Saturday, 15 August 2015

Appropriateness of terms for languages

Naming a language as x or y

This is based on a theme discussed in Chapter 1 of H H Stern’s Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, published by OUP in 1987 as the fifth impression.

In his book, Stern provides the following terms to refer to mother tongue and other languages a person knows and uses; the terms imply varying levels of knowledge and proficiency:

first language
native language
mother tongue (the vernacular)
primary language
stronger language

second language
non-native language
foreign language
secondary language
weaker language
language of wider communication
standard language
regional language
national language
official language
modern language
classical language

Terns under L1 and L2 groups indicate the relationship between an individual or a group and a language at a personal level whereas terms in the third group refer to the relationship between a language and a group in terms of geography, social function, political status etc. The first relationship is subjective whereas the second one, objective.

The L1 and L2 terms indicate two things:
    1. acquisition process
    2. proficiency level
But the terms in both groups are not clearly distinct and are fluid in the descriptions and so don’t mean the same thing to all people living in an area. The distinction between L1 and L2 poses no problem in countries like England, France or German where the populations speak one common language which is L1 for the natives and which is L2 for non-natives living or staying in those countries. ‘But in many language situations the relative position of the languages is not as simple. The languages of the home, neighbourhood, school, region or nation may form intricate patterns of bilingualism and multilingualism. The language experiences in these situations make the boundaries between L1 and L2 learning far less definite.’(Stern 1983: 13)

Indefiniteness of terms under L1 and L2 groups
I’ll take myself as an example to illustrate this, living as I do in Thamizh Nadu, a South East Indian State on the shores of Bay of Bengal.

I can say I know six languages: Thelugu, Thamizh (generally spelt as ‘Tamil’), English, Hindi, Malayalam, Amharic. Thelugu, the regional language and the native language of Andhra Pradesh, I acquired from my infancy, early childhood (hence, ‘first’, ‘native’ or ‘primary’) and within the family (hence ‘mother tongue’). However, it’s NOT my stronger language for several reasons. I lived in Andhra with my parents till I was nine years old and so my Thelugu was ‘native’ enough to communicate. But I lived with my maternal grandmother in Thamizh Nadu for the next twenty years, learnt formal Thamizh (through study in school) and informal Thamizh (through social interaction) and I spoke Thelugu only with my grandmother, my parents and relatives from Andhra Pradesh when they paid visits or when  we met during festive occasions. My vocabulary was a mixed bag of Thelugu and Thamiz words, the ratio being higher in the case of the latter), so much so my speaking proficiency rate of Thelugu became lower and lower as time passed and my relatives in Andhra during visits used to be amused at my poor (‘corrupt’ as they called it) use of Thelugu; yet, I can get the general drift, even today, of written Thelugu in newspapers and of lectures. Thamizh gradually became my stronger language and I’ve been as good as any native user of the language, and it has thus become and been my another first language.  

English I learnt as a subject in school (1952—1957) where teachers explained in Thamizh. At home, I read and wrote chapter-wise summaries of abridged versions of famous English novels and showed them for correction to my maternal grandfather’s younger brother, went to public library to read English newspapers and dutifully summarised the news items to my grandmother, I had to write to my father letters in English stating my monthly progress in studies. English became the medium of learning in my P.U.C., BA and MA courses. This was when I started using English to speak. I started my teaching career in 1963 which ended in 2005. Thus, initially English was my third language and over a period of time became my second language and for several decades it has been my first and primary language along with Thelugu and Thamizh.

Hindi, the national language of India, I learnt as my fourth language as part of school curriculum. It was my second language in my PUC and BA courses and I was so good at it that for a short period I considered doing my post-graduation in it. I began to use it in Ethiopia to converse with Indian colleagues from North India—from Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Orissa (now Odisha)—who spoke Hindi as well as they did their first languages. The Hindi that I knew was bookish and I learnt conversational Hindi from these friends where to my shock I found that grammar was the casualty, like it is in Thamizh and other languages. Since my return to India from Africa, though I’ve hardly had occasion to use Hindi to communicate, I’m fairly fluent in Hindi even today.

Malayalam, the regional language and L1 of Kerala, a South-West Indian State, is my fifth language. I learnt it from my colleagues in Ethiopia, and I was almost thirty; learning it was easy because it’s closer to Thamizh. I learnt to speak Malayalam like my friends. Since my return to India , I’ve had almost no opportunity to use it and whenever I need to use it I struggle to express myself.

Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, is my sixth language. I was almost thirty when I learnt it because of ‘atmospheric pressure’—I needed it to communicate to shopkeepers, servants, neighbours. Soon I began to speak like an Amhara, and this pleased the locals no end. I learnt it also because I could use it to teach English and to help students grasp English lexis and structure by comparison. Honestly, I didn’t know then that bilingualism was a teaching technique. Even though I left Ethiopia in 1977 and I haven’t spoken it since, I’m confident that I can greet Ethiopians with ease and surprise them if an occasion arose.

In sum, Thelugu is my mother tongue, first language, (native language ?). It is my primary language as well while communicating with those to whom Thelugu is the mother tongue—anywhere in the world. But it’s my weaker language by comparison. Thamizh has moved from second language status to primary language status since 1957. English has moved from third language status to primary language status since 1959. Hindi has remained a second language and is neither weak nor strong. Malayalam is my weaker language, and there’s no term to describe my relationship with Amharic, except to say it’s my weakest. I thus have three primary languages, one second language and two weak languages, the proficiency level being equal in Thamizh and English and in decreasing order in Hindi, Malayalam and Amhric.       

Other multilinguals in India and elsewhere may have similar language experiences. 

SL and FL
Two terms under L2 group that are not clearly demarcated with reference to countries like India, Ethiopia are second language and foreign language. A language is deemed ‘foreign’ to its learner when native speakers of that language live outside the country of the learner. In this sense, English is a foreign language. A language is called ‘second’ to its learner when it is learnt and used in their country. In this sense, English is a second language. What is not clear here is for what purposes the so-called second language is used. For instance, it may be the medium for official communication between the national and state governments, for written correspondence and medium of instruction of education from the start or later in the process but not the spoken medium and whose native speakers live thousands of miles away. In Ethiopia for instance English is only used as the learning medium only at university level. In India, it’s an optional medium of learning from school level but it’s the only medium of learning in higher education; socially, it’s used as the spoken medium only when people from different states visit another state, which is not very often but it’s used to speak and write in private firms. In Canada, English is number two language for French-speaking Canadians and French is number two language for English-speaking Canadians. However, the proficiency levels may vary from person to person, and either language can become first language along with the mother tongue.    


The ELT literature uses TESOL in place of TESL and TEFL. Existing terms have been found wanting in describing a person’s ability to use languages in addition to their mother tongue. So I feel another language can be used in place of ‘non-native’, ‘second’ or ‘foreign’ as an umbrella term to cover any language other than the mother tongue. The quality of other languages as far as their use is concerned can be thought of as subsets under ‘another’ language. We’ll now have only two expressions: mother tongue and another language and there’ll be no confusion. I suggest TEAL/LEAL: Teaching English as Another Language/ Learning English as Another Language