Saturday, June 26, 2010

In Oregon

I'm in Eugene, OR for the meetings of the Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposium, Athapaskan/Dene Languages Conference, International Conference on Salish and Neighboring Languages, and Hokan-Penutian Languages Conference. It's been a pretty good weekend, with some good presentations, and I've gotten to meet some fun and interesting people. I just got out of Leanne Hinton's keynote address, and soon it will be time for the conference dinner.

A minor note of displeasure has to do with my native language. My native language is English. I love the English language, and as much as I want to teach my children to speak another language, I know that it's not going to happen, both because I'm not fluent in any other language, and because English is a big part of my own heritage and that of my parents and grandparents, and I want my children to share in that heritage. I recognize that English speakers often exert an oppressive force on speakers of other languages, especially in the U.S. Even so, it annoys me to hear my language denigrated, insulted, and vilified. I do not think that English is inferior, and I do not think it is stultifying. What English speakers do is not a reflection on the language itself. A similar effect can be seen in anthropologists, most of whom argue passionately for religious diversity, as long as the religion isn't Christianity. I think we need to remember that no matter what terrible things English speakers have done to speakers of other languages, viz., boarding schools for Native American children, the language itself is just as valuable and just as beautiful as the languages I am, quite honestly, more interested in: Navajo, Lillooet, Karuk, Cherokee.


James Crippen said...

English is a proxy for anticolonial hatred, just as Spanish is a proxy for anti-immigrant racism. I think if you ask people who say such things, they’ll readily admit after a few minutes that they don’t really mean the language itself.

The worst part about English hatred is that the people doing it are native speakers of English. Children have transferred the negative attitudes of their parents toward the parent’s L1 and applied them to the children’s L1, English. In my experience the younger folks, the grandchildren, are a bit more nuanced and less radical in their attitudes than the middle aged people, the children.

linguistlessons said...

Indeed. The dominant language often in fact *does* have a stultifying effect on the acquisition and use of other languages. But I also think it's important to remember that the medium for that oppression is people's prejudice not the language. And as you mentioned, for most people it's superficial, not a deeply held belief about the language itself.

Just us - Just me said...

English is today's Lingua Franca and I think it's stupid to have an attitude like that towards it. It's not even specific enough to one population so one would associate it with that population.
That being said, I don't find English all that interesting linguistically speaking. I'm much too familiar with it. It's just a language I speak.

Jim said...

"English is a proxy for anticolonial hatred, just as Spanish is a proxy for anti-immigrant racism. "

Yes, even when Spanish is such an obviuos proxy for anti-clonial hatred.

Daniel McCurry said...

I just stumbled across your blog via google reader and found this fascinating post. My questions is; How does one obtain a ph.d in linguistics without fluency in another language? I readily admit that I am not a linguist but it would seem that having command of only one language would be a constraint on the study of language in general.

Ryan Denzer-King said...

Speaking only English is a constraint on certain types of language study. I can't consult my own judgments when I work on Blackfoot or Navajo. But theoretical linguistics often aims at explaining features of Language in the abstract -- a language we all speak and yet one which we can't study directly. For comparative studies, it's necessary to look at a large number of unrelated languages, and it's simply impractical to attempt to become fluent in all of them (especially since hopefully you'll look at different languages for the next study). I'm very interested in typological considerations and possible language universals, and for these types of pursuits I have to rely on others who are experts in those languages.

On the other hand, if I were dedicating my life to the study of a single language, it would be somewhat ridiculous for me not to learn to speak it. So I suppose what I'm saying is that while it's always useful and better to speak the languages you study, in many cases it is impossible and not wholly necessary, since we can stand on the excellent work that serious scholars of particular languages have written before us.