The fallacy of the Mother Tongue, part 1 of 3

Having just finished teaching translation for one more semester to first- and second-year students, some of whom were quite eager and some others quite clueless, made me think some long-winded thoughts about some common language-related misconceptions, in particular the power of native languages, bilingualism, and how learning a language as a non-native comes close to sounding like a quest for the Holy Grail that only those enlightened enough can attain through arcane means. And since blogs are for sharing such things…

In general, the “arcane means” in question boil down to this: Go abroad, make native friends, talk to them a lot, don’t make any conscious effort to learn any grammar because as everybody knows, grammar is evil and it only serves to distance us from the “real” language. In case you’re wondering what the hell the “real” language might be, that’s the language as the natives speak it, aka. the Perfect Language, the Language With A Thousand Nuances That Can Only Be Grasped By Being A Native, the Language of the Spirit of a Whole People, in short, something so solemn and important you can’t use enough capital letters to describe it. And of course, the right way to acquire that treasure is not to take lessons, nor to learn grammar of vocabulary; you have to “immerse” yourself, to bathe yourself in the precious essence, to become a baby again, suckling on the native tongue to extract its precious essence.

Am I starting to sound slightly ironic? Good. But first, a disclaimer: although I believe that some students would be very happy to learn that learning a new language requires no efforts besides landing yourself in a foreign country and doing nothing for a while, I don’t think that this misconception springs from laziness only. I’m rather inclined to believe that it comes from something far more pervasive, that is, the inordinate value our culture places on the Mother Tongue.
There are many myths surrounding native languages. For instance, it is commonly believed that native speakers can grasp tiny nuances that no one else, no matter how dedicated, can ever hope to fully understand. Another legend is that, since native speakers all perceive those tiny nuances, they can understand each other with a degree of perfection unattainable to non-natives. This creates a tight community of native speakers, living in harmony, understanding innuendos that are inaccessible to the rest of the world; you can never truly become a part of that community if you’re not a native yourself.

Let’s start with the simple part, or: Why This Is Rubbish.

First things first: native speakers don’t understand each other perfectly. They’re far from it, actually. Some words are only used locally; some others are shared by a precise social class, or a specific generation. Some turns of phrases will sound standard to some speakers and incorrect to some others. Pronunciation can impair communication (that certainly happened to me last time I visited Québec). Depending on the level of education, different speakers will grasp different degrees of nuances in grammatical forms; they will or will not be familiar with some less common words. Translations are particularly telling: translators make half of their mistakes not because they fail to understand the subtleties of the language they’re translating from, but because they’re not aware of what sounds good or not in their own native language. And I’m talking about professional translators. Don’t even get me started on how little first-year students seem to be aware of the fine-tunings of their own mother tongue. In short, “natives” aren’t a homogeneous block. Just because two people speak the same language never guarantees that they will understand each other.

Secondly, while it is true that some nuances of meaning require a lot of fine-tuning, it is wrong to think that they can’t be explained or learned, or that they’re something you have to “feel” in some way, if you want to fully understand them. In fact, lots of educated non-native speakers can tell the difference between close synonyms where native speakers would be at a loss to explain just why they have two words when one would have done the job. The reason is simple: native speakers rarely make big conscious efforts to understand their own language. Most of the time, they take it for granted as long as they can use it for effective day-to-day communication. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, usually put constant efforts into learning new words, new phrases, or advanced linguistics. I have, on occasions, taught uncommon English words to some of my English-speaking students, and I once found myself in a rather funny situation, where I had given them a complicated sentence in English to translate into French, and ended up forgetting about the French altogether and helping them guess the meaning of the less common English words instead. I still stumble on some very common phrases that native English-speakers would take for granted; but my knowledge of some more specific areas is quite thorough.

In fact, my use of English and the average native’s English are two overlapping circles: they’re slightly distant, but the size is roughly equal. Where natives may know all the details of common speech, non-natives often compensate by having a greater knowledge of uncommon vocabulary and grammar forms (have a look at Joseph Conrad’s prose for a good example of what I mean). The difference is real; ultimately, however, I think it can be less significant than the difference between two native speakers who live half a country apart, belong to different social classes and have a thirty-year gap between them. This is why I always find it very strange that no one bats an eye when natives make a slightly surprising use of some turns of phrase, but everybody immediately enters Grammar Nazi Mode when non-natives try to bend a language they learnt for stylistic purposes. See the criticisms that were levelled at Joseph Conrad, again. Can you believe that one of the most celebrated writers of the English-speaking world was once lambasted for his poor use of the English grammar?

I know. I can't either.

Read Part Two, or: Why these misconceptions are more harmful than they seem

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