This is the final post of a three-part series I called The Boundedness and Porosity of Language. In Part One, I focused on the ways that language has boundaries and how these boundaries are not only logical-grammatical, but also social. Our first impression of a language we don’t speak can be its insurmountable inaccessibility. Part Two of the series focused on the ways that language is porous. That it is constantly evolving and has an ability to get around and through constraints. Although this is what all linguists know, it is something everyone should know. I encourage you to read these two posts before continuing with this one.
Language others. The title of this post inherently reflects the ways language is both bound and porous. When you read the title, you might have had to re-read it to lock down an interpretation. But once your brain realized the sentence contains two parts, and you identified the verb and the noun equivalents, you could do it. If you thought a little longer, you might have drawn out several interpretations. I’ll explore some of these now.
The imperative form
In English, all sentences need a subject or an implied subject. The prima donna sings well. What does she do well? Sing. Who sings well? The prima donna does. If I were to tell her to do something, I would say something like this, Sing! Or, Sing prima donna.
The sentence Language others can also be interpreted in this way. I’m telling my listener/reader what they ought to do. That is, they ought to language others. This is admittedly an unusual interpretation as it seems strange to use the word language as a verb. But it can be done. We friend each other on social media. We school each other about the ins and outs of how something is done. And even if language as verb is not common usage, it could easily become one.
So what does Language others exactly mean? I’ll get there, later on in this post. But for now let’s settle on it meaning something like teaching the world about language. Enhancing the prestige of this perhaps quintessence of humanness. Educating, to make our students and our institutions more multilingual.
Simple declarative form
The next way to interpret this sentence is to understand that Language others is describing what language does. For example, in the sentence Birds sing we understand that singing is an activity that birds engage in. In our sentence Language others we can understand it to mean that language is in the business of othering. Now wait, you might say. Othering? What kind of fancy wording are you playing with now?
Other is typically used as an adjective, as in I didn’t buy this one. I bought the other one. Or it can be used as a pronoun, Others came to the party dressed as pomelos. But sometimes other is used as a noun as a reference to an other, or if you’re wanting to be more philosophical, The Other. Something foreign. Different. Unlike ourselves. And as we saw above, just as nouns can easily become verbs, so can adjectives. This is how language can other.
Two kinds of othering
As I discussed in my previous two posts, language has a way of creating walls around itself in defining acceptable use logically/grammatically or socially. A foreign language, in its very essence, others. It makes unfamiliar the speaker, and sometimes, even, ourselves.
This first kind of othering is the less positive one. It’s captured in expressions like “Round here we speak English” or in rules that prohibit the speaking of other languages. When people speak a language that we don’t know, we can get more easily defensive and prone to assuming the worst of others’ intentions.
In a climate of distrust or lack of familiarity with people who are different from us, there is an increased chance that the process of othering will be negative. If I have never encountered your world, your language, or your people, my instincts may yell for me to protect myself and my own. We see this turbulence playing out in our world today as the currents of globalization are hitting up against the obstacles of nationalism. The eddies formed in the swirling currents are neither good nor bad – what’s one set of sound waves to another – but they are, very, very real.
But language need not necessarily other in ways that are negative. Let me share an anecdote that will drive this idea home as I attempt to tie the ideas of the boundedness and porosity of language together.
When I first moved to China, I was very much struck by its otherness. Although I think of myself as a very open-minded and tolerant person, there were situations when I was under stress and under-languaged causing me to act in ways contrary to my principles. Defensive instincts kicked in, usually to the rescue of my fragile ego.
But it wasn’t all negative.
I remember thinking how grand it would be to be able to understand the conversations of those around me on the subway, buses, and on the street. So I put some effort into studying Chinese. A few years later, I realized that even though I could now understand more of what was going on around me, everyone was just talking inanities. What they were going to eat for dinner. This girl. That teacher. This child. That good deal. This waste line. And so on. For the most part people weren’t waxing eloquently about the meaning of life or politics! What had I been expecting?
When I returned to Canada to visit family, I looked forward to being able to understand what people were saying around me without having to strain. Only now I was reminded that Canadians talk about the same things on the subway. And it’s even worse when you can’t tune these things out. How much more clearly do I need to hear someone talk about how they got ripped off!
The otherness had transformed into something startlingly ordinary.
And it confirmed something rather nice. That we’re far more the same than we’re different, folks.
That big, burly, bearded bro speaking foreign, gets just as annoyed as you do when his phone is running out of power. Indeed, parents the world over are as equally frustrated with their kids’ amount of screen time and their seeming inability to limit it. The massive widespread adoption of smartphones is a clear indicator of our shared humanity. The quibbles are similar. Fake news is everywhere. And yet when I cannot easily understand what someone is saying to me, the otherness can creep in.
Of course, as humanity’s experience with racism has shown, and even the hooliganism of football shows, we’re not out scot free just by being able to understand other languages more easily. We’re tribal creatures. We will create boundaries out of anything. Nevertheless, languages more clearly obscure our similarities as well as delineate our differences.
Othering as positive process
If knowledge is power, and it is to a great extent, then more awareness about ourselves and our languages can lead us to be more sensitive to the ways others have ordered reality. It can also show us the arbitrariness, but also consistency, of many of our approaches to life.
English has its struggles with the inclusiveness of its pronouns, but then it’s not had to worry about a restructuring of all its nouns. French has masculine and feminine forms and German has three. Other languages have as many as ten genders.
My language, English, has its oddities. As I mentioned earlier and have drilled into my students, English demands a subject for its sentences. This leads to the troublesome it is and there are types of sentence constructions which are difficult for English learners like, It is raining. What is? The weather? The sky? The clouds? And what about the strange third person singular s added to the ends of verbs in sentences like these: It rains. He eats it. There’s no reason for that s except that we’ve maintained it.
But all languages have strange features and have had to make do with their own solutions to communicating perceptions and articulations of reality. If we are unaware of how other our own languages are, how much more poorly equipped we are to properly understand the eccentricities of our own.
They say that you only really know something if you can teach it. Language teachers know this when forced to respond to questions asked by students. Even if the old adage the native speaker is never wrong can work much of the time, it’s neither satisfying nor authoritative if we must rely on this. And if one is only familiar with one language, the experience can be especially bewildering when having to explain it.
However, if a speaker has access to more than one language, then they have a greater repertoire of knowledge to draw upon. Many multilingual speakers know instinctively what’s an acceptable way of saying something even if they can’t always explain it. A kind of inbuilt othering system. A humbler. Less black and white. Fewer boundaries. More porosity.
The deothering of our world through multilingualism
So what of all I’ve said? Let me try to bring it back to something more tangible. Language as a whole is a powerful component of our humanness. Languages individually have divided us. They can also obscure our common human experience. It would seem to follow that a simple way to reduce the complexities of misunderstanding amidst all our different languages would be if everyone just spoke the same one.
Indeed, the West has made attempts to civilize its native inhabitants through enforced language study in residential schools. China is doing this currently. However well-intentioned the system was and is, we now see it (Rightfully? Mostly?) as a complete travesty. But before we cast pointy fingers at others I would argue that there are passive legacies of this system that carry through to today, a consequence of viewing language as bounded and othering in the negative sense. It happens as children immigrate to the West (mostly) and leave behind heritage languages. It happens in international schools around the world, where privileged children also leave behind a language in pursuit of a higher status one. Where one language is left behind and a boundary crossed for another one.
But if we are to be true international educators we must embrace both the bounded and porous aspects of language. There is a distinct enough English out there, bound by logical/grammatical rules and formed enough to be used to communicate. But not so bound that it must exclude or stigmatize those who drop their s’s (rather sensibly). English should continue to be desirable for its practical advantages, but it should not require the whole person, or fluency beyond what’s necessary for the task.
Urban centers in the West and the educational migrations of the middle classes around the world are increasingly challenging the English hegemony which has remained for the last two hundred years. During this same time in the Anglo West, bounded visions of language have dominated, an a historically unique commitment to monolingualism. And yet these ideas persist. Deeply. Right into the very pedagogies of our international schools.
While we international educators have a duty to provide the best education for our students that we can, this need not necessarily be an English-only education. English can remain an important part of the landscape, but perhaps more of a wallless feature. A porous one. Multiple re-entry. Where children, even privileged ones, do not have to jettison one language in exchange for another.
The world I describe and metaphorize, that embraces both the boundedness and porosity of language is a multilingual world.
A multilingual world is not an easy world. It will not solve all of our tribal instincts as our history of racism and even current football hooliganism shows. Difference does bring challenge. But engaging with the other – without and within – invites complexity, creativity, and new forms of beauty. It fights the tyranny of homogeneity which leads to the zero-sum games of the have-alls and have-nones. Those with the privileged high status pure language and those without.
And international education should be leading the vanguard in changing this script, where international is not synonymous with English, but where multilingualism is. Where creativity and problem solving are not limited to STEAM, but shared and celebrated with and through our linguistic diversity. Because after all, language others.