By Allyson Eamer
As a sociolinguist who conducts research with English language teachers and learners, I am fascinated with every nuance of language acquisition, particularly as it relates to culture and identity. Not so long ago, I was interviewing secondary school ESL students about their experiences learning English in a large very diverse Toronto high school. Each of them had been in Canada for only a few years and each was still navigating the tricky terrain of learning a new cultural script, and balancing the competing tasks of learning English while not appearing to be overly interested in assimilation (especially amongst classmates who shared their linguistic heritage).
The tales of social pitfalls were legion and served as a powerful reminder to this researcher that adding language learning and acculturation to the already challenging developmental tasks associated with adolescence is a huge weight to bear. One Persian-speaking teenager told me that when she accidentally used an English phrase in front of her Persian friends, they chided her for being pretentious. A Chinese student told me that when she attempted to speak Mandarin with the Canadian-born Chinese girl beside her, she was met with a frozen glare. The pressure in adolescence to find and lock into a social group is so compelling that the Persian student had jeopardized her Persian insider status by speaking English and thereby appearing to be a ‘wannabe’; and the Canadian-born student with Chinese ancestry had not wanted to be associated with a ‘fresh off the boat’ counterpart. (Even those interviewees who had the least well-developed English skills were painfully familiar with these pejorative terms!)
Other stories involved awkwardness outside the context of the school. One student told me that he’d become aware that it was very ‘Canadian’ to eat doughnuts, and – wanting to try out a Canadian identity – he went to a local shop and proudly asked for a doughnut. His confidence was crushed however when the person behind the counter rolled her eyes in annoyance and told him in a loud voice that he had to specify which kind of doughnut he wanted. He was not prepared for this, having no idea that doughnuts came in many flavours, and left the shop without a doughnut, feeling embarrassed and deflated.
Still other stories contained examples of a growing awareness that not all concepts available in one language can be easily translated into another. A German student explained her exasperation at the limitations of the English language, by citing the example of the use of the word “love” to describe one’s feelings for everything from chicken soup, to grandparents, to a favourite song. In her language, she said, there were words that allowed for nuances and degrees of affection. A Tagalog-speaking student lamented the lack of a pejorative word for a girl with an unreasonably high opinion of herself. An Arabic-speaking student was frustrated that English only permits one to say “Let me show you something” but does not have an equivalent for the Arabic: “Let me give you this sound to hear”.
But the interview I remember most vividly was with a very articulate Korean speaker who told me that he found the Canadian obsession with apologies very puzzling. He marveled that teachers in Canada could demand that one student apologize to another after some sort of confrontation. I remember agreeing wholeheartedly with him, saying that a forced apology seemed like a feeble version of restorative justice. I asked him if he’d been ever been required to apologize to a fellow student, and he related a couple of incidents in which a squabble had resulted in teacher intervention. Now here’s the part that tickled my sociolinguist funny bone. This eloquent 17-year old leaned forward to let me in on a little secret. It was easy, he told me, to placate the teacher by apologizing to another student – even if he felt more like the victim than the culprit. He explained that the words “I’m sorry” held no emotional resonance when said in English. He could say “I’m sorry” without experiencing the righteous indignation of one falsely accused of wrongdoing, because there was no intrinsic meaning attached to those foreign syllables. It would be a whole different ball game, he assured me, if he was forced to apologize in his mother tongue without having been allowed to demonstrate his innocence. It got me thinking about whether or not I’d have a hard time saying “mian haeyo” (미안 해요) if I’d been the one wronged, or “Humihingi ako ng patawad” or “Entschuldigung” or “ana asif” (أنا آسف), and I decided that it would be quite easy for me to apologize in another language (provided of course I wasn’t signing myself up for some sort of penalty or penance). It is the ultimate “Sorry (I’m) not sorry”.
I was well acquainted with the research indicating that people often involuntarily resort to their mother tongue in emotional situations, such as when arguing or when cooing with babies, but this was my first real-life example of the opposite effect at work: someone expressing the benefits of the emotional disconnect that comes with using a language other than their mother tongue in situations involving heightened emotion.
As someone who would never win any awards for being dispassionate, there’s a lesson in this for me. Here’s a related example. I’ve picked up a wide variety of swear words in my many years of living and travelling across the globe. I let them roll of my tongue shamelessly because without the investment of an emotional history, they sound as innocent to my ears as my elderly aunt saying “Oh sugar!” or “Oh fiddlesticks!” But occasionally, when a passing native speaker of whatever language I am using is aghast at my choice of words, I am reminded that these are not neutral phrases at all that I am tossing out when stubbing a toe, or dealing with a jam in the photocopy machine. In fact, when I do the translation in my head, I remember just how inappropriate some of those phrases are!
It makes me wonder about the extent to which we present different versions of ourselves when living in different languages. Would I sound more sincere making a declaration of love in my mother tongue even if my interlocutor would prefer to hear it in his or her native language? Am I more unflappable if I deal with difficult people in a language other than my mother tongue? These sorts of questions are a sociolinguist’s bread and butter. I have the best job in the world!