Tuesday, June 07, 2011

I Do Believe in Language(s)

I've been perusing Makoni & Pennycook's Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages -- some fascinating ideas, but I don't think I'll jump in wholeheartedly. Even if existence of discrete languages can be shown to be 'false' -- or at least if the beliefs that laypeople hold about what languages are can be shown to be dangerous and/or harmful, which can certainly be true -- I'd prefer to retain the concept of 'a language' just as we tend to retain concepts like 'native/nonnative speaker' or even' race'/'ethnicity'. They are terms that may be deployed in problematic ways but my tendency is to stick with 'commonsense' definitions and work on ways of understanding language that are a) nuanced, b) likely to be useful/helpful in educational and other social contexts, and c) plausibly acceptable by non-specialists. I can't see 'language isn't a thing' meeting the criteria for c).

Trevor Pateman (who I hadn't heard of until, um, today) writes in his essay "What is English if not a language?" "whatever isomorphism between speakers' knowledge of language and their beliefs about their language exists, it should not be allowed to obscure the major differences between these two orders of reality." That's important to remember, certainly. But he also writes, with a pragmatism I appreciate:

"...despite everything I have said, it is clear enough that the idiolects of speakers who believe themselves to be speakers of the same language do indeed cluster enough for the belief to be highly plausible. For most practical purposes, it is true to say that over there they speak French while over here we speak English."

So far I'm most convinced by those who argue that form and function of language are tied to belief/ideology, but the work that people do on this (like Silverstein 1979) is so technical I usually have no idea what's going on.

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