Unnatural natives: the paradoxes of second-language learning

Prof Antonella Sorace’s recent SoapVox lecture on bilingualism raised intriguing questions for me, who have Manx Gaelic as a fully fluent second language. In case you don’t know, Manx is the currently being revived language of the Isle of Man in the centre of the British Isles, officially having ‘died out’ in 1974 and now spoken, according to the latest census, by about 1,600 people. Manx is a language of contradictions and anomalies: extinct as a community language, and yet used by a strong and vibrant community of friends and acquaintances who have never used any other language but Manx to speak to each other; most of the best speakers of the language are children or young adults, yet almost none of them are native speakers; there are reputedly a handful of L1 speakers from language activist families, but they learned this their native language from high-level L2 speakers; I regard Manx as the native language of the Isle of Man, and English as a foreign language, yet English is my first language; all Manx people speak English natively and yet it is not a native variety of the language, being still influenced slightly by Gaelic idiom, vocabulary and phonology.

All this raises the question: what is a native speaker, and how do you draw the line? Is someone who learns a language as a second language in childhood by unconscious absorbtion a native speaker of that language? What am I? A ‘near-native’ speaker, to use Prof Sorace’s term, like those who learn a language as adults to an almost perfect level? But I learnt the basis of the language in childhood, still just about within the ‘critical period’, so can I be a ‘semi-native speaker’ or some such thing? And what about personal idiosyncracy, talents and circumstances? I confess to being a language nerd: I have perhaps a greater curiosity and powers of observation for grammar, idiom etc. than the average person. Most people who learn languages, or even think about their first language, tend to take things for granted and just gloss over syntactic, idiomatic or lexical issues they don’t fully understand; they are content to get the gist. I’m not looking down on this approach: those people might read something in French or German much faster than I would, because I feel driven to spend hours consulting dictionaries or interrogating bemused native speakers to tease out the exact nuances of the language. This perfectionism or hyper-curiosity sometimes irritates me for these very reasons; I can’t sit down and enjoy reading Les Misérables or L’Etranger without underlining every other word in pencil and spending hours investigating one phrase. If I don’t do this and just read for gist, I feel guilty and can’t sleep, for I have missed an opportunity to broaden my knowledge of some intricate new use of a dative or a subjunctive or a particular word or whatever! My curiosity makes me want to learn new languages, and I feel depressed and guilty if I haven’t learnt a new tongue recently; but then learning too many languages means I haven’t the time to dedicate myself properly to any one of them, and so I don’t acquire them as well as I would like, and this also makes me feel depressed and guilty.

The upshot of this personal idiosyncracy / talent is that I am better (at least I think so) at picking up finickity* details of languages than most other people. By finickity details, I mean things like the pronoun distinction discussed by Prof Sorace (e.g. in German you use ‘er, sie, es’ or ‘der, die, das’ based on which individual you are referring to in context). From my personal experience, I remember working out that inversion could be used in German instead of the word ‘wenn’ (if), and then realising you can do that to a limited extent in English (Had I seen him, I would have… v. Haette ich ihn gesehen, haette ich…), and being delighted by working out the same could be used for ‘as if’, unlike in English: ‘als haette ich…’ for ‘als ob ich…haette’. This was long before I was taught this formally. I was fascinated when I worked out that inversion could also be used in a certain type of negative reply (e.g. Du koenntest mir dein Auto leihen. Koennte ich nicht!) I also remember being excited to work out by myself that in German you don’t stroke someone’s hair, you stroke to them over the hairs.

I asked Prof Sorace whether part of the reason near-native adult L2 speakers have some trouble with the ‘er/der’ pronoun distinction2 is that little details like this are often not taught in language classes; many teachers, even if they are native speakers of the target language, are probably not even aware of such distinctions. I wondered whether research into these subtleties with which even the best learners tend to have trouble could be applied to make teaching methods and textbooks better and more effective. Prof Sorace said that I might have a point, but questioned whether conscious (‘explicit’) knowledge of such things as the ‘der/er’ distinction would actually make much difference in the split-second subconscious choices we make in fluent speech. She thought ‘implicit’ knowledge, that is, what we absorb without consciously learning, would be more important in these cases. She gave the example of English prosody, which she as an Italian still has trouble with today. She said people occasionally point out the mistakes she makes with stress and so on, and sometimes she remembers these tips and uses them to inform her speech, but most of the time probably not.

I agree with this to some extent; certainly from my own experiences of learning other languages, and from observing non-native English-speaking friends who continue to have rather strange stresses and pronunciations in certain words, despite my having repeatedly corrected them, I can see that explicitly-learned knowledge has an uphill struggle (or a downhill struggle?) to get embedded in our automatic language-producing faculties. However, is it not possible (indeed, necessary, if people who learn languages partly from verb tables etc. are ever to be fluent at all), for this ‘explicit’ knowledge to migrate and become ‘implicit knowledge’; then the speaker will have the information as both explicit and implicit knowledge at the same time. After all, the other way round certainly happens, for as linguists the very nature of our subject means that we look on our first language with the eyes of the outsider, and what was purely sub-conscious implicit knowledge about particular syntactic feature of English, for example, then co-exists with explicit conscious knowledge of the same phenomenon.

I perceive that there is a difference in the way a native or native-equivalent speaker thinks about a given linguistic phenomenon, in that I know about the ‘hair-stroking’ thing in German as a fact, whereas a German speaker has a ‘feel’ for the naturalness of that expression that I may not be able to grasp. On the other hand, I may doch be able to grasp it. I inserted that doch because that is a very useful German word that I long ago got a native-style feel for (or at least a native-style feel for some of its uses; the German particle system with its legions of mal’s, eben’s, wohl’s, aber’s, ja’s, nur’s and schon’s remains a frustrating mystery to me, like a garden of delights with very high walls). I fell in love with the word doch so much (‘Aren’t you coming? Yes I am’ would sound much better if ‘Yes I am’ were replaced by a crisply-barked ‘Doch!’) that I sometimes feel myself wanting to say it in English, and find it choking in my throat as I realize with disappointment that there is nothing corresponding in the insular Saxon dialect (for the cognate though has a different meaning). Or I will give you an example of how Manx influenced how I used to think about other languages I was learning. Now Manx is a VSO language, and I assimilated this fact and got thoroughly used to it very early on. A couple of years after I learnt this fact of Manx grammar—to the point that it seemed entirely natural to me to have verbs before subjects—I started to learn French grammar in earnest3. I found myself staring at French sentences, feeling that there was something wrong with them. Somehow the sentences felt naked or bare, as if something was missing but I could not tell what. Was it the verb? No, the verb was there. Then it struck me: the verb was in the wrong place. The sentences felt ‘naked’ to me because the verb was not in its proper place according to Gaelic syntax, even though it was perfectly-formed French. This experience demonstrates how this feature of Manx grammar, which I must have learnt consciously as explicit knowledge at some point, had become fully naturalized in my mind to the point that it affected my gut-reactions to a completely different language. Of course, English is SVO the same as French, but was not affected because English was already naturalized within me and I did not think about it consciously to the same extent as the completely new French. A couple of paragraphs ago I wrote ‘…working out the same could be used for ‘as if’, unlike in English…’. When I was writing that sentence, I had a terrible urge to type the French ‘à la différence de l’anglais’ because it somehow felt better in that particular sentence, more ‘natural’, while ‘unlike’ in that position felt clumsy for some reason. But being unable to think of a better word or expression in English, and realizing that not everyone reading this blog will know French, and that even those who do would be perplexed to find random phrases of that language in the middle of my English for no apparent reason, I forced myself to be satisfied with what somehow still feels less natural and less fitting to me. Another example: when planning in my mind this paragraph we are in now, I had an urge to use the French phrase ou bien to introduce the third example; since English seems to have nothing that sounds as fitting and as natural to introduce a second alternative. (e.g. Il fait X. Ou il fait Y. Ou bien il fait Z.) The English ‘or again’ sounds stilted to me, using ‘or’ more than once on its own is clumsy, ‘secondly, thirdly’ etc. is both stilted and clumsy, and the other translation of ou bien, ‘or else’, would not work in this context. I hope these anecdotes help to show how words and expressions of a non-native language can become naturalized in a learner’s brain, perhaps up to the point where the whole language is similarly naturalized. I wonder if it is meaningful to be a native speaker of certain parts of a language, even of individual expressions. I am not a native speaker or even anywhere near a near-native speaker of French or German, but am I a native speaker of à la différence de, ou bien and doch?

I will try to express more clearly what I mean by getting a native-style ‘feel’ for points of idiom, grammar and lexis. When I come across something I am not fully familiar with, such as the use of doch or the different use of il and celui or er and der depending on whether we are talking about the former or the latter of two third-person actors, at first I may not understand what is going on completely, then I will work it out from context, logic and repeated exposure (with occasional recourse to a grammar book or dictionary or native speaker if I am really stuck, unsure or want confirmation for my suppositions) why exactly different forms are used, and I will know it as a conscious fact, as explicit knowledge. But I always try to imagine what a native-speaker feels when he uses that piece of his language, to get inside the native speaker’s head by means of imagination, empathy, intuition, comparison with what I already know of that language and others, to get as close as possible to the flavour, the taste, the blas (as a Gael would say) of that fragment of the language. Sometimes I only get a hint of it, only a hint of what the native speaker thinks and feels in using that expression or idiom; sometimes I ‘see’ the native-speaker thought-mode floating around in my imagination like a ball of light, and if I concentrate I can touch it, taste it or enter into it fully for a while; and eventually it may embed itself in me

I realise most of the last paragraph (and this blog in general) is very subjective and not very technical, but I hope it conveys something of the serious points I am trying to get across, and at least illustrates to some extent how my own mind works when it comes to learning and ‘getting a feel’ for languages, even if it may not apply to everyone. I have little knowledge of bilingualism and language acquisition research beyond what I have heard in introductory lectures, and I realize that my amateur intuitions and deductions are groping in the dark; but I hope I am groping in the right direction.

It is possible to know a language to a very high level but still be a fairly mediocre speaker of it. For example, I must know tens of thousands of German words and idioms, but I don’t really speak that language very well; I could know nine tenths of the language, and still be rubbish at it, because I could know nine tenths of every word and expression: that is, be only nine tenths certain of the form and uses of every word, and so though knowing 90% of the total contents of the language, I would still be very bad at speaking it because I would be uncertain and hesitent about every single word. Or very often before we fully learn a word it hovers in our mind half written into memory: that is, we are vaguely aware the word exists, might recognize it if we saw or heard it, and even if we didn’t, would slap our forehead when taught it again, saying, ‘I knew I’d learnt that word before!’ Imagine that all the words we knew of a language were in this half-remembered state. Imagine that I know every single word that exists in German, but only in this state of half-knowledge. That means I would know 50% of the whole language, or rather 100% of the whole language, at 50% competency; but in practice I would have trouble recalling and producing a single one of these words that I half-remember.

Of course, really language learning does not work like this, but these thought experiments are meant to show that even if you know very large amounts and proportions of a language, the gulf between your competence and native-level competence might be almost as wide as if you were not far past being a beginner. It also means that you might reach native level quite suddenly after being in the doldrums of semi-knowledge for a large part of the language-learning journey; this was certainly my experience with Manx, when I quite suddenly found myself fluent when I was about twelve or thirteen (I learnt the basics of the grammar and vocabulary when I was between seven and ten, already had a high-level intermediate knowledge of the language when I started high-school, passed the GCSE with A* when I was thirteen and the A-level at A grade when I was fourteen and had published a book in the language by the time I was fifteen).

If I assimilate a structure thoroughly enough, then I feel the same sensation of abhorrence and nausea when it is misused that everyone gets when a foreigner or a learner mutilates their native language, as if someone said ‘dogs barks’ instead of ‘dogs bark’ or ‘I want going out’ instead of ‘…to go out’. I don’t know if others feel as pained as me when they hear things like this—maybe it is partly just my own perfectionism and intolerance—but I am sure that everyone gets a feeling of ‘wrongness’ when they hear their native language mutilated in this way. Outside of English, this happens with me most of all in Manx of course, and I will give you a specific example and some implications thereof.

Manx Gaelic has possessive determiners which precede the noun, just as in English. Thus ‘my hie’ means ‘my house’, with ‘my’ (in which the ‘y’ is an unstressed schwa) meaning ‘my’ and ‘thie’ (pronounced like English ‘tie’ but with a dental t, NOT a fricative) being the word for ‘house’. (There is also the issue of mutation: ‘my’ lenites the following words but this is not significant for our purposes.) However, the Gaelic possessives, à la différence de l’anglais,  are clitics and cannot be stressed. In English, when we want to emphasize the possessive and say ‘this is MY house, not yours’, we do this by stressing the possessive. This is a feature of English that goes right through the language: anything we want to emphasize attracts exaggerated stress. In Gaelic, however, emphasis is shown by changing word order and using cleft sentences (something also possible in English to some extent), and/or at the level of individual words by adding emphatic suffixes, something that does not exist in English. Thus, to say ‘MY house’ in Manx, we do not change the stress on ‘my’; in fact the prosody of the phrase does not really alter at all. Instead, a suffix –’s is added to the noun: my hie’s = MY house. Morphology is more important than prosody in other areas of Gaelic grammar too: for example, in asking questions there is no question intonation, because the interrogative nature of the sentence is made clear (in most cases) by using a different form of the verb with a special interrogative particle. (in Irish and Scottish, it has been elided in Manx) [Stress and why going up is a bad thing, www.akerbeltz.org]. English first-language speakers, even when they are aware of the difference in how emphasis is shown in Gaelic, find it very difficult to get their heads round this rule, because stressing possessives and anything else you want to emphasize seems so natural to them. It wouldn’t occur to them that it could be done in another way, and even if they explicitly know that it is done with suffixes instead of stress, they still don’t ‘feel’ the emphatic nature of saying something in a deadpan accent with just a sibilant stuck on the end to make the difference. I certainly found this. However, those learners who are aware of this rule and struggle with it are the lucky ones: most learners probably never become consciously aware of it, because they are never taught it; for most teachers, even (or perhaps especially) if they are native speakers of the target language, are probably unaware of many of these ‘little details’, such as the Gaelic emphatic structures or the German ‘er/der’ distinction. However, I believe that these little details are in a way the most important, and the most in need to conscious teaching and learning, for reasons I will outline below.

Even teachers who notice, consciously understand, and appreciate the importance of the little details, tend not to press or enforce them too much, neither do they often correct them in the speech of learners, for fear of putting them off or destroying their confidence or willingness to continue learning. I suppose they think that if you correct them too frequently and for the small, trivial things, they will be cheesed off, and feel that their effort in mastering the large parts of the language is being ignored, while all their little slip-ups are condemned. I however, think it has to be done, and the pupil will be fine with it if it is explained to hin why it is done and that he is not being ‘bad’, and that the corrections are not vindictive. If he really wants to learn, he will accept this, and be willing to cope with such frequent micro-correction, if it means he acquires an accurate grasp of the language faster, which is presumably what he wants. Indeed, I think correction of the small points is more important, for the big mistakes in basic grammar and vocabulary use—the things he probably will be corrected on— will be so obvious and so frequent, and cause such major misunderstandings in discourse, that the learner will almost certainly work them out even by himself even without being corrected by others; on the other hand, the little things do not by themselves often cause enormous problems, and because there is no consequent pressure to identify and eliminate these little errors, and because they are rarely corrected or pointed out to him, they persist for much longer than is necessary, perhaps for ever. This can dishearten learners, for they are stuck with being an ‘okay speaker’ for a long time, but with a vague feeling of continuing inadequacy with no end in sight. For it is the little things that separate him from being a native-level speaker, and even if his language is 95% felicitous, and mostly fully comprehensible and articulate, but it continues to be peppered with little errors, then the learner is still marked out as a learner just as much as if he only knew a few words. Of course, some learners may be content to remain in an intermediate stage, for they know the language well enough for their purposes, and do not have the time, resources or desire to reach perfection. However, I suspect that most people who bother to expend lots of time, mental effort and possibly money to learn a language to a fairly high level would be very willing to take the final step up, and I feel that they would be much better assisted in this endeavour, if linguistically-aware language teachers focussed more on honing the little details rather than just glossing over them and hoping that the learner will just ‘pick them up’ as they are exposed to the language. Of course, many bright people are able to pick things up in this way to some extent; but that does not mean that explicit teaching does not have a valuable auxiliary role to play, especially if the learner has little access to exposure in the language, or for learners whose are not so talented as others might be in noticing and assimilating things4.

Most language teaching materials seem to work on this false assumption that learners who have reached a high level do not require much help with the details. Perhaps some might not strictly need this help, but it is still very beneficial. Perhaps the compilers of language courses text-books etc., are simply lazy: they perceive that explicit explanation of all the finicky points of grammar, idiom and distinctions of vocabulary are not absolutely necessary in the way they are for beginners, and so breathe a sigh of relief and shirk the burden and the cost. Or perhaps they are daunted by the sheer vastness of the idiom of a language, so that do not see any way of categorizing and taming it (and indeed any such categorization and arranging of the language can never be perfect or comprehensive; but that does not mean we cannot aim to be comprehensive, and so aiming, produce something better than what exists now). Indeed it is a formidible task, but one that is not entirely impossible. For example, thesauruses can be developed into thematic vocabularies, which not only include the basic words, but many of the more ‘advanced’ ones that are nevertheless not that rare. There are excellent ‘basic’ vocabularies for most languages, but almost nothing at the advanced level. For example, existing thematic vocabularies will have ‘hand’ and ‘head’ under body parts, but what is there for the student who wants to learn ‘groin’, ‘shin’, ‘small of the back’, ‘lobe’, ‘palm’, ‘knuckle’. I can’t think of these off the top of my head in French or German; if I had learnt them systematically, perhaps I would do. Abstract words especially tend to be underrepresented in the systematic learning of vocabulary; but they are essential for accurately expressing emotions, for example. Synonyms are important: all too often a student learns just one term for a thing, and then passes himself off as a competent speaker of the lanmguage while remaining in utter ignorance of the other words, which have their own subtleties and power without which the language is impoverished. As an example, everyone learning Manx learns that the word for ‘anger’ and ‘angry’ is corree. All well and good; but to be able to express oneself in Manx, to have a full command of the language, surely you must also know the other words and idioms for anger: eulys, farg, elgys, jymmoose, sproght, goaill olk rish, ve trome er (compare English fury, wrath, ire, livid, enraged, mad etc.). It is probably helpful if all these words are presented together, so that the learner can memorize them as a whole semantic field if that suits him, refer back to them when he needs to, and so that there is nothing ‘left out’: all too often, learners learn a word for something, without it even being hinted to them that there are other words or expressions for the same or similar things; only much later does he stumble innocently upon the other word(s) which then turn out to be almost as common as (or more common than) what he learnt in the beginning. It is better to lay all one’s cards on the table than to leave nasty surprises for later.

Perhaps the paucity of good intermediate and advanced language-learning methods in this country is because of the real or perceived ineptness of the anglophone British to when it comes to other languages. Most Britons do not learn anything beyond a few garbled snatched of French, rarely venturing beyond ‘bong joor, parlee voo onglay’; even for the adventurous minority who go a little further, there is a widespread assumption that language-learning is especially ‘hard’ and that grammar especially is unpalatable and needs sweetening with lots of pictures, glossy textbooks with only a few words on each page, and patronizing titles such as ‘French made easy’, ‘German for dummies’, ‘Spanish without any writing’, ‘Swedish in three weeks’ etc. etc. There is a glut of such books in bookshops and libraries, and they infuriate me, for they are generally little more than phrase books, teaching little or nothing of how to actually construct your own sentences and thus say things you want to say, and there is very little at an advanced level, for it is assumed no-one will get that far.

Prof Sorace said in an undergraduate lecture on bilingualism that near-native speakers of a second language who have mastered the grammar and vocabulary to a very high level are often still betrayed by their persistent foreign accent. This is indeed noticeable; I know many people who have more or less perfect English and yet still sound foreign. On the other hand, I also know people who have acquired the accent as perfectly or nearly as perfectly as the grammar; for example, my German teacher at school who is from Leipzig and yet having learnt English as a student speaks it better than many mother-tongue speakers in terms of articulacy and breadth of vocabulary, and there is a hardly a hint of Germanness on her speech, at least to my ears (though RP English and refined German accents sound rather alike to me; they have the same slightly pompous Teutonic timbre and a still perceptible kinship of sound).

Logically, full mastery of the pronunciation of the target language should be the easiest part; for there are only a few dozen phonemes, allophones and prosodic rules, compared with thousands of grammatical rules and many tens of thousands of words and idioms. Admittedly, there is an added complication with pronunciation in that it involves a complicated interaction between the brain and the muscles in the vocal tract which may be hard to retrain, whereas the other aspects of the language are less physical, but even so with application and determination it should still be easier to acquire a good pronunciation than to learn the grammar and vocabulary. So why do near-native speakers appear to struggle to achieve a native accent when they have fully mastered the other components of the language? Again, I think it may in part have to do with conventional teaching methods, and what is concentrated on in courses.

Acquiring a good pronunciation is typically encouraged, but only to a certain level. Learners are expected to attain a moderately good pronunciation (unless they are learning Classical Greek), but not a perfect pronunciation, and it is expected that it is normal for non-native learners to retain a non-native accent to some extent. Acquiring a perfect accent is not essential for functioning in the language; you can have quite a thick accent but so long as everything else is correct, you can be understood perfectly by yout interlocutors. On the other hand, errors in grammar and vocabulary use are far more likely to cause misunderstanding, so there is much more pressure on students to acquire a perfect mastery of these features. Pronunciation in contrast is generally not taught systematically because only an approximation of the native phonology is required, and most teachers do not have the necessary knowledge of phonetics to explain and instruct their pupils properly. I think this is a shame, because although perfect pronunciation is not essential, I am sure many learners of languages would want to try and attain it, and since the phonology of a language is much smaller and takes less time to learn than syntax and lexis, it is a pity that language learners are not given the knowledge and encouragement to master this fairly painless ‘add-on’ to their language abilities if they so desire.

It is really something of a paradox that people have such trouble mastering native accents. After all, ordinary English-speaking people mimic regional and foreign accents all the time, and quite accurately I would say, when they are humorously talking about people they have encountered, or telling a story i na dramatic fashion. (It seems to be a fact that almost everyone is a good actor when they want to be except when on stage). Most English people can imitate a French accent when they are at play, so why do they find it so hard to have a good French accent when they are actually speaking French? Admittedly, some people are better at this imitation than others. I have a Bulgarian flatmate who speaks very good English, but with a fairly strong Bulgarian accent (though he says his compatriots say he has an English accent when speaking Bulgarian). He tried to get me to teach him how to get rid of his Bulgarian accent. I told him to imitate people who have native accents; I said it was perfectly possible to change your accent at will if you tried hard enough. To demonstrate, I started speaking English in a perfect Bulgarian accent, which I had absorbed in the few days since I had met him. He was quite spooked and said I sounded just like him! However, he was not able to go the other way, except in individual words if he concentrated. Now his accent is not so pronounced and he has modified certain sounds, but the Bulgarian accent is still noticeable. Perhaps it is partly because he hears so many different anglophone accents: which one do you choose? I personally find certain accents easier to imitate than others. I can do an almost perfect Welsh accent; but I get mixed up with the various English accents. I can’t tell where people are from in England, apart from the obvious ones like Scouse and Geordie. I can’t do a very good American accent either.

I am very sensitive about the Manx accent, in English as I will discuss below, but above all in Manx Gaelic itself. There are large numbers of immigrants from England and other places coming into the Island, and many of those learning or having learnt Manx are immigrants, or native Manx with an anglicized accent. Although I am pleased to see people coming to the island and taking an interest in our language and culture, I must admit that hearing Manx spoken in a southern English accent pains me greatly. Soon, there may be no Manx accent left, even within the Manx-speaking community. Of course, linguists will be inclined to say ‘languages change, just go with the flow’ and be suspicious of prescriptivism, but Manx is not in a normal situation, it is not changing in a natural way and people learn Manx because they are interested in it for its own uniqueness and Manxness and they find it beautiful: its idiom, structure and sound. If Manx pronunciation is watered down into an English sludge, what is the point of people learning it? English speakers mutilating French when on holiday in the Paris doesn’t matter much, because there are tens of millions of French speakers in France, and the sound of French is not going to be altered by a few rosbifs with strange pronunciations. But Manx can be ‘damaged’ by only a few learners speaking it with non-Manx accents. I presume that such learners probably want to adopt a Manx accent, and would be keen to access any resources that helped them to do so; so this is again another instance of inadequacy of phonetic teaching and knowledge and priorities in a pedagogical environment, and one that worries me greatly. Gyn chengey, gyn cheer is the motto of the Manx Gaelic Society: No language, no country. And I would add: Gyn blass, gyn chengey — No accent, no language.

Having securely mastered Manx Gaelic, my interests spread to the other Celtic languages, as well as to language and linguistics in general. I learnt Irish and Welsh, and when I started thinking about doing Celtic Studies in Edinburgh, I began to concentrate on Scottish Gaelic. I am now doing Gaelic 1B at the university, a course for native speakers and advanced learners. I can understand spoken Gaelic well, and read it fluently, and can converse in it myself fairly well—but not as well as I would like. Now Manx and Scottish Gaelic are very cloesly related, having diverged from one another only in about the fifteenth century. Now they are on the borderline between being dialects and separate languages, much like the Scandinavian languages. They are not very mutually intelligible, especially if spoken at normal speed, but it is fairly easy for Manx and Scottish Gaels to pick up one another’s dialects. I have found this to be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because being a near-native speaker (or whatever you want to call it) of Manx, I already knew most of Scottish Gaelic. I understood the grammar already, and even where there were differences they were easy to understand from a Manx point of view; and most of the vocabulary was familiar to me. In this respect it took less effort to learn the language than to learn something where everything is new. But also a curse, because the two Gaelics seem to interefere with each other in my mind. I find it very difficult to speak Scottish Gaelic fluently and naturally without Manx words or grammar coming out; and so there is always a hesitency in my Scottish speech as I have to choke back what seems more natural for me to say. The effect is not so pronounced the other way, though I do occasionally find Scottish words infiltrating my Manx. I recall Prof Sorace saying in the undergraduate lecture that bilingual children learning closely related languages such as Spanish and Catalan manage to keep them apart with no trouble; perhaps the confusion between similar languages is restricted to older learners, or perhaps it is to do with sequence. Those children are learning Spanish and Catalan at the same time, so there is not one dominaintly established before the other, whereas Manx is strongly established in my mind from a fairly young age, and my much weaker and less engrained Scottish Gaelic has to compete with that. Whether this can be overcome with time I do not know; but there is a man in the Celtic department who is a native speaker of Irish, but he has learnt Scottish Gaelic as an adult and can now switch between them flawlessly.

I imagine that other people learning languages very close to one they already know have similar experiences to me. A German learning Dutch will find, once he has familiarized himself with a few of the quirks of the latter tongue, that he already knows most of the vocabulary, syntax and idiom from German; but he will probably find it very hard to speak Dutch freely without going into German. In this way, even though he might know Dutch to a very high level, his own spoken Dutch will be much more hesitant than that of a learner at an equivalent level whose background-language is further removed from German and Dutch. In this way, even though I am a near-native speaker of a type of Gaelic, I sometimes find it much easier to speak German than to speak Scottish Gaelic. I have a friend whose mother-tongue is Afrikaans, the dialect of Dutch spoken in South Africa. She is a bright girl and linguistically astute; I once gave her Manx lessons and she picked it up very easily. However, she had terrible trouble with German at school. I often wondered why this was, since being a native speaker of Afrikaans she was effectively a native speaker of a type of German already; but now that I ponder my own troubles with Gaelic, I suspect I have found part of the answer: the very similarity between Afrikaans and High German must make it very hard to keep them separate in a learner’s mind.

I had better bring this post to a close soon. I hope it has not been too much of a ramble; everything I have discussed is intended to relate to the following questions: what is a native speaker? how do we learn second languages, what helps and hinders learning, and can teaching methods be made better? And from my own perspective, how does Manx relate to all this? Is Manx alive or dead, or somewhere in between? Do I speak a zombie language? And do the other few people on this planet who know Manx speak the same language as me? For there is more than one Manx. At this point I must reassure you that I am not going to make a tedious philosophical argument that every speaker of a language speaks a different language, or that an individual speaks a different language every time he opens his mouth; for I see no point in such arguments. However, since everyone who knows Manx well is a scholar who has rummaged through obscure documents and come to his own opinions on certain issues, which may diverge from my own, there is no-one else on earth who speaks my Manx. Sometimes it feels like there is no-one else who speaks Manx at all, when I wander round Edinburgh with an urge to speak chengey ny mayrey Ellan Vannin but having no-one to talk to within a hundred miles apart from myself and my toaster. My main everyday contact with the language is from reading; primarily reading 18th century texts, which contain the ‘best’ record of rich, idiomatic Manx as it once existed. This material consists mainly of catechisms, sermons, prayer-books, hymnbooks, temperance tracts and the Bible. I have been working my way through the Manx Bible since I was about fifteen at a rate of a chapter a day (sometimes only a chapter or two a week if I am busy or if the chapters are especially long); and I am still only about half-way through. Of course, this is sometimes rather heavy-going, especially in the depths of Leviticus or some of the Prophets, or when there are pages and pages of dry genealogy or dietary rules; but one has to keep going, for hope of striking philological gold. For every page or two, sometimes every few verses, I will come across a juicy new idiom, point of grammar or vocabulary item, and I get an adrenaline rush as I scramble to inscribe it in my notes, just as a butterfly enthusiast gets a kick when he skewers a particularly rare specimen in his case. Through this process I have learnt many new idioms and grammatical subtleties which seem not to be widely known in the Manx-speaking community at large. I and like-minded people try to disseminate these things to some extent, but by going back to the old texts, are we building a different Manx from what is generally being spoken within the revival movement and taught to learners? (I must emphasize the differences, linguistic and personal, between different sections of the movement, are not that great, and we not have factions anything like in Cornish for example). But the very fact that I am constantly sharpening and revising my knowledge of Manx in this way, does it undermine my claim to be a near-native speaker of the language? Indeed, since through reading I sometimes learn new English words and expressions, am I a native speaker of those English words and phrases? There are many English words that I know only from reading, and when I then drop them into conversation, I discover to my embarrassment that my assumed pronunciation is wrong5. There is always something of an inferiority complex in contemporary Manx speakers when it is pointed out to us that some of our pronunciations are based mainly on guesses from a dodgy and unpredictable writing system, instead of being passed down ‘naturally’ (though much of contemporary Manx pronunciation was learnt directly from the last traditional native speakers): however it is comforting to reflect that the same happens in English to some extent, when we consider words like ‘often’ and ‘forehead’. Writing has had a huge influence on English, but no-one would claim that English is therefore somehow not a ‘natural’ living language. Or if a language has to have unbroken intergenerational transmission to be natural and living, then Hebrew is a dead language, despite the fact that it has millions of native speakers in Israel, many of them doubtless monoglots! UNESCO recently announced that Manx was dead, but after receiving an angry letter in Manx from the children in the Gaelic-medium school in the Island, they changed it to ‘critically endangered’. Perhaps there should be a new category for resurrected languages.

If my Manx is unnatural, I am no more certain of the naturalness of my English. For I have always had a great tendency to analyse my own first language to an abnormal degree, sometimes noticing things that strike me as ‘strange’ in English—in the sense that unfamiliar structures strike us as ‘strange’ in foreign languages—even before I started encountering other ways of doing things in other languages. And now, as I learn more and more about linguistics and increasinly look at English with ‘outsider’ eyes, am I losing to some degree my native perspective of automatic, taken-for-granted naturalness? Perhaps to be a linguist means to become a second-language speaker of your first language.

I’m also not certain if I have a particular natural accent; as a child I had a mild Manx accent from my family, with hints of RP especially when I wanted to be serious or formal. But as I developed an interest in Manx Gaelic I began to analyse my own accent and tried to avoid certain features that I considered too English and non-Gaelic, such as r-deletion and intrusive r’s, which now make me feel nauseous when I hear them in Manx Gaelic speech. Certain features of pronunciation that I had always had that seemed particularly Manx I reinforced and defended resolutely as part of my national identity in an environment at school and elsewhere where at least half the population were non-Manx. These features include the Scottish-style [u:] sound in ‘sure’ (not ‘shore’), ‘look at the book’ (not ‘luck at the buck’) and ‘wasp’ rhyming with ‘clasp’ rather than having an ‘o’ sound. The latter I especially regard as a shibboleth to tell the ‘true’ Manx from the non-Manx and the lapsed Manx; I also think the Manx pronunciation is better for onomatopoeic reasons, for a ‘waasp’ sounds much more like an evil, buzzing, stinging horror than the rather slow-, plump- and haughty-sounding ‘wosp’. I remember when I was trying to improve my Manx Gaelic for speaking competitions my mother encouraged me to get a stronger Manx accent by being less ‘polite’ and more ‘rough’. By ‘polite’ she meant RP and by ‘rough’ the traditional Manx blass, and though she intended ‘rough’ as a positive attribute in these circumstances, no doubt those terms are very revealing from a sociolinguistic point of view! Now I constantly analyse and try to consciously modify my own accent, so much so that I am not sure if I can speak English completely freely and ‘naturally’, that is, natively, anymore.

The End.

Footnotes:

1 I love this word. Apparently it is first recorded in 1993 and is a blend of ‘finicky’ and ‘pernickety’. Finicky, finickity and pernickity (and fiddly, which seems also to be related to these words in my mind) all have similar meanings but different semantic ‘flavours’. Try to get your heads round these, ye non-native English speakers!

2 About the ‘er/der’ distinction. I don’t think I consciously knew about this distinction in German before the lecture, though I knew that ‘der/die/das’ could function as pronouns; however, I was certainly aware of it in French, e.g. the difference between ‘Après que Jean ait vu Paul, IL est rentré à la maison’ and ‘Après que Jean ait vu Paul, CELUI est rentré à la maison’ where ‘il’ refers to Jean but ‘celui’ refers to ‘Paul’.

3 I actually started French before Manx, but it was several years before we moved beyond parroting fixed phrases and due to my general apathy for the French language, the way it was taught, and perhaps because the language is, like English and German and unlike Manx, so incredibly vast in terms of idiom and lexis, terms culturally specific to modern western society as well as France, I never got anywhere near as good in French as I have done in Manx. When I say that French is vast, I must state that the Manx language is not that small; it still has tens of thousands of words and a very rich idiom; but having been used in fewer domains by a small number of people with a smaller diversity of activities and experiences to draw on in the making of expressions and idioms, and having virtually no ‘sophisticated’ literature, it is correspondingly smaller in overall ‘volume’ or ‘density’ than other European languages (though of course it has the potential to grow and is growing as vocabulary develops for the needs of 21st century speakers).

4 I do recognize that learners need some opportunity to practice speaking the language, and might be hindered in this by constant correction. Perhaps there should be sessions where the pupil is made aware that he can talk freely in the language without fear of being stopped and corrected, and other times where he is corrected. The teacher who, following my model, is potentially constantly undermining the student’s confidence with her questions, must work all the harder to reassure him that he is doing well and not making any more errors than the average person. There are also other methods besides correcting the student’s own speech: for example, teachers and learners could read a text in the target language together and discuss the little details as they come up. I found in my experience of reading literature in language lessons that such things are too often skimmed over (perhaps because the teachers themselves do not fully understand them), just as errors in the students’ speech are ignored. The standard assumption seems to be “now that they are advanced in the language, they will pick up the remaining details as they go along”. But I say, attention to detail and the role of the teacher in imparting knowledge rather than just facilitating the acquisition of knowledge, are just as important, if not more important, at the advanced level of L2 learning.

5 A good example is ‘banal’. I thought it was stressed on the first syllable, which was pronounced like ‘bane’, with the common adjective ending ‘-al’; but apparently the prescribed pronunciation is closer to the original French, with stress on the second syllable: ban-AHL. I was terrible disappointed with this, for my original pronunciation (which the OED says was formerly legitimate) sounds to me much more onomatopoeically ‘banal’. The ‘correct’ pronunciation sounds to me like a type of ice-cream, or a hat.

8 comments on “Unnatural natives: the paradoxes of second-language learning

  1. For an 8,000 word post, that was pretty good. I think you are ‘groping in the right direction’ – this sort of thing really highlights what you know and how you get to where you can talk about bilingualism without saying things like “oh, but I suppose x is also the case” – you’ll know x is the case. The more familiar you are with a subject, the more you spend time thinking about it, just like the more you use a language, the greater your knowledge and alacrity of recall.

    I wish I had had the willpower to learn a language properly when I was younger. I wish I had the time to work on my language skills now. I’m envious.

    Thanks for this.

  2. I must admit, I’m jealous, too. Not only of your dedication, fascination and language skills, but also a bit of your impressive 8 285 word post. Hut ab!

    Just a couple of things to comment on… 🙂

    If someone said “Du könntest mir dein Auto leihen”, you wouldn’t reply with “Könnte ich nicht” but rather “Kann ich nicht”. When you say “Könnte ich nicht” you’re expressing that you ‘really don’t want to’. “Könnte ich” on the other hand would work perfectly fine because the subjunctive expresses possibility and doubt (you might do it… maybe yes… maybe not…). (Furthermore, it just “sounds” wrong 😉 )

    Just a tiny mistake in your sentence “you stroke to them over the hairs”. Since the German is “Du streichelst jemandem über die Haare”, the literal translation should be “You stroke someone over the hairs” (not ‘to’).

    True, I’m a native speaker of German and I was not aware of the er/der distinction until Tuesday. It just comes (or ‘came’) naturally. Most mother tongues (i.e. non-linguists) are not actually aware of what they are saying and why. So I think it is plausible to assume that language learners are not told about such rules and thus can’t become “very good” near-native spearkers. If they knew about the rule, it would probably be processed quite well bit by bit, and eventually be in unconsciousness.

    As for your mystery-words “mal’s, eben’s, wohl’s, aber’s, ja’s, nur’s and schon’s” – I’ve never heard or used any of them before. Where did you get them from?

    And finally; so true, doch is pretty cool!

  3. Manuela on said:

    Why do you say that English is a “foreign language” on the Isle of Man, even though you admit that there are few native speakers of Manx? Aren’t you making a political rather than linguistic point?

  4. Christopher on said:

    I knew you would find something wrong in my German! I will get my revenge and send you some corrections of your English…. But thank you, I really appreciate your comments. With the ‘kann ich nicht’ thing, I was merely illustrating that construction Verb+subject+nicht. It could have been any verb, any sentence: tue ich nicht, gehe ich nicht, whatever. But thanks for the clarification of that difference anyway— it highlights my point about the importance of teaching little things like that.
    And what on earth do you mean you don’t know the “mal’s, eben’s, wohl’s, aber’s, ja’s, nur’s and schon’s”?? Germans use them all the time, they are called modal particles. Gute Kleider sind eben teuer. Es ist nun mal so. Ich war schon auf der Party, aber Spaß hatte ich nicht. Du bist wohl verrückt! (These examples are from the Wikipedia article on modal particles). All of these particles have many uses which are very hard to pin down and explain: they are the hardest thing for people learning German to get to grips with. That is why I said I had a native-style ‘feel’ for some of the uses of ‘doch’: most of the modal particle system I still understand only a little. They have similar particles in Classical Greek too, which is very annoying!
    The apostrophe s was the English plural marker, i.e. ‘instances of the word mal, instances of the word eben’ etc. Compare how in English we talk about ‘no if’s and but’s. It is permissible to use an apostrophe in the plural s in certain circumstances, such as mind your p’s and q’s. For more about adding plural endings to headless nouns, read ‘Words and Rules’ by Steven Pinker.

  5. Christopher on said:

    Manuela, yes I suppose I am making a political point when I say that. I’m not ashamed of that. As I point out in the post, it is partly subjective and is meant to put across my own experiences and casual musings and provoke thought, rather than be a strictly scholarly article, though I hope there is some truth in some of it.

  6. Oh right, that *’s* put me off, I thought you meant it to be part of the particles. True, it’s hard to explain someone their usage because they can have many different meanings…

  7. Manuela on said:

    Hi Christopher,
    I don’t object to your claim because it’s not scholarly, especially because I know very little about Manx or the sociolinguistics situation of the Isle of Man, so I wouldn’t be qualified to comment on the details anyway. I just think that people should refrain from making political points through language.
    In any case, I really enjoyed your post.

  8. Christopher on said:

    How can you separate language from politics? I know it’s a cliche to say everything is political, but to some extent all social issues are, and language does not exist in isolation. Language is tied to identity and when your country has a population of only a few thousand people and the language is one of the only things we have to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world, how can the language not be a part of ‘politics’, if that is what you want to call it? I would be interested to know how you think language can or should be separated from politics. But thanks for your comments and interest anyway!

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