October 29, 2007

October 9, 2007

Linguistics: a primer

The latest in my string of post-secondary courses taken to keep the ol' brain alive, English 329 at UBC, presents a basic overview of linguistics. There are obvious applications for linguistic theory in my work as an ESL instructor, but some of the things that impress me most about the course thus far aren't pedagolically minded. They're just damned sharp observations.

Last week's lecture included this gem from instructor Jessica de Villiers:

"A society of listeners expects clear enunciation -- a society of speakers, however, pretty much slurs everything."

This statement speaks to more than just various styles of learning. Yes, Korean and Japanese learners (for the most part) tend to focus on paper skills, grammar rules, and what we'd call book-learnin', and thus have difficulty a) speaking English in non-classroom situations, and b) listening to casual English as spoken by non-classroom teachers. And yes, Mexicans and Italians (for the most part) tend to focus on speaking first, which them an advantange in casual conversation but forever stigmatizes them as not being able to use the language correctly, especially in writing. But for me, the most interesting implications of this statement aren't to do with people from outside the English-speaking community. It's the ramifications for societal differences within a given lingual group that fascinate.

As educational levels go up, what goes down are the tendencies to speak first and face consequences later. As most of our parents tried to teach us, those who listen get ahead. Cases in point: the lower classes tend to resort to knee-jerk reactions, while upper crust types calculate responses. Street-level violence goes hand in hand with lengthy explosions of profanity; white-collar crime, more often than not, is hidden in carefully crafted legalese. Needless to say, this presents itself as a two-way street... naughty words will always be seen as low-class, while the hoity toity -- oh crap, he says, re-reading this very post -- will pontificate no end.

No matter how we evolve, or where we go as a society, or how open minded we pretend to be, we'll pretty much always come back to the My Fair Lady form of class distinction. That's not necessarily a function of class superiority, as commonly espoused by us left-wingers, so much as one of lingual expression.

Fascinating stuff. Looking forward to more of the same.