Do you speak a language?

“I just don’t get these ESL students.”

I looked up from the essay I was grading, unable to ignore what I’d just heard. Having taught ESL for so long made me perhaps a bit maternal and overprotective of those I thought of as “my students.”

“Why don’t they understand grammar?”

He was an older man, a fellow adjunct in the English department, and he taught the same remedial writing classes as I did that semester. I’d encountered him before at these test scoring sessions, and based on the conversations we had at the table, he seemed reasonably intelligent and well-read.

“I mean, it’s all the same, isn’t it? Well, except for the vocabulary.”

Wait…what? Did he mean that? No, no, I must have misunderstood. It’s not possible that an educated professor of English could have such a profound misunderstanding of how language works. Could he?

“For example, word order is subject-verb, right? If they can do that in their own language, why can’t they figure that out in English?”

He could. I just couldn’t sit there anymore and be silent. Frankly, I was a little surprised that I made it this far without whimpering in pain. I began to explain that other languages do, indeed, have different grammar; that not every language follows a subject-verb-object word order; that in fact, some languages even include subject and objects in affixes on the verb itself!

He seemed completely baffled and unconvinced. And I had even watered it down for him.

How do people become so misinformed about language? And worse, why are they so unwilling to believe that linguistics is an actual field of study, and someone else might have a deeper understanding of language the same as, say, a dentist has of teeth, or an engineer has of bridges? Perhaps it’s because everyone speaks a language, so they feel like instant experts. We all have feet, too, so does that make us all podiatrists? Perhaps they lack even the understanding that language is a subject that can even be studied in an objective way.

That conversation was only one of many that I’ve had over the years with people who didn’t quite understand what it was to have studied linguistics. Some of my favorite questions were:

Sooo…linguistics…what is that exactly?
I guess you speak a lot of languages, huh?
What do you do with that?
So, do you, like, speak a language, then?

And when hearing that I also focused a lot of my work on signed languages, I would get this one: Aren’t all sign languages the same? Why would they have a different grammar? How can they communicate with each other?

Well, how can we communicate with a French speaker, or a Chinese, Russian, or Maori speaker? We can’t, of course, unless we also speak those languages or we have a translator. We can understand this in relation to spoken languages (well, fore-mentioned English prof excluded), but apparently not with signed languages. It’s fascinating, then, that a system so misunderstood by so many may be the key to understanding some of the more mysterious aspects of language itself and how it helps define us as human beings.

This point was made in an article I saw in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Hands and Faces Spoke Long Before Our Tongues.” The article described speculation that language first evolved as a signed communication system, rather than a spoken one.  “Most hearing people wonder why sign language is not internationally standardized. Answer: for the same reason spoken language is not standardized. Language is an evolved, not an ordained, order.” The WSJ article also made reference to Nicaraguan Sign Language, and how studying it gives us insight into the innate ability of humans to create language. It’s a fascinating case, almost like being able to watch evolution take place in a generation or two rather than thousands of years.

There’s still so much we don’t know about language, but we’re getting there. And for every mystery still left for linguists, there are dozens more that exist for people who still think that their dog can perfectly understand human speech, or that a person can be fluent in a foreign language simply by watching TV for a month. And so, I’m left with hoping that I can, in some small, limited way, help people understand a little bit more about these crazy sounds coming out of our mouths, or these random symbols on the screen that represent our thoughts, our feelings, and our very selves.

8 thoughts on “Do you speak a language?

  1. Officially, I love your blog. I stumbled upon it from Freshly Pressed today (well, just now, really), and I am so glad that I did. (I’m avoiding working on my dissertation right now….) I don’t remember now what it was that I was watching…but it was recent, and it was a comedy that featured someone who was signing something to a non-English deaf person. (Such detail! Surely you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about! Lol.) Anyway, what struck me was that I recognized a few American English signs (enough to tell that the person signing was doing so in ASL), and I remarked to my husband, “it’s really odd that the foreigner is responding in ASL instead of their own sign language….” I was bothered for the rest of the night. And I don’t even know sign language that well…in ASL or any other language. I wish now that I could remember what it was that we were watching because that would be the perfect example of what you’re talking about here.

    I’m scared to ask if some people think that all blind readers of any country read the same system of Braille….

    I’m glad that I came upon your blog! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed, too. :) I’m adding you to my subscriptions–as a PhD student in English, I am super-interested in languages. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t miss my calling a smidge. (I kind of love looking through the OED to trace etymologies…and sentence diagramming…I could do that for hours.) Your blog will certainly do the trick to satisfy that need for linguistics exploration I have. :) Thanks!

    • “I’m scared to ask if some people think that all blind readers of any country read the same system of Braille….”

      It’s worse than that. I’ve had people ask me if deaf people have to learn Braille. After a while, I stopped trying to keep the shock off my face, and simply replied, “No…because they can see, you know!”

      I would have been annoyed at that scene, too! I remember the Seinfeld episode when Kramer supposedly used ASL with Marlee Maitlin, but he was totally “speaking” gibberish. At least that was on purpose for humorous effect! :)

      I’m so glad you stopped by and like it enough to stick around! :) Thanks!
      I almost majored in English when I was in college, but I got totally hooked after my very first class in linguistics. It’s nice to meet other people whose interests intersect as ours do, between literature and linguistics.

  2. Hi! I came across your blog from Freshly Pressed as well, and I’m glad. It’s nice to read someone’s rant about the exact thing that bothers me.

    I think I’m going to have to use my “As a trilingual…” cred a lot more. It’s amazing the things people take for granted about their language or culture. Even talking with some of the ESL/EAP instructors who only know one language, it’s amazing the assumptions that they make and the things they don’t realise students need to know.

    Anyway, I’m adding you to my subs so that I have a source of linguistic discussion, since you know different languages and therefore have a different perspective than I.

    • Welcome! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my frustration. I expect some of these misconceptions to come from people who don’t have any interest in languages, but it is sometimes so disheartening to hear it from people who are in the business of teaching language or literature! And it always amazed me to see English native speakers relying on answer keys in their textbooks when teaching ESL/EAP. Can’t they figure it out? Sheesh!

  3. Hello!
    I’ve just discovered your blog and am enjoying myself so much reading your posts! I’m a PhD student in English literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and I also teach – mostly beginners’ classes, so I know all about the problems of explaining unfamiliar grammar rules (the majority of my students are French, but there is a smattering of Spanish/Chinese/Arabic speakers as well). When I see the frown lines deepening on their faces, I know I’m in for a session of “But Madame… WHY???”
    I confess I am better versed in literature than in linguistics, but your writing is so clear, and the topics you discuss so interesting, that I’m definitely going to come back for more!
    I have a blog of my own, Miss Darcy’s Library, about the books I read – you’re welcome to drop by and have a look…

    • Thanks, I’ll definitely check it out. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I know I have fun writing it :)

      One of the questions I took an intense dislike to from my students was, “But why is English so illogical? It’s not like [insert native language here], which is so clear!”

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