language or dialect?

‘Did you know China is very big and has many dialects‘, My Chinese teacher told me pointing to a map of China. ‘It’s hard to understand people here and here, and as for over here…’ she said, pointing at Tibet, ‘their Chinese is impossible to understand.’

Hmmm, I thought, that might be because it’s a completely different language. Now while it’s true that Tibetan and the other Chinese languages all belong to the same language family, it’s also true that English and Iranian belong to their same family and we wouldn’t consider the one to be a regional variation of the other, so what’s going on with Chinese?
One of the sources of the confusion is the written system which is shared, in the same way that the roman alphabet is shared among many European languages. As the characters represent words and not letters there is very little connection with the symbol and the sound, thus the phrase ‘I love you’ in four Chinese dialects look like this:


Ah! Pretty similar you might say.  And you’d be right but here’s how you say them:

Wo ai ni
ngóh oi néih
Gua ai li
nguh eh non

Well, you may say, no doubt they are mutually intelligible, after all, they look kind of similar, right?  well what about these four, they look roughly as similar as the above example:

‘Dialect’ ?
Ti amo
Te lubesc
Te amo
Je t’aime

Would you be happy to call these dialects? Well, you might but you’d be on your own. So why are the Chinese languages called ‘dialects?’

Before delving into dialects that are really languages it’s interesting to look at some languages which are really dialects. You may know that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and Hindi is the majority language of India. However these two languages are virtually identical. Until 1947 India and Pakistan were one country and hence one language. In the same way American English and British English speakers have few communication problems, Urdu and Hindi speakers, except for some vocab, have no problems understanding each other. Another example of dialects becoming languages are Norwegian and Danish which are basically the same language with different flags and football teams. So political reasons, rather than a clear difference can be enough to grant a dialect language status.
Chinese languages are interesting because they follow the opposite kind of logic. China as a political entity is, shall we say, more interested in highlighting similarities than differences. The Chinese government is working hard to shape a national sense of unity, and so it follows that if the Chinese are all one people, under heaven, then it makes sense for them to speak one language. The Chinese word Fangyan  方言, meaning ‘regional language’ is close to the English word dialect, but not exactly the same. In the same way no longer being able to reproduce together is usually the boundary of a new species, mutual unintelligibility is arguably the boundary of a different language. But as we have seen with other languages, the differences might not be so clear cut.

All purpose "ignore newspapers" reponse

OK OK OK I know I said I wasn’t going to write any more pieces about newspapers, but like a fly to XXXXX I’m drawn back by the rancid stench of ‘Journalism’. But this folks, this really is the last time. This is going to be my masterpiece, all encompassing retort to all language articles appearing in the press. Below is a list of rules and if I’ve sent this piece to you then that means the article you tweeted probably has one of the problems listed below. 

Rule 1: the article in question is almost certainly wrong

It might not be 100% wrong but there is wrongness in it! The shocking surprising headline of someone learning a language in a few hourswaking up speaking a foreign language or commenting on the decline of English is almost certainly being misreported by non-experts. This is not surprising as they get most everything else wrong as well from health articles to science and pretty much everything else. Even if it’s not wrong, it’s probably not completely right, with misrepresentation and fudge rife. 

Rule 2: If the article isn’t written by a linguist of some kind ignore it.

If a scientist, a politician, or a journalist attempt to tell you that language is going to the dogs, or that the way people are using words is wrong, feel free to take no notice. Even if it is written by a linguist (or language ‘expert’) view it suspiciously. The guardian is not an academic journal claims and made there require zero evidence and they will provide no links to anything asserted in the article. So when you see the quarterly article stating something like, “I’m an editor of a famous journal and here are some language mistakes everyone is making” written in reasonable tones about how split infinitives are ugly or wrong and who/whom misused please remember they are almost always wrong, -or partially wrong. The best bet is to find out for yourself, from a reputable source. 

Rule 3: If it seems to be too good to be true…

…it probably is. Great breakthroughs are rare, but articles about them are not. “New theory” or “new breakthrough/cure” stories abound, but should be regarded with suspicion, like the story the “human language came from bird song” or that “English is really a Scandinavian Language” or that you can learn a language in 22 hours. These theories might be true, but if they are, why has no one suggested them before? This doesn’t instantly disqualify a theory, and paradigms are overturned, but “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and rather than believing the Daily Mail, I’ll wait for the peer reviewed article in a reputable journal before making up my mind, thanks.


Rule 4 Muphry’s law

This rule is named after murphy’s law but with a misspelling and it posists that anyone launching an attack on another person’s language use will inevitable have problems with language use in their article.  A good example of this is sceptic James Randy Randi, as I noted here. (thanks to Murray for pointing out I am too a victim of this)

a note on knowledge

interesting post and discussion over at the secret DOS’ page; Knowledge versus skills. Seems like quite a ruckus was caused. Interestingly I was reading the fabulously well-written “why don’t students like school” by author Daniel Willingham. I recommend it. I happen across this quote which seems pertinent:

there is no doubt that having students memorise lists of dry facts is not enriching. It is also true (though less often appreciated) that trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible. Research from cognitive science has shown that the sorts of skills that teachers want for students-such as the ability to analyse or think critically-require extensive factual knowledge. (2009:25)

I’ve also been reading the excellent “thinking about language teaching” by Swan (buy a copy right now!) in which he notes:

Language learners already know, in general, how to negotiate meaning. They have been doing it all their lives. What they do not know is, what words are used to do it in a foreign language They need lexical items, not skills. (2012:10)

 Grabe makes a similar point:

One needs only to pick up a newspaper in an unknown language to verify that background knowledge and prediction are severely constrained by the need to know vocabulary and structure.” (1991: 380)

 Something to think about.