Saturday 28 July 2007

On bloglessness

Having noticed that my blog was silent during most of July, a regular reader has asked me whether I am still alive. I am. So why the bloglessness? Two reasons.

One is that my blog - as I mentioned in my very first post - is reactive not proactive. I am always happy to respond to messages sent in, but for some reason July was very quiet in that respect. Possibly the end of term left bloggers exhausted, or maybe holidays offered new non-blogging opportunities. The other is that I've been away myself, and it's never easy to maintain a blog when you're belting about abroad.

Especially when you're at a festival type of occasion. I was in Uherske Hradiste, in the Czech Republic, where they hold an annual international film festival. What's that got to do with linguistics, I hear you ask? Well, one of the organizers is a film-maker, Michael Havas, who is making a film on endangered languages - to be specific, on one such language, Krenak, spoken by less than a dozen people in Brazil. I've been acting as a consultant on this film, and the festival was an opportunity for Michael to show the pilot footage he has already shot, and to bring together the main people involved. And one of them was one of the last speakers, Ailton Krenak, an activist who had been flown over for the occasion. So that was special. I learned a few Krenak words. Erehe - good.

As part of the occasion there was a reading from my play 'Living On', which I've talked about in earlier posts. The plot involves an encounter with a last speaker, and explores his feelings about having his language documented by western linguists. It was an unusual experience reading from the play knowing that there was a genuine almost-last speaker in the audience, and I was eager to hear his reaction. We had a surprisingly meaningful chat about it, in a mixture of Brazilian Portuguese (which I know a bit) and English (which he knows a bit). He told me that he was used to westerners talking to his head, whereas my play had reached his heart. The thoughts of my character, Shalema, it seems, had been his too. I was delighted, and not a little relieved, to hear this. I had based my Shalema dialogue on many reports of real-life interactions with speakers of endangered languages, but this was the first time I had received feedback of this kind. I was also pleased that our bit of live theatre went down well with a film audience. It confirmed my belief (which I argued at length in a UNESCO paper in 2004 - you can read it on my website) that the arts are the best way of getting a message across to the general public.

Actually, I'm not sure what the usage is, in my first sentence above. Is one 'silent' when one does not blog for a while? Or 'quiet'? Or what? I don't know what the best collocation is.

On sounding British, not

A correspondent writes from Tehran worried about his English accent. He speaks English fluently, he says, but with a Persian accent which he finds 'very funny', and he goes on: 'is there any hope for me to speak English with an English or American accent? I am 26 years old and I am young enough to change my accent. I would really like to speak English with a good accent and not a Persian accent.'

Well I don't find the Persian accent - or any foreign accent - 'funny'' or 'bad' at all. If the sound system of a language has been mastered to the extent that speech is intelligible, then that suffices. I love hearing the range of identities that manifest themselves in English through foreign accents - a French accent, a German accent, a Persian accent, and so on. The accents convey the speakers' identites, and that is an important element in knowing who I am talking to. Exactly the ssme sort of thing happens to me when I go abroad. I speak whatever language it is in a distinctly British accent - and why not?

Why should anyone want to lose their identity so completely, in speaking a foreign language? Surely the only people who want to merge so totally into a new language that their ethnic origins cannot be noticed are spies? In fact it is very rare indeed for someone to develop a phonetic ability to the extent that their foreign origins are totally masked.

I can understand where my correspondent is coming from, of course. There was a time, in imperial days, when Received Pronunciation ruled (in British-influenced parts of the world) and foreign accents were risible. So were local UK regional accents. Speakers of such accents were often made to feel embarassed or inferior. It is only in the last 20 years or so that we have entered a new era of interest, tolerance, and respect for non-RP varieties of English. In 1980 the BBC's Radio 4 tried out a Scots-speaking presenter and hastily withdrew her when complaints built up. In 2005 the BBC celebrated all British accents in its Voices project. That is how far the climate has changed. Mocking accents, in an increasingly multi-ethnic world, is slowly being seen to be as anti-social as is mocking colour or dress.

It will take longer for these new attitudes to influence speakers abroad, but it will come. One reason for the lag is the existence in many parts of the world of an expat community of older citizens whose attitudes were formed a generation or two ago, and they inevitably influence local opinion. Another reason is that the phonetic norms and attitudes taught in many ELT institutions, especially in universities, are still focused sharply on RP - often displaying a conservative kind of RP which has long since disappeared from the UK - and I have often encountered there a reluctance to accept that other types of accent, and especially the local accents of the community, have a value.

Things are changing, though, as a result of new regional norms emerging around the English-speaking world. When millions of people speak English in a locally distinctive way - educated people alongside uneducated - then it does not take long for a tipping-point to be reached, and it becomes as pointless to condemn an accent in India or Nigeria for being non-RP as it would be to condemn Australians or Americans for speaking in the way they do. One needs to achieve a standard of international intelligibility, but that still leaves enormous scope for accent variation. In the end, it is a matter of confidence and pride.

When people adopt a language as a medium of communication, they immediately adapt it, to suit the new circumstances. A local accent is an inevitable and natural consequence. So I say to my Iranian correspondent: do not think of your Persian accent as being 'bad' or 'funny'. By all means move towards a British or American norm if you want to, but do this for positive reasons (eg a desire to identify more closely with those cultures) and not for negative reasons. However, as long as your accent is sufficiently clear that you are capable of being understood by people from outside your country, I wouldn't bother trying to change it at all.