The fallacy of the Mother Tongue, part 3 of 3

The myth of the Native Language, giving you unique insight into the workings of a particular tongue, is vastly rubbish, as I explained in part 1. It’s been used to eradicate local languages, hurting lots of people in the process and establishing the arbitrary domination of a small part of many societies (the only ones who were supposed to speak ‘properly’), as I showed in part 2. Now if you’ll bear with me for a second, I’d like to cover a few last arguments I’ve heard countless times, aiming to explain why, after all, eradicating local languages might be worth all the hassle, shaming and oppression.

Progress is, as usual, brandished as the ultimate weapon in intelligent conversation. If we still spoke twenty different languages per country, I hear, we’d still be backwards peasants, condemned to a life of ignorance and of not understanding each other, and that would be tragic! That argument is mostly used by native speakers of a very widespread language (French, English, Spanish, or any other that has at least recognition outside its frontiers). It’s usually not followed by any type of discussion of how, then, do countries like Norway, Finland, or even Slovenia manage to do just fine culturally and socially. Just because native French or English speakers can’t imagine what life would be like if they weren’t part of a linguistically dominant group doesn’t mean it’s not possible to manage. Privilege check, people. And a history check might help, too: if different languages are such a barrier to communication, I do wonder how there could have been such a large nomadic population in the Middle Ages that was perfectly integrated to society, even when they travelled between different linguistic areas.

Another argument regards culture, and literature in particular. According to many people, speaking a minority language as your first language means being cut off from the glorious literary heritage of a linguistically dominant nation, because you’ll never be able to fully understand or appreciate it, being, you know, a non-native. The fact that languages evolve, that innuendos and idiomatisms can change a lot in fifty years, let alone in centuries, and that, therefore, natives and non-natives have to face just as much strangeness when reading books older than fifty years is generally not discussed. Also nobody ever seems to mention that very few people actually read books at the level that requires minute understanding of every single turn of phrase. I guess those discussions are useless. Literature and culture are ideological arguments, just like the rest: it’s not how you can improve as a human being by reading the books that counts, it’s the sense of being part of a selective community, with its shared treasures that are barred to the rest.

Another thing that native speakers of very large linguistic groups often fail to grasp is that bilingualism actually is a thing. In Eastern Europe, and in many other places, most people speak two or three languages at least. I once met a Ukrainian 12-year-old who was perfectly fluent in Russian, although his native language was Ukrainian. I’d like to see French children this age display the same skills in Spanish or Italian. The truth is, when you live in a place where several languages are used on a daily basis, the incentive for learning becomes very strong. There’s nothing so difficult about learning another language than the lack of motivation (and yes, even though practice is not all, it helps a lot as well).

In fact, current research tends to prove that being bilingual is a huge benefit for your brain. Processing two languages at the same time makes your brain exercise more just by thinking about simple things. The occasional fumbling for words when you get tired is not a big drawback compared to the conceptual possibilities thinking in two languages can open to you. This has been my empirical conviction for years (I’m French/English bilingual, and have a high level of fluency in Spanish as well), but now it seems that science is with me on this. By robbing minority speakers of their languages, we’re not only exercising a very pervasive form of violence and oppression on them—we’re also stealing the opportunity of that great intellectual wealth from them.

And even if these scientists are proven wrong, that doesn’t matter. People shouldn’t need an excuse to be proud of their native language, and to express themselves in another when the circumstances call for it. Self-esteem is a very nice thing to have, you see. But this luxury seems to be the sole property of native speakers of majority languages. If your language is not spoken by too many people, you’ll be pressured into expressing yourself in a majority language at some point; but then, you’ll experience rejection from the majority group on a constant basis. If you use literary or rare turns of phrases, you’ll be told that you sound stilted; if you use colloquialisms, you’ll be told that you sound too strange and not like a “real” native, whatever that means. And perhaps that will be true; but do we really care? Culture in most of Europe happened in Latin for a thousand years after Latin was nobody’s native tongue anymore, for crying out loud.

It’s high time we stopped using fallacious arguments like the impossibility to understand each other if we don’t all learn the same language from birth, and start letting people speak their own language, regardless of how many speakers share it, without passing judgement on the quality of the language they learned and the acceptability of their possible mistakes. It’s also time to realise that everybody speaks a subtly different language and that there’s no reason to decide that the small mistakes and idiosyncrasies of native speakers are automatically acceptable (provided they don’t use localisms, of course…), whereas the same kind of deviations by non-native speakers must be corrected. A large proportion of humanity, possibly the majority, is bilingual. It’s time we stopped treating non-native practice of a language like an abnormality.

Trust me. Dealing with it is not so hard.


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