Monday, November 21, 2011

Brain dump re: diglossia

I think one of the most cited linguistic texts ever is Ferguson's 1959 treatise on a phenomenon called diglossia. It's been on my mind lately because I have a midterm in my Bilingual Education class on Tuesday and I'm trying to wrap my head around everything we've learned in the last few months. From what I understand via the legends surrounding this particular professor, we are all going to fail the midterm. All of us. And then we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off...and beg for a curve.

One of the texts for this class has been Ofelia Garcia's Bilingual Education for the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. My classmates complain about the book a lot because the text style is not the most lucid out there. Also, the author really has a chip on her shoulder about oppressed language minorities and those dang pasty United Statesian monolinguals imposing their bigoted ignorance on all the cute little Mexican kids and blah blah blah. It may get my blood boiling every once in a while, but at least it is engaging, you know? I quite liked having a textbook with ATTITUDE and SASS. Anyway, about two weeks ago, we switched to Baker's Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, which is much more vanilla. Oh well.

Back to diglossia. In 1959, Ferguson got to writing about how some societies display signs of bilingualism on a macro level, where two varieties of one language are in use in mutually exclusive, clearly defined, functionally separate contexts. Take, for example, oh I don't know, Arabia. There's the "high" variety of Arabic, MSA, which is used in the context of media and education and literacy. Then there's the "low" variety of Arabic, or colloquial dialect, which is used in everyday real life. If you use MSA in a context normally reserved for the colloquial, they're all going to laugh at you. Similarly, if you use colloquial in an MSA context, they're all going to laugh at you. It's a system that's been in use for a long time, but it's showing signs of leakage. More on that in a minute.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a guy named Fishman extended Ferguson's diglossia principle and said that diglossia can occur even between two languages, not just varieties within a language. So then you have societies where there is bilingualism with diglossia, and bilingualism but not diglossia, and diglossia without bilingualism, and neither diglossia nor bilingualism. It's all a rich tapestry.

However, these days you can't go around attaching labels like "high" and "low" to languages or dialects without offending people. So Fishman politically corrected the model of diglossia and moved away from using the term to describe language hierarchies as normal, accepted structures. Just because colloquial Arabic occupies the so-called "low" slot doesn't mean it is inherently less valuable than the "high" MSA, so let's do away with those archaic, harmful designations. Furthermore, those mutually exclusive, clearly defined, functionally separate contexts I mentioned earlier are leaking. These days, you can find printed material in the colloquial dialects of Arabic (HALLELUJAH) and people on TV (including Arab leaders trying not to be deposed) mixing in colloquial with MSA.

So now we talk about "multilingualism," or "transglossia" in societies, not diglossia. These terms more accurately describe the "stable, yet dynamic" functions of two or more languages in society (Garcia, 2009, p. 79). We've got Paraguay (Spanish/Guarini), Luxemburg (French/German/Luxemburgish (!)), Switzerland (French/German/Italian), Haiti (French/Haitian Creole), Lebanon (Arabic/English/French), etc.

Doesn't all this make the US sound like the most boring place on earth, linguistically speaking? Maybe it's just Garcia's disgust with monolinguals rubbing off on me, but what is our deal, anyway? Why on earth have some states actually outlawed bilingual education in their schools? What are we so afraid of?

On the other hand, I wish Garcia would cool her jets a little. There are plenty of people in the US who just want to learn English, and that is FINE. There are kids in Kansas who will never go anywhere but Kansas and we should not turn up our noses at them just because they are not chomping at the bit to learn Mandarin Chinese. Maybe this sounds ethnocentric, but I'm really just trying to be inclusive: if someone only speaks English, and it's not for lack of opportunity to study another language, and it's not because they hate other nations, and they're just going to live and travel within the (expansive!) United States quite happily for the rest of their lives, maybe that's ok. Sometimes I get tired of Europeans imposing their linguistic and geographical paradigms on us Americans. You guys, our country is huge, and sometimes we have to drive for hours and hours just to get to another state. It's not like Europe where you can hit three countries in two hours. Besides, at least allow Americans the satisfaction of knowing that even if they only do speak one language (English), at least they picked a useful one, right?

But yes, it would be more exciting if the US experienced more diglossia multilingualism or transglossia. Don't you think?

And that, my friends, is how you turn studying for a midterm into writing a blog post for NaBloPoMo.


breanne said...

But at the same time, even if kids from Kansas are never going to leave Kansas, the rest of the world comes to America (even Kansas!) to work, study, etc. Do you think learning a language only helps with communication, or could learning a second language be helpful even if the rest of the world speaks English because learning others' languages helps us understand them (as a society and as a culture) better?

I think I know what you feel about learning second languages (you are a linguist, after all!) but I think it's interesting to think about.

Bridget said...

Of course you're absolutely right, Breanne. There are cognitive benefits to being bilingual even if you never are put in situations where you have to speak the 2nd language. I was just trying to be nice. :)

Liz Johnson said...

Eh, I think they have the right to not learn another language... but people should also be educated as to the vast benefits of doing so. And I would love more of the various forms of -glossia in the US... it would surely make it more fun for me, at least. :)

Thank you for making my brain turn on this morning!

Sarah Familia said...

Maybe I've been hanging around Europeans too much, but it really does bother me how ethnocentric so many Americans are.

I think learning another language is an indispensable part of education not only for the demonstrated cognitive benefits, but also for the simple act of acknowledging that another cultural and linguistic group exists (and at least attempting some mutual understanding).

Otherwise, it's too easy to end up like the Greeks, looking at everybody else as "Barbarians" because they don't talk (think, live, act, pray, etc.) like we do.

JosephJ said...

Diglossia is not to be confused with casual conversation peppered with international words, I suppose. Since moving to New England, I'm finding people's casual conversation peppered with French terms. Not all four-letter terms, either.

You know, fashion terms, political terms, culinary terms.

Memorable case: I felt like a uneducated hillbilly when people were talking about Crudités, and I had never heard of such a thing.

Is this a nation-wide trend these days (of mingling languages), or is this a case of Americans asserting status? (a.k.a. "high brow")

Susanne said...

Interesting topic! I was talking about languages with my Syrian friend recently and discussing any disadvantages of his knowing English. He said knowing what others think of them (Arabs, Muslims) and it making him feel cheap.

One day when I was particularly frustrated, I decided I was fine knowing only English. I hear enough American-bashing/Christian-bashing in my own language. I sure as heck don't need to read or hear it in any other language. Enough with that stress!

That said, I wish I'd learned a foreign language as a child, but I think I'm too old for it now so I'm trying to be like Paul: content in whatever state I am in. English only!

Jeremy Palmer said...

It's this kind of post that confirms I married a keeper.

Craig said...

Very thoughtful and interesting post. The damage many people have with the bilingual signs, etc., in the USA is that emigrants throughout time have learned English and "merged in". Are we doing native Spanish speakers a disservice in this regard?

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Americans should strive to learn a foreign language--fluency isn't necessary. It's a way of opening our eyes to the world around us, to other cultures. The obvious way to accomplish this is for free through high school classes. We required our children to take 4 years of whatever language they wanted during high school.

Craig brings up a good point about doing a dis-service to Spanish-speakers by not expecting them to learn English. I think of my Rusyn-speaking grandparents struggling to learn English a hundred years ago. It had to be tough, but they were then able to participate in society instead of watching it it pass them by.


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