French; it describes efforts by Louisianans, especially those who identify as Acadien, to preserve or recover their language.  The first three minutes talk about people who meet weekly, for an hour, to speak only in French.

And if you advance to about the 3:00 mark, you’ll hear Erin Stickney from Lafayette, LA, speaking in French with a strong Southern American accent. At one point she says,

I would like (her children, when she has them) to learn the French of this region.  Because it’s important for Louisianans to learn the French of Louisiana. It’s good to learn the French of France also, but we have to learn this French we have here, because otherwise it’s practically the same as learning Arabic, Spanish, or Japanese. There’s a reason French exists here, and we have to continue that.

I admire the efforts these people are making. Stickney is able to converse with a French interviewer and to make herself understood.

Stephen Fry, of all people, spent some time with people who speak a much less widespread language: Irish.  (Many people tend to use “Irish” as the English word for Gaeilge, the Goidelic language of Ireland, and “Gaelic” for Gàidhlig, the Goidelic language of Scotland, though you’ll hear “Gaelic” applied to both.) He touches on native speakers and on efforts in Ireland to encourage use of the language, though it’s not an easily traveled road.

Jim McCloskey, an expert on modern Irish, has a refined view on the role of Irish.  “Traditional Gaeltacht Irish [Irish spoken as a first language in certain regions of Ireland] will almost certainly cease to exist in the next 30 years or so,” he wrote in this post on the Language Log blog. He does, however, see the creation of a lively “second language community” that’s much larger than the Gaeltacht community.  So for him, the disappearance of Irish may be more a transformation–fewer and fewer native speakers, but many people who use and enjoy using the language.

A final look at language use, again from the Language Log, involves an attempt to revive Cornish. When I took a linguistics course in grad school, one “fact” we learned was that the last native speaker of Cornish died in 1777.  Whether Dolly Pentreath was in fact the last person to have learned Cornish as a birth language doesn’t matter, because give or take a few years, no one has learned it as a birth language since Vermont was an independent country.

I return to Geoffrey Pullum’s post time and again. He’s talking about “living languages,” rather than “learning a language.”  The two are related, though, and this is his elegiac summary of what learning would have to be like to keep a language living:

Always remember this, as we head into the sad time of massive language extinctions that is coming. Ask around the village and find the age of the youngest people using a language every day for all their normal conversational interaction. If the answer is a number larger than 5, the language is probably dying. If the answer is a number larger than 10, it is very probably doomed. If the answer is a number larger than 20, you can kiss it goodbye right now: no amount of nostalgic appreciation of it will make it last even one more generation as a going concern.


One thought on “Language learning, or, who you callin’ a dialect?

  1. Well, I too think that the learner will be decided all the facts. The proper he is guided, the proper will be his accents. Within no time. the non-native English person will find himself master in speaking English.

    (This is Dave: I couldn’t resist approving this addled comment, though I did take the liberty of removing the actual email address and website. I suspect it was robo-spam, but you can of course decide for yourself.)

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