Saturday, 30 January 2016

Impact of learning another’ language on one’s own language

1. Introduction
In ELT Resources in Linkedin, Nick Edwards had started a thread with this title: 
‘Does English damage the learner's first language?’ with the elaboration:
       There was a short but very interesting piece in the most recent EL Gazette
       about how Chinese students learning English were losing fluency in their
       mother tongue.
       Someone I know who has moved to Norway mentioned recently that their
       English was suffering (not in a particularly serious way) but this was in an
       immersive environment.
       Does anyone have any experiences or thoughts of this? Can learning a second
       language really make your mother tongue suffer?

I thought I’d take up this as a topic to share my thoughts and also invite those of the readers.
Of course, like Nick, I’m referring to languages, including English, that may or may not be in use and one of which is not a learner’s mother tongue.

2. Impact of one’s own language on learning another’s language
How the mother tongue impacts learning English is too well known to elaborate here. Volumes have been written, hundreds of articles have been published; in fact, a separate literature—Second Language Acquisition—has come into existence. ‘Deviations’ are very likely to occur because learners fail to follow the grammars of the target language (here English) as described in an ‘educated’ variety of English, taught as ‘standard’ to non-natives. These are termed in SLA literature as Interlanguage stabilisations (temporary halt in learning) and fossilisations (permanent halt in learning). These deviations are called ‘errors’ due to ‘mother tongue interference’. But I prefer to use the term ‘mother tongue influence’, which is very natural in my opinion. (If you find the time, please refer to my ‘Errors’ in Linkedin Pulse.)

3. Impact of another’s language on one’s own language
I’ll start with how English has influenced using Thamizh, the regional language of Thamizh Nadu, India, before describing how my mother tongue, Thelugu, is influenced by Thamizh, the language of the Thamizh Nadu my forefathers and I have made our home.

3.1 English in Thamizh Nadu
While college education (UG, PG, PhD) is provided through English (because Thamizh hasn’t the wherewithal), school education happens in the regional language and English. All government-run schools use Thamizh as the medium for learning curriculum subjects (of late, there’s a separate section using English as the medium, as a means to attract students), and all schools run by private Trusts use English as the medium. And Kindergarten schools have sprung up to which parents  who can afford send their kids at great cost.

There’s a clear divide between these two group students, especially when they meet in colleges. English medium students consider themselves a cut above students from regional medium students and look down upon them. Regional medium students develop an inferiority complex and find the going hard academically, socially and in their professional set-ups. Having been immersed in English right from Kindergarten and having used more often than not English as a communication medium even in their homes, in schools and other environs, English medium learners shine academically and  professionally, but alas, they turn out to be poor users of Thamizh, exhibit little inclination towards learning it or reading its rich literature and thus fumble and feel uncomfortable using it for communication, they fail to take pride in Thamizh as a language, a culture or a literature as theirs.    

There’s another side to this. Being bilingual, speaking in both English and the regional medium is common enough occurrence among educated Indians. Moreover, even while using regional language as the communication medium, people (even illiterates) tend to use a lot of English words that have become part of their regional language vocabulary.

I think English through its literature has had some influence in the development of literature of say, Thamizh, going by statements of some Thamiz literary figures—free verse and short stories as forms of expression have been borrowed as the mode of today's expressing and sharing of thoughts.

The situation may not be dissimilar in other States of India.

Richard Tomlin says (in the discussion quoted in the ‘introduction’, ‘… Also my family is bilingual (English and Japanese) and we often find ourselves noticing a drop in the efficiency in both languages along with a mixing of the structures between the two. …’

3.2 Thelugu in Thamizh Nadu
My mother tongue is Thelugu since my ancestors lived in the then Andhra Pradesh (now divided into two States). I don’t know when my foreparents settled in Thamizh Nadu. I was born, brought up and educated in Thamizh Nadu. We spoke Thelugu in our family, spoke Thamizh to tenants in my grandmother’s home, neighbours, in shops, in the market, in school and other environs. So much so our vocabulary comprised more Thamizh words than Thelugu words. We mixed up Thelugu sentence structures with Thamzih sentence structures.

When either we visited our relatives in Andhra or they paid a visit, they’d laugh at our Thelugu and call it ‘corrupted’. A similar situation prevails in the case of Thamizhargal born, brought up and educated in Andhra.

4. Conclusion
One thing is evident from this discussion: learning English as another’s language WILL come under the influence of the mother tongue or the regional language and vice versa; such influence should not be termed as ‘interference’ or ‘corruption’.

I went to the Internet to try to locate websites or articles that discuss the impact of learning English on the L1 of learners. I used: How learning English as L2 makes use of L1 weak / Does English as L2 affect use of L1 negatively. But no website is available—maybe I didn’t use the right phrases. Which means it hasn’t struck native or non-native users of English to think in this direction. They are more worried about ensuring that non-natives speak the ‘standard’ variety.