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Mother Tongues Collapsing Around the World

Mutant Frog Travelogue posted about some Japanese conservative who’s trying to cut English from the curriculum in Japan. Now, what the Japanese choose to study is their own business, of course, but what I find interesting is why he has proposed the cut:

The reasoning is that Ibuki (as do many conservatives) believe[s] that students’ Japanese language abilities are going down. They should work on their native language, hone that to a good level, then work on English. Studying a foreign language at such an early age a) apparently confuses the kids, and b) takes class time away from good, honest study of our language.

Now, I actually have come across references, in passing, to some studies that suggest learning multiple languages in early life can result in slightly lower mastery of one’s mother tongue. However, I cannot say how definitive these studies were, not whether the results were foregone conclusions for the researchers involved… somethng that wouldn’t surprise me at all, given that, in practice, (a) I’ve met plenty of people who grew up bilingual, or began foreign language studies early on, and turned out fine, and (b) the pattern I’ve noted that political conservatives in non-Anglo societies seem very often interested in banning foreign language study for wider socio-cultural reasons.

What I find most interesting, in any case, is this nothing to do with English, but to do with the belief that kids are speaking (and writing) Japanese more and more badly. The reason I find this interesting is because I’ve found many Koreans are concerned with the very same issue these days. It makes me wonder why there is, at this particular moment in time, a panic about the collapse of mother tongues in these societies.

One other reason I think it’s a common panic is that I’ve received several decidedly serious essays by students deeply concerned by this problem. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me that the issue students tend to choose for essay topics often reflect wider concern. When I taught in Montreal, a large minority of the essays I got were about eating disorders. Here in Korea, I find students are very often concerned with problems of cultural change and what they perceive as the need for an overhaul in the Korean educational system… (Along with passing trends of public concern, most recently, in the wake of a lot of media on the subject, about the status of Koreans of mixed ancestry.)

When students write about problematic language change in Korea, they tend to focus on the effect of the Internet on how people use Korean. They complain of too many neologisms and foreign words, of (to them) incomprehensible contractions of Korean words and phrases (which I can relate to: sometimes English loan words and phrases are also rendered incomprehensible through contraction, though I’ve heard that’s more common in Japanese “Engrish”).

They also worry about the gap in Korean usage between the young and the old, who are apparently finding one another quite incomprehensible. At least, that’s what the students claim. As a matter of fact, I very seriously doubt the incomprehensibility is mutual — it’s almost certain that the younger speakers, while they use lingo and even new grammatical constructions that are unfamiliar and imprenetrable to adults, are still themselves fully able to understand what their elders are saying to them.

Steven Pinker wrote about this issue a little in The Language Instinct, in his rant about the Language Mavens, claiming that the notion of people speaking their mother tongue badly is, basically, nonsensical from a scientific point of view, because, to cop a line from Forrest Gump, “language is as speaker does.” If people are comprehensible to one another, and the usage is relatively systematic, then it’s proper speech, even if it is, say, isolated or subcultural or something like that.

But there’s another element that comes to mind, which is this: in Japanese and English, languages which are highly hierarchical, with specific honorifics and constructions related to levels of respect, it would probably irk those on the receiving end of respect to find their juniors using language in a cryptic way. Meanwhile, it makes a great deal of sense to me, socioculturally, that those same juniors would develop a way of speaking that appears cryptic to the very same seniors to which politeness and deference are not just recommended but linguistically prescribed. In other words, it only makes sense that you’d want a way to conceal the things you’re saying to peers and juniors from the ears of your hierarchical seniors, especially in a period of rapid, accelerating, and radical cultural change.

All of that makes me wonder when the big outbreaks of panic about the collapse of English would have occurred. I’m guessing the 1950s, a period of growing integration and increased flow of African-American popular culture into the American mainstream would have been one time. I bet the British went through a similar panic when their kids, growing up in colonial holdings in India and Africa, started mixing local language with the Queen’s English. When was the Academie Française founded?

Lastly, this reminds me of that wonderful old odd book by Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. For someone who got so many specifics so wrong, he sure got a lot right. I wonder if, really, this panic over language change in East Asia isn’t just a case of future shock?

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