Changing the set

Jagoda Ratajczak, kategoria: English readers are welcome

Who are we when we speak our second language? Does being bilingual mean having two personalities too? Is a language barrier a real obstacle on the way towards getting to know another person?  What’s the opinion of common people, what’s the opinion of linguists and why shouldn’t you believe in what Depeche Mode sing about? This post is dedicated to everyone who had or has a partner from abroad…

Polish version here

Probably the most fascinating Depeche Mode’s video is the one in which the lead singer, Dave Gahan, dressed up as a king and carrying a deckchair, wanders through hills and plains without being even slightly distracted by changing seasons and weather conditions. During his stroll, he every now and then sits back in his deckchair and enjoys the views singing that silence is cool, words are very unnecessary and they can only do harm[1]. For stifled corporation workers whose day-to-day business is keeping their nose to the grindstone, taking a Dave Gahan walk, with a crown on the head, in serenity and with utter disregard for the outside world, may be even therapeutic, but trusting the poet’s words may be dangerous. After all, words ARE VERY necessary and even if they sometimes do harm, as the King Gahan sings, more often than not, their absence or inappropriate use may do even greater harm, especially during the mission known as „getting to know each other”. Speech is silver and silence is gold, but this pertains to the half of the cases only; in the other half of the cases there is no gold, but the layer of Chinese golden varnish and as you scratch it off with your nail, you find out the genuine reason behind silence, the reason which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with diplomatic reserve or unwillingness to waste one’s breath. In fact, and this conclusion is far from being revealing, the most common reason behind silence is language impotence, especially if we talk about the situations which require switching into our second language.

Language impotence, however, has more than one face- apart from those who don’t speak at all or just some 5% of what they’d really like to say, there are also those who do speak and speak a lot, but they are unable to use their L2 effectively enough to express their brilliance, sense of humour or personality, the very same traits which are compellingly expressed in their mother tongue. Witty jokes and remarks, spontaneous wordplays, they all suddenly disappear or at least get lacklustre as the speaker uses his or her L2, even if they have mastered it quite well. They suddenly change their potentially interesting and complex rants into matter-of-fact and essential messages or they simply speak in a way which is completely different from the L1 style in general. Here, L2 is like a waiter in a restaurant, and a rude one; in the first case, when we deal with complete language impotency, this is a waiter who is asked to come to the table, yet he doesn’t come and forces us to gaze at our empty plate and to latch desperately to the crumbs thrown by the interlocutor. In the latter case, on the other hand, when our language repertoire turns out to be impoverished, the language is a waiter who does approach our table and accepts the order, but the dish he serves is different to what we ordered; he serves what he is able to serve, which is sometimes far less than we’d like to get…or something completely different.

Disagreement with a waiter is a pesky thing, especially if you go to a restaurant to have a romantic session with your beau or gf from abroad and, much to your chagrin, the bloke doesn’t appear at all or doesn’t live up to your expectations and you need to communicate somehow!  Bearing in mind these potential dangers as well as technical problems, you can really admire or possibly disbelief the effectiveness of communication between the so called mixed couples, especially if none of the parties engaged is proficient in the language they use to communicate. What we say and the way we say it, conveys the truth about us- still, is this truth able to emerge from the conversation we hold in a language that confines us?

What you convey by means of language is not only pure content and nitty-gritties like „Don’t order pepperoni pizza” or „Every year I go scuba diving to Egypt”; what you convey by means of language is also personality and your way of being which is expressed in the way you speak, the words you use, numerous subtleties and even in the concentration of swearwords, language errors or sloppiness. Language barrier can block the flow of simple messages, let alone more sophisticated ones, jokes, or instant retorts. L2 used by the people who are not embedded in it, seems to reveal nothing more than a demo version of their personalities. Their personalities in 100% genuine, multidimensional and complex versions based upon L1, seem to be hidden somewhere behind the facade. And this remark is only one step away from a used-to be-poplar theory which said that bilingualism entails split identity.  This theory is a relic of the times when bilingualism was an exotic or even disconcerting phenomenon associated with the biblical glossolalia, stigmatised and considered a side effect of getting ensnared by some satanic tentacles. Poor reputation of bilingualism didn’t change for a long time, even though a new tendency appeared, the tendency to mix and put people, languages and cultures into a melting pot. At that time, bilingualism was associated mainly with immigrants who were often poorly educated and by the same token, perfectly fitting into the role of a scapegoat, freely dubbed the dull heads of society. Nowadays, not only is bilingualism a common phenomenon, but it’s also a desired one, the trait that everybody wants to possess, particularly those who wish to become successful, get attention or at least get out of the corner in which they sit, frustrated and passive as the conversations in English are held next to them. Most of those people who became bi- or multilingual don’t know the issue of split identity from anything but Hollywood dramas about the dregs of society; their language properties do not prevent them from functioning as integrated, aware human beings. Still, the very same integrated, aware human beings confirm that speaking two languages means having two personalities too, or at least using two ways to express one’s personality. It seems that language is much more that the code which conveys thoughts; it’s a tool which shapes thoughts and makes them sound in a specific way.

Qualitative studies carried out on the psycholinguistic playground, i.e. those in which behaviour and habits of particular people are examined (which makes these studies different from quantitative studies aiming at establishing the statistical pattern) confirm that there are two personalities co-existing in one, bilingual and allegedly integrated human being. People who speak two languages can assert it even without browsing through linguistic studies- even being proficient in L2 doesn’t change the fact that the way they speak in this very L2 is simply different- they often sound less nonchalant, they are less flexible, but often more focused on the grammatical and lexical correctness, a kind of a corset confining the spontaneity that their L1 equips them with. It happens that before out mental search engine highlights the word which may be a perfect punch line for the interlocutor’s statement, the interlocutor is already three topics away and our chance to display our brilliance is gone with the wind. It also happens that we may not be trapped in such a tightly laced corset and speak two languages fluently, yet each of these languages reveals another face of ours.

In the bilingual study carried out by Koven (2004), one of the participants, Linda, admits that when she speaks her mother tongue, she exhibits a personality which was shaped in her family home; a personality of a reserved, calm woman who hardly ever swears or tells coarse jokes, a personality of a walking advertisement of the politics introduced by her conservative mother cherishing the so called decency and restraint. However, switching into her L2, French, turns her into a person apparently possessed by some „evil spirit”: when she speaks French, the language she learned far away from her home-the shrine, and which she uses when speaking with her peers, she expresses her emotions freely and occasionally drops an F-bomb or some ambiguity. It’s not even that weird, bearing in mind the status of the language of detachment that L2 enjoys and which has been given to it by clever linguists. The language of detachment is the language the emotional laden of which you don’t consider that powerful as in the case of L1. Linda is keen on swearing and being coarse in French, because French, as an acquired language, doesn’t strike her as that overwhelming and literate and it doesn’t niggle her with its ugliness or inappropriateness. If her mother tongue is the one in which she inhibits herself the way she inhibits herself in the presence of her mother, then French is the language in which she gets rid of her inhibitions, as it often happens during ardent peer disputes with a glass of beer in your hand. To Linda, two languages are two different approaches, reaction patterns or even two senses of humour. In terms of possessing two faces, Linda would certainly agree with Rebecca, a participant of the study carried out by Aneta Pavlenko (2005). Rebecca is British and speaks also French and Welsh, still, she seems to have the opposite problem: „I’m much nicer and quieter and more serious in French (L2) ; much more loud and foul mouthed and slangy in English (L1)”- which is probably a result of being more familiar with the British street and its unparliamentary statements Ultimately however, Rebecca seems to confirm the theory that silence may be gold, but it may be golden varnish too:  ”In Welsh I hardly have a personality at all except that I tend to agree with everyone because it’s easier than having to formulate my own ideas!” In fact, a person gagged by her language impotence and ignored by his waiter, is very likely to be considered a dullard who has nothing to say, even though, in some other language set he may turn out to be an eloquent and complicated person. What kind of a person exactly- this is what is revealed by language. The question is, however, which language that you speak reveals your true self?

Double or even triple identity- in yer face. Francois Grosjean[4], however, has a different opinion on the matter and it’s quite difficult to disagree with Francois since he is a well respected man with unremitting energies focused on revealing the nature of a bilingual mind. According to Francois, a bilingual does not have a double identity, his identity doesn’t also multiply itself automatically as another language gets added to the mental base. According to Francois, a bilingual simply adapts his behaviour and language to the circumstances and the people he communicates with. Looking at Linda, François would probably say that the girl swears in French, because she simply can- she uses French in a peer group in which she certainly feels more at ease than in her pious, family home,in which she uses her equally pious, family, native language- Portuguese. In other words, if Linda doesn’t tell her mum jokes like „How about eating out tonight? -Nope, I’m having a period”, it’s because you don’t tell such jokes to your conservative mummy, not because the presence of your mummy activates a different, specific personality of Linda. Francois can’t be wrong. But he can omit certain aspect of the issue; otherwise, he would have nothing left to investigate. One of the aspects that he omitted is the magical sociocultural competence.

We play some English dialogues to the beginners and they get shocked: what a cute „Nice to meet you” it is? And this sweet-to-death „Nice to meet you too”,  and these „Thank yous” intonated in a manner that suggests the speaker has an orgasm and thanks you for saving his life at the same time? For the Polish ears, English intonation sounds pretty much like a pretentious aria of a baroness, but is also one of the first hints that suggest that if you speak a foreign language you are also expected to sound „foreign”. And we do- after years of drilling the issue in, the very same students who used to be shocked with the English intonation, now coast with it, delivering arias which are not even baroness-like, they are countess- like! They are equally natural in using constructions and expressions typical of a target language, on the way they also acquire a different sense of humour and say things that would sound strange even for them, once they were said in their L1. This embedding process and the process of imitating natives is the process of acquiring sociocultural competence. Once the speaker acquires it for good, we may be even surer that we don’t deal with his true face; what we deal with is acting. The speakers want to sound authentic in their L2, so they simply imitate the natives, which does not necessarily reveal the way they really think, the way they formulate their thoughts and the way they really are. Japanese speakers of English are a perfect material for the study on the innovations in their Japanese-shaped culture and behaviour, those introduced by the sociocultural competence and imitation of English. Kumiko, another participant of Pavlenko’s study (2005) notices that when she speaks English, she express criticism more openly and daringly. This behaviour is not considered natural in her native culture described by Japanese, the culture where you don’t express criticism openly, and certainly not verbally. When an Englishman is pissed off, he says it and often doesn’t mince words.  Japanese person on the other hand, withdraws, hoping that the distance will make the culprit realise that he went too far.  Kumiko adopts the English way of reacting when she speaks English, thus, she offers a quintessence of language acting which often comes so naturally that it is no longer perceived as a mask or a pose. Nevertheless, in Kumiko’s case, an ability to be openly critical is an acquired ability so we may still assume that her English face doesn’t tell us the whole truth about her. This truth, after changing the set into the Japanese one, might be pretty confusing to some.

It seems that the number of masks, disguises, appearances and strategies leaves you to think that perhaps it is better not to be able to say anything. Maybe instead of risking the accusation of being false and acting, it’s better to risk an accusation of stupidity only, the trait which apparently prevents you from voicing your opinion in any and all discussions. Still, seeing how many couples date and get intimate even though all that their language skills allow them to is to exchange the opinions on their favourite colours, you might think that not many of them are afraid of being accused of stupidity. What can they learn about each other basing on the information crumbs, though? Rintell’s study (1990) at least partially established what and how intermediate L2 learners speak once they are asked to say something about themselves or about some event or experience. She then compared their narratives with those provided by the native speakers of English. The structure of their narratives turned out to be similar, the non-natives didn’t also have any problems with describing obvious emotional states such as anger or joy, buy the very content of their narratives displayed striking linguistics poverty. No metaphors, no direct speech, very few epithets and nuances which would make it possible for the interlocutor to really know the feelings of the speakers; their whole message was summarised in a few sentences. Yes, being specific has some advantages, especially if you regularly deal with people who are able to give you a report from a greengrocery using iambic pentameter, but the extreme simplicity of utterances inadvertently brings to mind a conversation with The Terminator: „Ill be back. Hasta la vista, baby”. I’ll say a bit more, when I learn more.

Or maybe it’s all exaggerated. After all, there are people out there who meet and speak the same language or even the same dialect, yet they cannot communicate. Translating from English into English is a common procedure while talking to men who are believed not to consider language such a significant source of information and contemplation. And this Spanish guy that you can’t communicate with at all, is good and lovable anyway, which is clear judging by the fact that he always comes to get you on time, pays for your coffee and walks you home. When you already decide to live together in this very home, being unable to understand each other might even serve you better: you will be able neither to rant about the mess he left in the kitchen nor will you be able to understand his puta-punctuated tirades after a bad day at work. Non-verbal communication will be giving you hints as to when to have lunch, sex, take a bath and go to sleep. Profound conversations about life, viewpoint, casual discussions with your husband’s family and friends, being able to understand what and how he speaks to or next to others? This has never spared anyone a divorce. But it would spare you embarrassment if  you were asked what you really know about the man you live with and your answer would be: I don’t really know, I don’t understand. Love may be blind, but it’d better not be deaf.

Translated by: J. Ratajczak

[1] Depeche Mode, „Enjoy the Silence”

[2] Koven, Michele. 2004. Getting ‘emotional’ in two languages: Bilinguals’ verbal performance of affect in narratives of personal experience. Text, 24, 4, 471–515.

[3] Pavlenko, Aneta. 2005. „Emotions and multlingualism”. Cambridge University Press.

[4] Grosjean, Francois. 1982. „Life with two languages. An introduction to bilingualism”. Harvard University Press.

[5] Rintell, Ellen. That’s incredible: Stories of emotion told by second language learners and native speakers. In R. Scarcella, E. Andersen, and S. Krashen (Eds.), Developing communicative competence in a second language (pp. 75-94). Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.


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