My Linguistic Autobiography

(I’m watching World Cup: Italy vs. USA)

Linguists have this conversation all the time with civilians:

C: What do you do for a living?

L: I’m a linguist.

C: Oh yah, so how many languages do you speak?

L: Oh, a few. (shrugs, tries to change the subject).

C: Wow! You should go work for the UN!

There are three reasons why linguists try to evade this question: 1) it’s totally not the point of linguistics, 2) the line between not speaking and speaking a language is arbitrary, depending on how you define “speaking a language,” it varies from month to month, 3) they think I’m a freaking translator.

It’s actually a little scary, this expectation to speak a lot of languages; civilians get that wild, imaginative look in their eyes that says “wow, you must be really smart! Speak Japanese now! Say something sexy!”

First of all, I have to get all ethnic. My parents grew up speaking three mutually unintelligible Philippine languages and Filipino English. No one is that impressed. My friend J is Korean American, she is ABD in French lit. Nobody gives her that wild, imaginative look for speaking Korean, French, and English. There’s a woman I work with who is ethnically Hungarian, grew up in Czechoslovakia; went to college in Germany, started learning English in 1993. So she speaks Hungarian, Slovok, Czech, German, and English. She’s brilliant, has a PhD in Mathematics. Of course, the students all hate her because she “doesn’t speak English.”

Of course her English is perfect: she gets that treatment because students DON’T LISTEN. When the students don’t have the “the teacher doesn’t speak English” excuse, then their excuse is “the teacher hates me.” Any teacher worth her/his salt knows that those two phrases translate “I am a bad student who doesn’t listen.”

Anyway, people really only tend to be excited about people who speak English with a native accent of a prestige dialect. I could speak 100 languages, but if I didn’t speak English with a certain accent (Standard American/Canadian, RP British, Australian, New Zealand, South African) people would presume that I was deficient.

Anyway, back to my three points:

1) Speaking X number of languages is not the point of linguistics. Linguistics is the science of human communication; stereotypically the study of the structure and variety of signals which carry complex grammatical and lexical information from one individual to another. Why do we say “Kwame ate an apple” and not “apple ate Kwame an?” Why can’t most English speakers explain the difference between the words “many” and “much?” Why is it that any child of six years old can form relative clauses, regardless of language typology? Why, with all the technology at our disposal, can’t computers translate between languages with the ease and precision of any bilingual six year old?

The study of languages informs a linguist’s work, but it’s not really the point. In the 80s, some very smart and famous linguists tried to classify the worlds languages as PRO-DROP and non-PRO-DROP; a linguist who spoke Mandarin, French, and Italian, reading and writing in English, would have been able to tell them that PRO-DROP as a category is descriptive, rather than explanatory. So a linguist should speak some languages, just like a jazz musician should know different modes, scales, and keys. But a jazz musician doesn’t necessarily have to know all the modes or all the scales in every key to know a lot about jazz. And a linguist doesn’t have to speak a dozen languages to be a linguist. In fact, for a B.A., linguistics departments usually only require a proficiency test in two languages besides the ambient language.

So for linguists, speaking X number of languages is beside the point. When we get together, we all talk about the different ways we dodge the “how many languages” question. We also like to talk smack about the “Eats shoots and leaves” people, who shit their shorts over punctuation and do exasperated bits about how in English you “park in a driveway, but DRIVE on a PARKway!!!!!!!!” OH MY GOD! (Someday you should ask me about the “Mr. Linguist” routine.)

2) The line between not speaking and speaking a language is arbitrary. The American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has an inverted pyramid used to describe language proficiency in the four skills, and that is the standard and best measure that I know of to describe proficiency. Unfortunately, ACTFL doesn’t hand out different colored belts to designate level, like in karate.

If you read the ACTFL guidelines (I don’t expect you to) you’ll see that Superior proficiency in speaking describes a level of language dominance that is native or near-native. However, I’ve known some intermediate speakers who claim to “speak Spanish,” and they do, just not that well. But who’s to say that they they don’t speak it? If they speak Spanish poorly, doesn’t that mean that they speak it?

So when someone asks me “how many languages do you speak,” are they asking me “how many languages do you speak poorly?” Well, a lot. You should probably define “poorly”….

By the way, above I said that my parents grew up speaking three mutually unintelligible Philippine languages, plus Filipino English. They speak all four languages at High Advanced to High Superior. However, because they are provincial languages, they were given the term “dialect.” And of course, Filipino English has its own distinct syntax, phonology, morphology, and lexicon, just like British and Australian English, but since Filipinos are brown, Americans call it “broken” English (see also Indian English, Singapore English, et al). Silly, only white people speak English good. And black people, but only if they’re civil rights leaders or talk show hosts. The rest of us? Buzzes and pops.

Anyway, I am most proficient at all the languages I speak in the first week my plane lands in the target language country. For example, when I go to France, my French is best in the first week. Why? Because I make an effort. Also, I don’t try to say anything I don’t know how to say. After the first week, it becomes too taxing, so I give up trying to speak well. I just say what I want to say, make mistakes, and people forgive me. Also, that second week is when my language learning instinct kicks in, so yes, I make mistakes, but also I find myself using words and expressions I never knew I knew.

3) Translation is different than multi-lingualism. Translators are the Navy Seals of the language learning community. They are highly trained experts with a certain set of skills, taking orders from other people. They do work that most of us won’t do, either because we’re too scared, or we’re don’t have the skills, or we disagree with the work. More than once, I’ve heard the Civilian say “Hey, you should become a translator at the UN!” If you ask me, spending all day busting your ass to repeat someone else’s words would be a special kind of hell. By the way, translating is hard. A few weeks ago, I spent half an hour translating a 6 page letter; I did a good job, but when I was done, my head hurt. Physically.


So I speak Spanish at the High Advanced to Superior level, depending on how much Spanish I’ve been speaking lately. Latinos are sometimes confused about where I’m from because my accent drifts from my Mexican-ish teacher accent to a quasi Caribbean accent I picked up in grad school. But usually they don’t guess that I’m not a native speaker. I didn’t do a lot of study abroad in Spanish; unless you count the US as a Spanish speaking country. Which it is!

I don’t understand TV in Spanish unless I am looking at it and concentrating. When I try to tell stories or jokes in Spanish, I notice that my audience starts to get bored. So yes, I’m fluent in Spanish, but there’s always room for improvement. Yesterday I learned that a national team is usually referred to as “una seleccion” rather than “un equipo.”

I actually started studying French in high school, three years before I started Spanish. I took it because I thought my friend was going to take it; he ended up in Japanese because Japanese is more “useful” (people who learn languages because they are “useful” don’t usually make it past ACTFL Novice). I took French all though college and spent one quarter-semester in Avignon, France. When I came back, apart from a few more university classes, I gave up on French, mostly because I sounded gross and didn’t feel good about it. So I gave up.

Eight years later, I got a job teaching French, and, although most of my fluency was gone, I totally sounded French. My American accent was gone. I’ve been back to France a few times, with students, and when I speak French there, it all comes back. I forget words, make mistakes, but it all comes back. Also, I can hear that my intonation is not French; my friend told me once that I “sing too much” when I’m speaking French, but other than that, French people tend to assume that I’m a native speaker.

I can understand French people if I’m looking at their face. I don’t bother telling long stories or jokes in French, and I make every effort to avoid speaking French over the phone.

It’s been 10 years since I spent a quarter in Rome. At the time, my Italian was better than my Spanish and French put together, and I hadn’t even studied all the tenses. What happened was that I was all signed up to go to Granada with the UW Romance dept, but then the prof and his wife got pregnant…. and the wanted to have the baby in the US … so I had to settle for Rome. I learned a lot in Rome, but when I got back, I stopped speaking Italian.

So this year, I took a refresher course in Italian, and it’s embarrassing. I can express myself alright, but my speech is stop-and-go. I’ll have to go back to Italy to pick it up again. I actually think I spoke Italian better before I took the refresher course, before I got stressed out about how crappy my Italian has become.

I took a summer intensive course in Tagalog, and I feel like I can totally learn that language. Unfortunately, most Tagalog speakers are so bilingual that they find it impossible not to speak English to me. It’s irritating. Even the profs of our course spoke 90% English to us every day except for the day when the program director was there to evaluate them. Also they used a functional method, with no explicit explanation/practice of the all important focus construction. What I learned in Tagalog class I learned through exposure and through my own efforts. The class itself was disappointing.

(de rossi just got a red card!)

My parents are Tagalog speakers, and at first I couldn’t practice with them. My dad would either clown on me or say ridiculous things like “think before you speak” or “listen to Tagalog music.” Those were the bad old days. I had a talk with both my mama and dad about how to be helpful, how to correct on-the-fly, how to offer options and lead a conversation. These are pretty advanced pedagogical techniques, but my parents were actually better at it than my Tagalog profs were.

One maddening thing: since the profs weren’t teaching us focus grammar, I had to figure it out myself. I called my dad and asked him some grammaticality questions. He always wanted to offer stylistic alternatives, when what I really needed to know was “possible/not impossible in Tagalog.” For example, I enjoy a cake is a rare sentence, stylistically there are better choices (I like this cake; I am enjoying a cake), but “I enjoy a cake” IS possible in English. It is a grammatical sentence; as opposed to the impossible/ungrammatical ***I cake a enjoy or ***I sleep a cake.

Why was I doing grammaticality tests on my father (it was probably just as maddening for him as it was for me)? Because I was doing focus grammar by trial and error. Because my Tagalog profs were useless. I think I hate the functional method. They said their method was communicative, but there was so little communicating, I don’t know how they could say it with a straight face.

(mastroeni just got a red card!)

Anyway, I couldn’t instinct-learn Tagalog from my parents because it’s very difficult to change languages with someone, and my parents don’t usually speak Tagalog in the house. It’s either English or Pangasinan, which is an endangered language of north-central Luzon. With my sister and I, they spoke exclusively English, so our comprehension of Pangasinan is purely telepathic. I get the jist. I know when it’s about me.

This summer, I’m going to start a Mandarin class. I had never been interested in Mandarin before this year, but I caught Mandarin fever; government hype (both theirs and ours), economic hype, Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010….. Why not learn the Next Big Thing. Sure, language fads come and go, but besides the tones and the writing system, Mandarin is supposed to be super easy to learn. Some people stress out about all the classifiers, but I get the feeling that’s more a language-class difficulty, rather than a language-learning difficulty. Anyway, if I can learn French, I can learn anything.

(this match is a disaster. it’s everything but joga bonito)

I’ll do Korean when I feel like I’m done with Mandarin. If someday I have to flee this country, I’ll go to Seoul to teach English. If I have to live in exile, I want to be able to eat plenty of mool naeng myun. Hangugorul chogum ha su isu ni da.

Finally, Brazilian Portuguese. I have the same crush on Portuguese that I used to have on Italian. It’s musical, it’s sexy, and I already understand it better than Tagalog. I’ve been doing Pimsleur in the car, and after 11 hours of lessons, only two words surprised me: sedu (early) and im bora as in vou im bora (I’m taking off). The rest of it is what I expect it to be. Except sexier.

I’m a little surprised I haven’t posted my linguistic autobiography earlier (maybe I should do a search). I’ve studied German and Latin for reading knowledge; my German was doomed from the start–terrible textbook; all grammar, zero context–but that’s where I met all the Brown Superfriends. Latin went a little better–I read Cicero–but I forgot it all. I got an A in Latin class, and realized later that I was the only one who understood what I was reading. Everyone else was guessing. Guessing!

I realized this year, finally that my students did the same. They ignored all the verb tenses I busted my ass teaching them, and then GUESS their way though the text. Part of the problem was they didn’t understand what the future tense was for. The couldn’t distinguish future will from conditional would. In English! So when I put all 14 tenses together, they were totally screwed. Sometimes I think my students are actively trying NOT to learn.

(1-1 tie. I’m glad I’m not in Italy now! Well…. no I’m not. USA still hasn’t scored a single goal in this World Cup)

Ok, the question: how do you keep all those languages straight in your head? Don’t you ever mix them up?

Short answer: No. That would be like mixing up basketball and hockey.

Some linguists call this language transfer or language interference. I don’t believe in either. I think it’s an excuse monolinguals make up to try to explain away their mistakes. It implies that language competes for space/dominance in your brain. At some point French says “no more Spanish!” and starts to assert itself into your Spanish. Yah, right.

But JP, sometimes I say Spanish words in my French class. Well, guess what, so do I. Sometimes (rarely!) I will say a word in the other language, even when I know what the right word should be. That, my friends, is called a mistake, and everyone makes mistakes. Why?

HABIT. Language is a habit. And if you’ve made it a habit to say certain words in a certain language, they might come out, out of habit. But that’s all it is. It’s not transfer or interference. When I’m speaking Italian, and a Spanish word slips out, it’s not because Spanish is playing defense in my brain. Usually it’s because I don’t know the Italian word, so I’ll italianize a Spanish word and hope for the best. Sometimes, when someone corrects me, I’ll realize that I should have known that Italian word, but the Spanish word came out because I forgot the Italian word. Because sometimes, I forget words. Monolinguals forget words sometimes, too.

Ok, this is easily the most self-indulgent post I have ever written in my scatterbrained vanity blog.

UPDATE:  three years later, there’s more to say here.

7 thoughts on “My Linguistic Autobiography

  1. remember that time you tried to explain all of this to me and my eyes totally glazed over?

    i paid more attention this time.


  2. i feel like that commercial…”i can’t believe i ate the whole thing.”

    actually, i love thinking of french taking over and saying, “no more french!” that’s hilarious. i consider calculus a language…what would happen if calculus staged a coup?


  3. Regarding “speaking”/”not-speaking” a language: I have a quick and dirty rule of thumb: if a non-Chinese person claims to be “fluent” in Chinese, I immediately assume that they have an intermediate proficiency and think they can bullshit people. I’m not sure if the same holds true for other languages (at one point I had pretty good AP-level Spanish, but not much of that is left besides reading ability, and whatever Italian I once had is long gone), but in general I think the use of the word “fluent” tends to correspond with a lack of seriousness. I remember in particular one Irish guy in Harbin who was describing himself as “fluent” in Chinese within about 10 months of arriving in China, and from a certain point of view it was true: he could order beer and direct cab drivers without too many misunderstandings.


    • Hey Brendan,
      I can’t believe people are still finding this post; I wrote it back in 2006. I’ll have to post an update to it, now that I’m “fluent” in Mandarin (specifically the bar and taxicab dialect).


  4. Pingback: My Linguistic Autobiography, 1st Update « you don't have to read v2.0

  5. Pingback: Linguistic Autobiography, 2nd Update 2018 | you don't have to read v2.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s