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4.2: Moving Between Languages

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    Bilingualism and Multilingualism

    The complex identities created through the forces of globalization, mass migration, and the growth of social media, have also resulted in linguistic complexity (Piller, 2017). Individuals are much more likely than in the past to be exposed, in person or online, to speakers of other languages. The plurality of languages may well happen within one’s own family. As travel and migration have brought more people from different cultures together, there has been a growth in families in which parents have different mother tongues. Children in such households are likely to be brought up speaking both languages, becoming bilingual. Bilingualism may as well result from individuals or families migrating and continuing to speak the language of their home culture, while learning that of the host country. Studies have shown that not only do bilinguals have the advantage of likely fluency in two languages, but that the process of growing up bilingual also has a positive effect on brain development (Albert & Obler, 1978).

    Bilinguals may differ in their level of proficiency in the languages they speak. Normally a bilingual will have one dominant language (Grosjean, 2001). It may be, for example, that children speaking the language of their parents at home may not develop a good reading or writing ability in that language. Some schools and universities in which there are large numbers of such "heritage" speakers, often have specially designed courses which help such students develop full capabilities in those languages. People who know more than one language have been shown to be more adept at language learning (Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2009).

    In most parts of the world today, most individuals have at least some capability in a second language: "The majority of the world's population uses more than one language on a regular basis and monolingualism is by and large a historical and Anglophone anomaly" (Piller, 2017, pp. 71-72). This is a matter of necessity in countries such as Luxembourg, Nigeria, or Indonesia in which there are multiple languages coexisting in geographically close quarters. Inhabitants of smaller countries, with their own national languages, such as Denmark, Estonia, or Nauru (an island country in Micronesia) will, due to economic and practical concerns, typically learn the language of larger neighboring countries. However, in this context as in others, political and nationalist issues may influence language learning choices.

    Many countries have more than one officially recognized national language, including Canada (English and French), Switzerland (French, German, Italian, Romansch), South Africa (11 languages), and India (22 languages). It’s not the case that in multilingual societies all speakers are necessarily multilingual. Particular languages may be spoken predominately in one region, as is the case for French in Canada or Italian in Switzerland. In other cases, language use may be distributed according to ethnic heritage, as can be seen in Singapore or Malaysia. In some countries, there may be different versions of a common language, as is the case in Switzerland with Swiss German and standard German, or in Arabic, with the "high" version being Modern Standard Arabic, used in writing and in formal speech, and the many regional, colloquial versions (Egyptian, Maghrebi, Peninsular, etc.).

    Tamil, English and Hindi name board at the Tirusulam suburban railway station in Chennai.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Tamil, English and Hindi name board at the Tirusulam suburban railway station in Chennai.

    Learning a Second Language

    Learning a second language provides insight into how language works. Many monolinguals are likely to assume that the difference between languages is largely semantic, that is to say that moving from one language to another is simply a matter of substituting words. We have seen in the example of Warlpiri how far that can be from reality. In fact, the very same word equivalents can be put together in very different ways. Some languages such as Arabic make rich use of metaphorical language, for example. In all languages there are idioms and fixed expressions that have meaning beyond the literal denotations of constituent words. One of the ways words are used differently is in collocations – groupings of words that conventionally go together. In English, for example, we say "make your bed" but "do your homework", with the verbs not being interchangeable despite similarity in meaning. The lexical approach to language learning emphasizes the study of vocabulary in context, including collocations and idiomatic expressions (Lewis, 1993).

    How sentences are put together can vary significantly by language. Learning German, for example, will expose learners to syntax (word order) that is quite different from the way sentences are put together in many languages, i.e. subject – verb – object (SVO). In German, that word order can be used, but it is common to have something other than the subject at the beginning of the sentence. At the beginning of newscasts on German television, it is common to hear the phrase, Ihnen einen guten Abend, literally "to you (formal you) a good evening". German indicates the role of a noun or pronoun in the sentence not by its placement but by its form or ending. These morphological variations – changes in endings – are crucial to understanding what a sentence says. Some languages add endings to the end of words (suffixes) as well as to the beginning (prefixes). One of my favorite German words is Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänskajüttenschlossschlüssel. The meaning of this word is the key (schlüssel) to the lock of the cabin of the captain of a Danube steamboat company). The length of this word is accomplished through the continual adding of suffixes. To be clear, while this word is grammatically correct, this is a humorous example. German is not unique in this respect. Some Eskimo-Aleut languages build what are in other languages complex sentences by adding on many prefixes or suffixes to a root word (see example in sidebar).

    Sample Inuit word (Eskimo-Aleut language)



    I can't hear very well.

    This long word is composed of a root word tusaa- 'to hear' followed by five suffixes:

    • -tsiaq- "well"
    • -junnaq- "be able to"
    • -nngit- negation
    • -tu(q) indicative third-person singular
    • -alu(k)-: augmentative ("very")
    • -u-: "be"
    • -junga: indicative first-person singular (itself composed of the indicative morpheme -ju- and the first person mark -nga)

    Inuit grammar/Wikipedia

    In some languages, learning sometimes subtle variations in pronunciation can be crucially important. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, there are four tones in which syllables are pronounced and the exact same phoneme (minimal unit of sound) can have four different meanings depending on the tone (high, low, rising, rising and falling). The syllable “ma” in Mandarin could be (mother), (to bother), mǎ (horse), (to scold), or ma (neutral tone, used as an interrogative particle). One of the helpful tools linguists have created in the field of phonetics (the production of sounds) and phonology (how sounds are put together) is the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet (MacMahon, 1986). It allows an accurate representation of sounds in all human languages, including the variety of clicks in some African languages. In some cases, the IPA transcription is easy to understand, for example, “good” as [gud]. In other cases, symbols are used that are not part of the regular alphabet, for example, thicker as [θɪkə] or child as [tʃaɪld].

    The degree of difficulty in learning a second language can vary depending on a number of factors, such as motivation, time commitment, and innate ability to learn. Some learners are able to imitate very closely the sounds of a native speaker; others have great difficulty in that area, particularly if they start learning the language later in life. The critical period hypothesis claims that there is an ideal time window for acquiring language, namely as children or adolescents (Harley & Wang, 1997). This is particularly true for developing native-like pronunciation and fluent oral communication skills. Older learners, on the other hand, tend to do well with learning grammar and structure, the analytical aspect of language learning. The degree of difficulty is also dependent on the level of fluency and accuracy one hopes to attain. People learn languages for different reasons, and some learners may just need a reading ability.

    Students in Nigeria learning German.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Learning German at the Smarter Language Academy in Nigeria

    Most current theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) advocate a sociocognitive approach, combining learning of vocabulary and grammar through drills and repetition and culturally strategic knowledge and strategic competence, i.e., what's appropriate to say in a given context. The current trend in language instruction is to put more emphasis on the latter. This involves developing practical and pragmatically appropriate speaking ability (Savignon, 1983). The emphasis is on use of functional language in real communicative contexts, often using a task-based approach. This involves having students use real world situations to practice language. There is a growing recognition that for most learners, functional ability in a second language should be the goal.

    Immigrants sometimes reach a level of ability that provides basic functionality in the language. At that point they may stop formal training or making conscious efforts to improve, their pronunciation and grammar becoming "fossilized" at the functional level achieved (Acton, 1984). In the field of SLA today, it is recognized that language learners vary considerably in their goals and needs and that not every learner needs to develop native-like pronunciation or perfect grammar. The standard for most learners is likely to be intelligibility, being able to make oneself understood. In some cases, mispronunciation of individual sounds is less important for intelligibility then intonation or idiomatic word choice. Unfortunately, the public at large does not share the perspective of SLA, so that those who speak with a noticeable accent or use faulty grammar can face prejudice and discrimination, despite being eminently intelligible.

    One of the other determiners of language learning ease or difficulty is the similarity or dissimilarity of the second language to one's native tongue. It is clearly much easier for a native English speaker to learn Spanish or German than to learn Arabic or Mandarin. For those languages, a completely different writing system must be learned. It's also the case that Spanish and German, like English, are members of the same language family of Indo-European, which means that they have similar genealogies. As a result, there are similarities in grammar and vocabulary. A high number of cognates – words which resemble each other – between the two languages can be very helpful, especially in the early stages of language learning.

    Language and language learning are both such complex phenomena, that there is not likely to be one "right" way or best approach to SLA (see Godwin-Jones, 2018). The diversity of learner backgrounds, available learning resources, and level of need/interest mean that no individual is likely to learn a new language in precisely the same way. This has led to a great deal of interest in how language development can be personalized to individual learners (see Godwin-Jones, 2017c; Ortega, 2017).

    Ultimately, if or how well learners acquire a second language depends on the individual. One's attitude is a crucial factor. If one is highly motivated to learn because of extrinsic factors, such as a migrant's need for functional ability in an adopted country, that can lead to more intense and faster learning. There may be compelling professional reasons for needing to learn a second language, such as being posted to a foreign country. Intrinsic motivating factors may play a role. Those might include a desire to learn more about another culture to maintain or establish a connection to one's ethnic heritage. Polyglots, speakers of multiple languages, are motivated to learn as many languages as possible.

    Image of author JRR Tolkien
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Author JRR Tolkien knew many languages and invented languages

    In any case, maintaining a positive attitude is important in intercultural communication generally, and is of great benefit as well in language learning. A spirit of openness and curiosity is needed. If one is willing to use the language learned to engage in conversation with other learners or native speakers, faster progress is likely. The author of a well-known textbook on intercultural communication entitled one of the chapters "Language as a barrier" (Jandt, 2012). In fact, the opposite is true, learning a second language is a gateway into another culture, the most effective way to get an inside track on the perspective from which speakers of the language view the world.

    Language Learning and Technology

    Today online resources have become invaluable for all language learners. Language learners may be using online resources in conjunction with instructed language learning in a formal school setting, or they may be independently learning or maintaining a second language. For the latter, there are a variety of options available. There are online language learning services online such is DuoLingo or Mango Languages. These typically provide instruction in multiple languages and, in addition to basic language instruction, also offer access to other learners and/or native speakers. These are typically commercial services, which usually offer a free trial. They vary considerably in scope and effectiveness. A free alternative is to connect online with other language learners through a site such as the Mixxer. One of the methods that has been popular in recent years is tandem learning, in which two learners of each other's language serve as conversation partners and native informants, sharing equally in time spent practicing with each language (Brammerts, 1996).

    Informal language learning through the Internet has become increasingly popular, as it offers just-in-time learning, anytime access, and low cost. Depending on the tool or service used, it also offers the possibility of creating relationships with other learners or native speakers. This can provide valuable venues for real language use. Often classroom language learning is preparation or practice for actual communication, but the Internet provides opportunities for authentic communication. It supplies both opportunities for language use in real contexts and the opportunity for cultural learning. Having real conversations with real people (face-to-face or online) can be a powerful learning motivator. Using and learning languages online has the potential to expose learners to both high volumes and diverse ranges of language. This is an ideal environment for language learning.

    "A foreign language is not simply something to add to our repertoire of skills, but a personalized tool that enables us to expand and express our identity or sense of self in new and interesting ways and with new kinds of people" (Ushioda, 2011, p. 204).

    How one might use technology for language learning depends to a large extent on one's level of proficiency, time available, and the purpose for wanting to learn the language. For tourists, there are phrase books, virtual guided tours, and other language and cultural resources in electronic form. These are typically available as apps for mobile access (Godwin-Jones, 2017d). Also popular are flashcard programs for vocabulary learning as well as basic grammar tutorials. For those focused on learning to read in another language, dual-language and annotated texts are available, depending upon the L1 (native language) and L2 (target language) combination. Also possible are online courses or software programs for many languages. These include freely available Internet courses such as MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) or for-credit university classes.

    Ad for Rosetta Stones promising social benefits
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Ad for Rosetta Stones promising social benefits

    Among the self-directed language learning software packages, one of the better-known products is Rosetta Stone. It features a sequenced presentation of the target language, initially in phrases and short sentences, and then moving on gradually to larger language chunks. It incorporates listening practice as well as speaking, providing feedback through automatic speech recognition. Rosetta Stone has been criticized for not incorporating a cultural component: the same generic sentences and stock illustrations are used for all languages. Moreover, it shares with other dedicated language learning software the disadvantage of not supplying opportunities for language use beyond simple phrases and sentences. One recent study of the use of Rosetta Stone in elementary Spanish found that students had gained considerable knowledge in the areas of vocabulary and grammar (Lord, 2015). However, they had considerable difficulty in conducting even a basic conversation in Spanish. They lacked strategic competence, the ability to negotiate conversations through rephrasing or asking for explanations or repetitions.

    English as a world language

    Often there is a close and natural connection between the language one learns and the culture represented by that language. In fact, interest in the target culture may be the starting point for learning a new language. In some cases, there is a tighter connection to a single culture than for others. Learners of Japanese, for example, are in a different position from learners of Spanish in that there are fewer regional variations and only one nation-state where Japanese is spoken. From that perspective, English is even more diverse culturally than Spanish. That derives not just from the fact that English is the official language of a variety of countries, but that it also functions as the lingua franca for exchanges between people with different native languages. In fact, it's estimated that there are today a larger number of people worldwide who speak English as a second language than as a native language (Crystal, 2003). English is seen in many countries as an essential tool for social and economic advancement. At the same time, English is sometimes seen as an instrument of cultural imperialism, given the history of colonization, evangelization and, spread of US consumer/popular culture from the Anglophone world. The spread of English is often accompanied by Western, more specifically Anglo-Saxon cultural values.

    The role that English as a language plays in a given culture may vary considerably. Given its history as a former English colony, Hong Kong, for example, is a city in which there are many people who speak English in their everyday lives. Hong Kongers use English "quite comfortably with one another when they are at school or in the office. It is considered strange, however, to use it in daily conversation" (Scollon, Scollon & Jones, 2012, p. 6). This is in contrast to Singapore, India, or South Africa, where there may be speakers of a variety of other languages so that English is needed as a lingua franca. In Hong Kong, by contrast, English is not needed, as native Hong Kongers speak Cantonese. Scollon, Scollon & Jones (2012) point out that using English in Hong Kong outside of institutional settings carries with it social significance:

    [This is] based partly on the groups of people that use it such as teachers and other authority figures as well as non-Cantonese speaking “foreigners,” and so by appropriating English into casual conversation with another Cantonese speaker, one might be claiming a certain affiliation with those groups of people, or one might be thought by the people to whom one is talking to be claiming such an affiliation, to be “showing off ,” or, at the very least, to be acting unduly formal (p. 6).

    The different social significance of speaking English across cultures points to the inherent cultural forces language embodies beyond serving as a means of communication. Language choice can be a way to position oneself socially. In many cultures, English may be an important component of individual identity and agency.

    The interest in English has resulted in a boom in English classes in many countries. At the same time, there has been a shift in how English is taught as a second language. It is no longer the case that learning English is tied necessarily to learning as well about the culture of Great Britain or the USA. The kind of English taught may in fact not be either British English or North American English, but rather a version which adapts to a local variety of English or strives to model International or World English. The latter concept has evolved out of the desire to minimize cultural influences from North America and Great Britain in language learning, as well as to deal with differences in usage (spelling, vocabulary, pronunciation) among Englishes in Anglophone countries. There have even been attempts, such as Basic Global English, to create a kind of neutral, bare-bones version of the language (Grzega, 2006). On the other hand, there have been efforts locally to teach English within the context of a local culture. That has been the case, for example, in Vietnam (Kramsch & Sullivan, 1996) and Pakistan (Malik, 1993).

    Many people are learning English for highly utilitarian reasons, to advance socially or professionally. As a result, there is a lot of interest in "English for Special Purposes," English classes tailored to those with particular professional needs, such as business, tourism, or a highly technical field. This may lead to a limited proficiency in English within a narrow semantic field. An example is Aviation English, called AirSpeak, the version of English universally used by pilots and air traffic controllers (International Civil Aviation Organization, 2003). There have been some concerns expressed that pilots with AirSpeak-level English proficiency can deal very well with routine situations that occur in the air, but might have some difficulty describing unusual events in English. The example given in the sidebar illustrates potential issues with language, but also possibly with sociocultural factors, namely the possible reluctance of a pilot to admit ignorance.

    Example: Airspeak

    On August 2, 1976, a Boeing 707 cargo flight departed from Tehran to Seoul and collided with the mountain due to a wrong turn. The following is the conversation between Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and the pilot. Standard Instrument Departure (SID) is published flight procedure followed by aircraft immediately after takeoff from an airport

    • ATC to Pilot: “Follow SID 11”
    • Pilot to ATC: “What is SID 11?”
    • ATC to Pilot: “Standard Instrument Departure 11”
    • Pilot action: Silence

    Hazrati & Touiserkani (2016)

    In the early days of the Internet there was concern that English would crowd out all other languages. That has not, however, been the case. Statistics show much faster Internet growth in countries where English is not the dominant language (Internet World Stats, 2017). In 1996, more than 80 percent of Internet users were native English speakers. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to 27.3 percent. Online services are increasingly available in multiple languages, Wikipedia in 295 languages and Facebook in 101 (Ortega, 2017). However, it remains a reality that English growth may lead to the decline of other languages. In some countries, private universities have opened up in which the language of instruction is English. The popularity since 2012 of MOOCs, which have predominantly been offered in English, from US universities, has led some to worry about that form of distance learning in English replacing local educational resources (Godwin-Jones, 2014). Whether the cause is or is not the spread of English, it does remain that a large number of the world's languages are today threatened with extinction (Choi, 2014).

    Endangered Languages

    There are approximately 6500 languages spoken in the world today, but about 2000 of those languages have fewer than 1000 speakers (, 2/10/19). As of 2018, the top ten languages spoken by approximately half the world’s population are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and Ladhna or Pundjabi (, 2/10/19)). Chinese and Tamil are among the oldest spoken languages in the world (, 2/10/19).

    It is estimated that at least half of the world’s languages are endangered and will become extinct within the next century. That is particularly the case with indigenous languages in the Americas and Asia. This is happening at an alarming rate, for multiple reasons; often cited are globalization and the rise of English as a world language. Of the 165 indigenous languages still spoken in North America, only 8 are spoken by as many as 10,000 people. About 75 are spoken by only a handful of older people, and are believed to be on their way to extinction (, 2/10/19)). Given the close connection we have discussed here between language and culture, losing language communities also means a loss of human cultural capital, which is irreplaceable. For the majority of the world languages which do not have a written language, losing the last remaining speakers can mean the disappearance of the spoken stories and traditions. It can also mean a significant loss of knowledge of the natural world. Losing words for native plants can mean loss of knowledge of how that plant can be used for medicinal or other purposes. Ultimately, losing a language entails losing a unique view of our world. When a language dies, a culture can die with it.

    In an effort to preserve endangered languages, field linguists attempt to capture recordings from the remaining speakers of these languages. Modern technology makes it much easier to document and archive language use. However, those same technological advances bring the outside world into formally isolated areas, inevitably favoring the spread of dominant languages such as Spanish, Chinese, and English.

    Linguist Gregory Anderson interviews a Koro speaker in India
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Linguist Gregory Anderson interviews a Koro speaker in India

    Given the close connection we have discussed here between language and culture, losing language communities also means a loss of human cultural capital, which is irreplaceable. For the majority of the world languages which do not have a written language, losing the last remaining speakers can mean the disappearance of the spoken stories and traditions. It can also mean a significant loss of knowledge of the natural world. Losing words for native plants can mean loss of knowledge of how that plant can be used for medicinal or other purposes. Ultimately, losing a language entails losing a unique view of our world.

    Translation & Interpretation

    Because no one can learn every language, we rely on translators and interpreters. On the surface level, translation and interpretation seem to be much the same thing, with one skill relying on written texts and the other occurring orally. Both translation and interpretation enable communication across language boundaries from source to target. Both need deep cultural and linguistic understanding along with expert knowledge of the subject area and the ability to communicate clearly, but this is where the similarities end.

    • Translation generally involves the process of producing a written text that refers to something written in another language. Traditionally, the translator would read the source in its original language, decipher its meaning, then write, rewrite, and proofread the content in the target language to ensure the original meaning, style and content are preserved. Some translators use computer-aided tools to convert the source into a file type for electronic translation, then proof-read each section of the text for quality of content, meaning, and style in the target language. Transferring meaning from one language to another can sometimes make for interesting twists. The New York Times Sterngold, J. (11/15/98) noted that the title of the 1998 film There’s Something About Mary proved difficult to translate when it was released in foreign markets. In Poland, where blonde jokes are popular and common, the film title (translated back to English for our use) was For the Love of a Blonde. In France, Mary at All Costs communicated the idea, while in Thailand My True Love Will Stand All Outrageous Events dropped the reference to Mary altogether. Capturing ideas with words is a challenge when the intended audience speaks the same language, but across languages and cultures, the challenge becomes intense. Translators are often experts in their fields of knowledge as well as linguists fluent in two or more languages with excellent written communication skills.
    • Interpretation is the process of orally expressing what is said or written in another language. Contrary to popular belief, interpretation isn’t a word-for-word translation of a spoken message. If it was, it wouldn’t make sense to the target audience. Interpreters need to transpose the source language within the given context, preserving its original meaning, but rephrasing idioms, colloquialisms, and other culturally-specific references in ways that the target audience can understand. They may have to do this in a simultaneous manner to the original speaker or by speaking only during the breaks provided by the original speaker. Interpreters are also often experts in fields of knowledge, cultures, and languages with excellent memories.

    The roles of translators and interpreters are very complex. Not everyone who has levels of fluency in two languages makes a good translator or interpreter. Complex relationships between people, intercultural situations, and intercultural contexts involve more than just language fluency, but rather culture fluency.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Language and Culture in Context: A Primer on Intercultural Communication, by Robert Godwin-Jones. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC

    Intercultural Communication for the Community College, by Karen Krumrey-Fulks. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    4.2: Moving Between Languages is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tom Grothe.