Wednesday 25 January 2012

On falling in love (with a language)

A correspondent - in this case, the author of several well-known books on bilingualism, François Grosjean, has sent me a link to his latest blog post. (Incidentally, his blog, 'Life as a Bilingual: the reality of living with two (or more) languages', is a splendid resource on this subject.)

The film Julie and Julia made him think of other people who had fallen in love with a culture and a language. I'm intrigued by the reasons for doing so. Sometimes it's the culture that provides the initial attraction; sometimes it's the language. In my case, I've experienced both.

I can still remember my first French lessons in secondary school, and falling in love with nasalized vowels. It was only much later, on my first visit to France, where I worked with a youth group (called Concordia) building a bridge in the mountains in Haute Savoie, that I realized there was a culture behind the language. Or rather, cultures. At the camp were several Algerians, and they lost no time putting me right about French, much to the disgust of the Parisians who were also there. It took some time for me to realize that I needed to supplement my Algerian colloquialisms with a different variety if I wasn't going to attract funny looks along the Left Bank.

Soon after, I saw an English-language film documentary about France, voiced by Orson Welles. I remember just one line from it. He said: 'Everyone has two homes; his own, and France'. I felt that way too.

The opposite situation took place when I first visited Brazil, for the British Council, in the 1960s, to teach on a summer school. It was February (think about it) and just before Carnival in Rio. I've talked about it in my Just a Phrase I'm Going Through, so I won't go into it here, except to say that in this case I arrived in Brazil with no knowledge of Portuguese at all. However, after a period of immersion in samba schools and the hit songs of the day, and meeting some wonderful people, I became virtually a native-speaker of musical Portuguese in three weeks. I still have a fine collection of vinyl records from that decade, and some of the songs have stayed with me. It was my primary motivation to get to grips with Brazilian Portuguese. I find the intonation patterns of the language, and especially of the Carioca dialect, hugely appealing. And the nasalization. (What is it about nasalization?)

So now I was in love with two languages. At the same time. The metaphor doesn't quite work in such cases. This was a new love-affair - but that metaphor doesn't seem right either, for I hadn't fallen out of love with my previous amour. I was equally in love with both.

And actually, now I think about it, both would in any case have been jealous of an even earlier love-affair - with Welsh, a language I had left behind when moving to Liverpool in the 1950s, but with which I was becoming intimate again after getting a job at Bangor in Wales.

It has been like that ever since. I guess being a linguist means one falls in love with every new language one has the opportunity to explore. They're all beautiful. I can't conceive of an unattractive language. I fell in love with Shona, on my first visit to Zimbabwe. And here the encounter with language and culture was pretty simultaneous. I suppose, if anything, the culture had come first, as I was there as a result of editing John Bradburne's poetry. (I tell that story here.) But that was an introduction to the culture through someone else's eyes. It's a very different experience when you visit yourself.

One's mother-tongue (or tongues) is an interesting case in point. I spend most of my life working on English. Am I in love with English? Yes, but it's different, in some indefinable way, from the feelings I have towards other languages. Maybe that's natural. Can one retain the same level of passion for the language(s) one lives with longest?

It's a commonplace to say that linguists love languages. But what kind of love is it? The analogy is not so much with married or unmarried love, it seems to me, for the associated terminology of flirtations and love-affairs doesn't fit very well. Rather, it's more like the love of a parent towards a child. Somehow, new additions to the linguistic family don't diminish the affection already felt towards the other members.

Then there's the other side of the coin. No wonder people can get so upset when a language dies.


Corey Heller said...

Dear David Crystal,

Lovely post! Prof. Grosjean sent me a link to this and I am delighted that he did. I was actually breathless when I read the part where you compare our love of languages to our love of children! I wrote and published the following a few years back (about why I raise my children in a non-native language, German) in Multilingual Living Magazine (and now available on our website titled, The Multilingual Life of a Non-Native Speaker:

"But this love for German did not come about through a rejection of English and the American culture, as some seem to think! I have not made a choice of one over the other, pushing aside one so that the other could take its place. The English language and the American culture were there when I was born and they are not going anywhere; they have a very strong foothold. But they now occupy a place in my heart together with the German language and culture, like a parent who has two children."

Falling in love with a language is something that is so very difficult to explain to others who have never fallen in love with one. It is such a rich emotional experience, one that goes far beyond the acquisition of words and grammar. It comes not from conquering or subduing (like an angry battle of aggression - even though it may begin that way). Instead, it comes from an opening of the heart, allowing ourselves to embrace and expand. It is about taking time, time to appreciate idiosyncrasies and nuances and minutia. It is about meeting half way - doing our part to stay dedicated and loyal, even after the initial love affair has ended. Falling in love with languages is rewarding because we give ourselves away in the process, allowing ourselves to become small and weak and uncoordinated, like a child first learning to walk - chatting with native speakers can make us fully aware of this! Learning a language is like being embraced by a parent who loves us fully and unconditionally. Until, eventually, we become the parent, and, in turn, are expected to wield our own language mastery with gentle domination: words are powerful! In the end, even if we slowly lose mastery of our language, it will have carved out a place inside of us that can never be replaced, can never go away. Languages conquer us with love, forever.

Corey Heller
Founder, Multilingual Living

P.S. After all of these years, I am still learning to live with the powerful experiences of living abroad:

DC said...

Beautifully put.

Brad said...

Really enjoyed and can identify with this post.

I think each linguist has a unique 'love' relationship with their languages. For me, it's sort of a chameleon love; for each language there is a different color or personality that rises out of me, from that culture, the feelings I experienced while learning and living there. I can feel my voice and movements change as well... feels like I'm slipping into a different acting role.

I do love speaking these languages and being seen differently as I speak them. A 'Chameleon-like love' sounds funny, but feels right, and actually it has certain parallels when compared to the love we feel for our children as there is a part of ourselves that we see and love in them.

Cheers, Brad

Marc Leavitt said...

My experience with other languages has been not unlike yours. French, German. and Italian, with two years in France. It has always been fascinating and rewarding.

Katia Novet Saint-Lot said...

Wonderful conversation ! I can totally relate, and I love the comparison with parental love, and how learning to speak another language broadens our hearts and minds as much as I love the last comment about slipping into a different personality when speaking another language. That's exactly how I feel.

raikouj said...

Having read this post, feel delighted that I will be attending your plenary on 'Plurilingualism, Pluridialection, Pluriformity' at TESOL Spain!

Love & Language - A Many-Splendoured Thing!

Julie & Julia

Cecilia said...

As a language lover myself, it gave me great pleasure to read such a truthful and endearing account.

As many who have read your post, I can see myself in so much of what you wrote! I like the way Brad described it a chameleon-like. I also see myself changing while I speak each different language, as I feel the strange (?) sounds and movements inside my mouth.

Each language has a different appeal, a different personality and I believe that personality is closely related to the culture of the language, of the people who speak. I still haven't come across a language I loved, whose culture I didn't love either. I hope I never do.

Thank you for it. Warm, sunny regards from Brazil. :-)

Meximeli said...

This made me think--do I love Spanish? (My second language). And if so, how do I love it, like a child, like a parent, like lover, a friend? It certainly not a fling, I've now spoken Spanish for almost 2/3s of my life. For me learning it was more like learning to swim. At first it was fun to slash around in the water. Then I learned to float. Then swim with ease and efficiency. Eventually, I became as comfortable in the pool as out of it. I occasionally dip into other bodies of it, the Spanish of Spain is a swift river I can swim in, but not with the ease and confience. Cuban Spanish, the stormy sea! But Mexican Spanish is my perfect pool, I'm boyant and graceful in ways I'm often not on land (in the land of English).

DC said...

NIce analogy.

Summer said...

I love your post =) I've been learning German for a little over a year now in order to study at a German university - quite functional a reason I thought for what is my fourth language. But it absolutely delights my heart to realise I can understand a snatched snippet of conversation in the bus with all sorts o noises around me. I get jokes and don't have to laugh nervously hoping the timing is right and I can watch dramatic soaps (Berlin Berlin in this case) and discuss plots at length with friends. The more I learn German, the more I feel accepted and that I belong, once again.

Anonymous said...

Can you point me to some research, David? I found this comment on a forum:-

“If you look at actual research (and there is plenty) on Welsh speaking children’s abilities – linguistically, cognitively and educationally – it shows that they are more advanced than monolingual children.”

Can you give me any links to this research? Thanks.

DC said...

Your best bet is to look at the general reviews of bilingualism which point out the many advantages. Chief amongst these, to my mind, is François Grosjean's Bilingual: Life and Reality (Harvard, 2010) and Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Multilinguals Are...? (Battlebridge, 2010). You might also find
this paper of mine of interest.

Anonymous said...

Eu também adoro a lingua dos brasileiros. O jeito (deles) de falar é lindo demais!

Mary Ellen

Shaun said...

Hello David,

I stumbled across your blog today after I added you on Twitter. I'm very glad to have found it!

You may not remember me, but we spoke briefly after your lecture at the University of Malta; I told you about how Maltese was 'morphing'.

Anyway, I'm a monolingual EFL teacher, and my wife is Czech architect whose English is still improving. We both live and work in Malta, but work in English language environments.

Our six month old daughter was born here, and is spoken to in Czech by my wife and in English by me. Once she starts speaking, I will eventually introduce a little Maltese vocab to her, very gradually.

Once she starts school, she will learn Maltese, but I have no idea how she will maintain all three languages. I fear that one language will fall by the wayside.

My wife is currently reading a Czech translation of a book titled 'The Bilingual Family'
by Edith Harding-Esch & Philip Riley. I hope it gives us some pointers...

(after I've finished reading my MA I'll make time to go back to learning Maltese)

A fascinated and grateful reader

bon said...

I would certainly prefer to read more foreign fiction which were translated from Czech translation to english, or in any languages.Because in that way I could have an idea what do people think,feel or their culture is.When we read books from a foreign country it seems like travelling in that country through the stories plot.We could recognize how they have been living afar from our own culture.