Saturday, 18 May 2013

Multilingual names

In contrast to questions like “What’s your best language?” or “Where are you from?”, a question like “What’s your name?” is not particularly baffling to multilinguals.

Image © InverseHypercube (Wikimedia Commons)

We may, of course, answer it differently, depending on who’s asking and on which language they’re using. If that language is an official “home” of our official name(s), the answer is straightforward. But for non-speakers of the languages of our official names, there are a few options.

We may choose to answer with a cognate name in the language of the asker, whereby I would be Madeleine in French, for example. This would count as a translation, and I’ll come back to translations, including of proper names, some other day. Meanwhile, if you’re curious about the (il)legitimacy of rendering proper names in different languages, have a look at this Ask-a-Linguist query, ‘Not translating names’.

We can also answer with an approximation of our name to a name in another language: some of my Mandarin-speaking friends call me Mei Ling, for example. Or we can pronounce our name in Foreign-Speak, as if the name were a word of another language. This works both for those of us named Pär and Štěpánka, or surnamed Gråbøl and Garção, and for those of us with ASCII names like mine: I follow suit on my English-speaking friends pronunciation of my name, calling myself something which sounds like Mad Lina, for their benefit.

“Benefit” is the key word, here. In all cases, we accommodate accents in deference towards the asker. Towards ourselves, too, actually: in practical terms, whether perceptual or articulatory, it doesn’t favour the flow of speech to use the pronunciation of a word in a language when we’re speaking another. We want to speak in tune, just like we do with any other words that we borrow (or lend). Children seem to be well aware of this, by the way: my children, for example, made the different versions of their names as different as they were able to, as soon as they started using them, when addressing speakers of their different languages.

Besides featuring appropriate accents across languages, our names thus remain “proper” in that they match the social environments we happen to find ourselves in. We call ourselves, and are called, by many different labels, as I’ve noted before, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. In some communities, we may be on first name terms, including parents and children, teachers and students, or bosses and employees. In other communities, appropriate forms of address and of response to them may fill pages and pages of academic and etiquette literature. It’s our job to adapt, so that we integrate into the communities where each different label makes sense. The ability to fit in is not a sign of “rootlessness”: rather, it shows that roots are flexible things.

And speaking of flexibility, my next question is whether we make our thoughts as multilingually friendly as we make our names.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Thinking in tongues. Saturday 1st June 2013.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Rhythm clues and glues

My previous post discussed the role of prosody in signposting linguistic information. This post deals with the second reason why prosody matters: it helps us remember linguistic information, by glueing together the bits and pieces of language which are meaningful together.

Many years ago, I had this phone number which, according to local phone number pronunciation conventions, was 80-48-03, where the dashes indicate a “chunking” break. We said the name of each digit, by the way, “eight zero-four eight-zero three”. These things vary, too: I’ve lived in places where the norm would be to say “eighty-forty eight-zero three”, for example. Now, I happen to have difficulty remembering numbers in general, not just my own phone numbers because I don’t call myself all that often, as the joke goes. In any case, the standard spoken layout of this phone number didn’t help me. I then happily realised that 804803 can also be chunked as 804-803. Much easier to remember. So the next time I answered the phone, which we did by stating the phone number, I said “804-803”. The caller fell silent, then: “Sorry, is this 80-48-03?” My turn to fall silent. You get the picture, right? Same “word”, different prosodies: we might as well have been speaking different languages.

Wink-wink to those of you who, like me, were reminded of alphabet songs, here. In both cases, we have a random sequence of items which nevertheless makes sense to those in the know. ‘Random sequence of items which nevertheless makes sense to those in the know’ is a good definition of any spoken language. The thing is that when we chunk apparently random things together we’re signalling that they’re not random after all: these chunks carry meanings. As with my phone number, different chunking may impair intelligibility – or carry different meanings. Take this classic example of disambiguation of print through prosody (or of the uselessness of print to carry prosodic meaning, if you prefer): what does “This is how small shops should be” mean? We’re not speaking different languages when we chunk this utterance in different ways, but we’re saying different things – which is also what we do when we use different languages.

Chunking language as we speak is what makes it memorable, too. Rhythmical beats “stick”. Carolyn Graham, musician, writer, teacher, and teacher trainer, explains why. She developed jazz chants to use in her language teaching because, as she puts it in her website, “The brain loves rhythm. This means memory.” Brains love anything else which makes sense to their owners: Carolyn Graham’s other major insight about language teaching is that the language used in the classroom must be real, useful and appropriate to the learner.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s used songs as a sure-fire way of learning the rhythmical clues of my new languages. It turns out that singing assists language relearning, too, for those of us who have lost our language(s) through trauma or disease. Gottfried Schlaug’s research, at his Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory, reports how music helps “glue” together damaged and/or disordered parts of the brain into recovery of language: we seem to be able to sing word chunks that we are unable to speak, for example.

Why do speech melodies have this effect on us? The simple answer is that we’re natural singers and dancers because we can’t help it: we’re born that way. We’ve known about this for quite a while. Jean-Pierre Lecanuet, for example, in a 1999 book chapter titled ‘Foetal responses to auditory and speech stimuli’, reviews previous literature reporting that “a large number of speech components – mostly, but not only, the prosodic ones – are transmitted to the amniotic milieu” (p. 340). The whole book, Perceptual Development, edited by Alan Slater, offers reviews and reports of early research on this topic.

The so-called “effortless” language learning claimed of children may well appear “effortless” because children are having fun: they sing and dance, involving their whole body in their learning. All of us, in other words, know how to involve ourselves with our languages in this way from the very beginning. It may not sound so outlandish, then, to suggest that language teaching methodologies embrace these natural human skills to help us practise our new languages from the very beginning, too. My take is that all of us learn best when we’re having fun learning.

You may be wondering now where the “missing link” is: jazz chants and babies? Here it is. Ten years ago, one of the students in my Child Language courses was struck, as a musician, by the similar makeup of scatted and babbled syllables (I hope you’re reading this, Ben!). He went on to produce a thesis, titled The Phonology of Scat Singing which, to my knowledge, is the first research piece ever to put together scatting, baby babble, and English phonology.

Image © Clipart from

When we invented our languages, we made them melodic because this was the natural thing to do. It’s the melody which signals and glues together the lexical and grammatical bits and pieces which we’ve come to (mis)represent as “languages”. So how do we sing our names in different languages? The next post has something about this. 

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual names. Saturday 18th May 2013.


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