What happens to the language capabilities of children who are moved from one language environment to another when they are in their adolescence or teenage years? Can you have two native languages in this case, or will one language (or both) suffer?
I have a good friend who was raised in a Cantonese-speaking environment, but moved to Australia when he was 11 years old. His English sounds native and he speaks with an Australian accent, but occasionally he uses phrases or words completely incorrectly (and sensibly laughs it off when I correct him). Because his English is quite advanced (though not native), the errors that he does make are with difficult words or idioms that most students wouldn’t know.
Last night he came up with a gem that had the rest of us guessing for ages what he was talking about. He said that a place was full of chocolate box people. I wondered if Chocolate Box was a shop, and maybe their workers were everywhere. It turns out that he meant that the place was chock-a-block.
I find these misuses both entertaining and fascinating. The more advanced you become in a language, the more complicated or obscure your mistakes are going to be. I’m not sure how his Cantonese scrubs up, but I would be interested to find out. I also think that chocolate box people is brilliant and I will probably use it in the future.
Do you have any funny misuses of English (or any other language) to share?
English has a whole plethora of words that exist only in a negative form, with the positive form being made obsolete over time. Some examples are inept, unruly, insipid, nondescript - you never see the opposite of these words (although I suppose it would be complimentary if someone was to call you ept, ruly, sipid, or descript).
Jack Winter used a huge number of these unwords in his piece, How I Met My Wife, originally submitted to the New Yorker. Can you spot all the opposite uses of common words and phrases?
She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savoury character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. “What a perfect nomer,” I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.
Even for the advanced English learner, most of this paragraph would be incorrect, and it would be very difficult to work out the real meaning. Nevertheless, I think it’s a wonderful example of knowing the rules and bending them to make something both entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s so far from inane that it might just be ane.
I’ve always been a little bit fascinated with the words that different languages use to describe the noises that animals make. I know that these words are affected by the phonemes that each language has at its disposal, but it wasn’t until recently that I realised that the actual sounds that the animals make have regional differences, too.
Last time I talked a little bit about Dr Victoria de Rijke, or Dr Quack, and her studies on regional differences in duck quacks. She’s also headed up an initiative called The Quack Project, which has collected animal sounds from 15 different languages. Cutely, the recordings are all of young children. MP3s in these languages, for cockerel, cow, dog, duck, frog, horse, and pig, are available here.
This page has a list of how you pronounce a pig’s sound (oink in English), from snork in Afrikaans to the quite different ood in Thai. One of the sounds which brings the most argument and laughs between languages is that of the cockcrow. Bootstrappin’ has a great post about the differences and a long list of regional rooster sounds, including the Spanish quiquiriquí and the Icelandic gaggala gaggala gú. The majority of the noises have a hard k sound, like the French cocorico and the Dutch kukeleku.
But how much of these differences are because the actual animals make different noises? I haven’t found a resource that records animal sounds from around the world, but a Thai language blog has at least compared Thai and American roosters. Do you agree with the author that Thai roosters need to try harder?
It’s no secret that as well as loving linguistics, I am also a bit of a science nerd. As such, I’m a big fan of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and listen to the podcast of his Triple J talkback show every week. A couple of weeks ago a caller had a question that combined science and language. He was asking whether or not animals have different ‘accents’ depending on where they come from, e.g. would two dogs of the same breed sound different if one was from Australia and one was from the UK. Dr Karl’s answer was ‘almost certainly’, most likely related to the environment that the animal lives in, and might even be related to the exposure that the animals have to human speech and noises.
He mentioned Dr Victoria de Rijke, aka ‘Dr Duck’, who has done studies with Middlesex University on the differences between the quacks of ducks in central London and ducks living in the Cornish countryside. According to the study, pressures of city life and competing noise lead ‘Cockney’ ducks to use loud blasting quacks, whereas the ducks living in the countryside can get away with lower, more relaxed, laughing quacks. This makes a lot of sense, since ducks all need to be heard by other ducks, but city ducks need to work a bit harder at it.
Another interesting aside that Dr Karl slipped in (I do so love his tangentially related tidbits of information) is that it’s been shown that people are less likely to believe or trust someone who has a foreign accent. We’re not talking about native speakers from other countries (e.g. Australians vs Americans), but people who are obviously non-native speakers. This study showed that there was a significant difference in how credible participants thought speakers were, dependent on whether they had a native, moderate, or strong accent when speaking English. I suppose that if a person sounds less confident in speaking, it may be misconstrued as them being less confident about what they are saying, which often is not the case. It’s a bit worrying to think that there might be unconscious racism going on just because someone has an accent. Does that mean that Cornish ducks wouldn’t believe Cockney ducks?
Listen to the original podcast here (the bit about the ducks is around 32 minutes in), subscribe to it here, and/or follow Dr Karl on Twitter.