Friday, July 16, 2010

Multilinguistic monolingualism

I've been thinking about the different forms there are of a single language, and how we need to master so many of them during a lifetime.

For example, the language I use at home with my family isn't the same as the language I would use in an academic paper (not that I ever mastered that particular form of English, it has to be said!).

My kids happily use 1337 (leet) speak online with their friends and even in their text messages to one another. Occasionally, they will use elements of 1337 when texting me. Elements of 1337 have informed lolcat (follow the link and have a bit of fun, I dare you!). Even my pedantic septuagenarian mother has adopted some of the shortcut spellings when sending text messages (her most recent message to me included the word 'fite', for example... I never thought I'd see the day!).

My last employer owned the rights to a few courses in business English in a range of delivery media.

Here are some anecdotes that illustrate misapplication of contextual terminology:
A neurosurgery theatre nurse recently told me about a wonderfully talented Vietnamese neurosurgeon who had very little English when he joined the team at the hospital where she works. Being an intelligent and determined man, he learned quickly by listening to and imitating his colleagues. But he learned the hard way that it is inappropriate to tell a patient's family, "Oh, he's toast."

When my husband arrived in South Africa as a child, at the prompting of his classmates, he went and told his teacher to "Go jump in the lake" (although you can be pretty sure what he actually said was "gaw yump in de lake"). She remembered that with fondness when he phoned her some 25 years later to wish her well on her retirement.

A pastor friend of mine went to preach at a church in Mexico, where one or two teenagers, passionately devout about their Christian faith, sported T-shirts with the most profane of slogans, utterly oblivious to the meaning of the words writ large across their chests.

If there are this many forms of the language of which I am a native speaker, goodness knows how many forms there are of the languages of which I am not a native speaker. I wonder how many times I have put my foot in it. I know of one occasion when I politely advised a Swede that my Swedish was poor, but that I could follow if only they would speak 'more badly'. I'm sure there have been countless other occasions.

As national and cultural boundaries are breached by social media, we find ourselves in daily contact with non-native speakers of our language. We might need to remember to cut them a little slack... there may be times when they say something grossly offensive without meaning to do so!

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