Why didn't I learn this language?
September 19, 2016 3:11 PM   Subscribe

When I grew up, there were 5 languages spoken around me: 2 (A and B) more or less all the time, at home and in public. The 3 generations of women in my family spoke language C amongst themselves and with a several of their friends. Languages D and E were used fairly irregularly around me. I ended up speaking A and B as well as D. But I don’t really understand why I didn’t learn C.

Up until I was about 6, I will have heard language C a lot, yet I only remember less than a handful of words. The sound is incredibly familiar to me (here is a recording, if anyone is curious), but I can hardly make out a few words, even if I am listening really intently. I am now fluent in D (and had a really easy time ramping it up), and even for E I still remember a lot of stuff, songs, some words, how to say ‘I love you’ and ‘kiss your hand’ (the greeting we had to use as kids for everybody). But nothing for C.

My hypotheses:

1. It was the language of hoseholding and ‘secrets’. I have a hazy memory of understanding quite a bit at some point, but finding the topics mostly boring. At the same time, when I was NOT trying to pick up the conversation, I remember that listening to it as a sort of background music was incredibly soothing, like all was well in a safe world, and I could just be in my own little world.

2. Sort of the opposite of the above: at school there was quite a lot of discrimination against people who were ‘half-caste’, which I was (my mum was from the C language-speaking ethnicity, my dad was not). I retaliated by isolating myself from as much C-related stuff as possible.

3. C is a place-based language, only ever spoken by a few hundred people. There were dozens similarly place-based languages around. Whenever speakers of several C-type languages came together, they used language B (or more rarely A) as a sort of lingua franca.

4. Most speakers of C-type languages emigrated en masse from my country about 25 years ago. That is when I actually started using D in earnest, in good part because suddenly there were a lot more opportunities to do so. For C, the number of opportunities shrunk dramatically just at the point when I might have become interested in learning/ speaking.

Discarding any gender-based ideas (due to the maternal speaker-linage), since I am a woman myself.

There are tons of trilingual speakers where I come from, so any difficulty with a third language also seems out as an explanation.

Do you have any idea why I am this opaque to this language? I am normally quite good at picking up a smattering any time I am exposed to a language. Did anything like this happen to you/ someone you know? Do you know of any research of language non-learning despite a propitious environment?
posted by miorita to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How often were you, personally, in situations that required you to speak C? Not just to hear it, but you were expected to participate in conversations in that language yourself?
posted by kindall at 3:13 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a bilingual household, English and Spanish. My parents had a lot of friends who only spoke Spanish. As a shy kid, I learned that not knowing Spanish gave me an excuse to interact with them as minimally as possible. I suspect hypothesis 1 can be interpreted as your willfully not absorbing the language so you wouldn't have to engage in a world of boring topics.
posted by ejs at 3:37 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's common for kids not to pick up the language of conversations which happen around them but don't include them. If nobody wanted you to answer back in that language (rather than just hear it) you wouldn't have "gotten it" anywhere near the same way you would have gotten a language you had opportunity to speak. Also, even if you had "gotten it", your mastery would probably only have extended to the kind of vocabulary that you had had the opportunity to use yourself. In my experience and observation it's a very different "circuit" that is engaged when you speak as opposed to just hear.

(This is why I am militant about speaking practice time in any language class and against worksheets and other lazy teaching.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:38 PM on September 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think this basically has to do with C (I think) being a "low-status" dialect. Your parents didn't have a whole lot of incentive to ensure you spoke C (especially if your dad didn't) outside of wanting to pass on their cultural/ethnic identity, which isn't something everyone feels strongly about. I'm guessing further that after most of the speakers emigrated, there weren't all that many people your age whose families spoke C and you had incentive in school to fit in, meaning you weren't all that interested in learning C, even if that disinterest was subconscious.
posted by hoyland at 3:39 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

2 and 3 are interesting ideas, but I encourage you to reconsider the role gender notions may have played because they may not be apparent. I say this because I'm a gay man with a pretty effeminate "gay voice." Very recently the linguistics community (and the LGBT+ communities) have started to give critical attention to this formerly-criticized aspect of gay identity. One notable theory, explored in some detail in the 2014 documentary Do I Sound Gay?, is that the relative vocal feminization or masculinization that we take on (apologies for gendering here, but all is relative in this instance) may indeed relate to which parent and/or section of our families we most identified with, spent time with, learned language attributes from during language-formative years. That's to say that there are self-defined straight men who sound as effeminate as I do, just as there are self-defined gay men who sound as butch as a cartoon mechanic, simply because those were the ways of speaking those men were most exposed to growing up. I think this may tie in to the summary you provide (#2) that suggests the language you didn't pick up had some negative associations that led your family to avoid engaging you with it or kept you from wanting to engage with it.

Returning to my case, I think there's a particular illumination. I always felt more comfortable around my butch-sounding dad, but listened more closely (and probably spoke more often) with my mom because her interests were more in line with mine. The net result is that I sound more like my mom, because I exercised language more with my mom than with my dad during the years that came before my awareness of language.

All interesting stuff!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:04 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's common for kids not to pick up the language of conversations which happen around them but don't include them. If nobody wanted you to answer back in that language (rather than just hear it) you wouldn't have "gotten it" anywhere near the same way you would have gotten a language you had opportunity to speak.

I'll second this, too. Not just for gay voice stuff, but for regional dialects. I grew up in the deep south, but went to school where the southern accent was frowned upon. Net result: I don't sound like where I come from.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:10 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: I am Taiwanese and my parents spoke Mandarin to me and my siblings, but even though they normally speak Mandarin to each other, they spoke Taiwanese to each other as a householding / "secret" language for things they might have needed to talk about in front of us but in "private". I never really picked up Taiwanese other than the very bare bones basics despite having heard it in childhood, as well as had my maternal grandparents (who only spoke Taiwanese) living with us for awhile.

My mom's family predominantly speaks Taiwanese and my dad's family predominantly speaks Japanese (the older generation, due to occupation). I myself speak English, Mandarin, a decent amount of Japanese, and very little Taiwanese. I, like you, have always wondered why I didn't pick up more of my "C" language!
posted by raw sugar at 5:59 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know why you did not learn C language, but I have come with another example of not learning C language/the language of adults and secrets and boring stuff. My mother's family spoke Yiddish at home as the common language, the language of her first country was German, the language of her second country was English, and the language of secrets was Hebrew. She learned all the languages expect never learned Hebrew, could not understand it and could not speak anything but a couple prayers that remained meaningless.
But, I think it has less to do with being lower caste: My mother hated that they were foreign when they got to the US and did everything she could to only speak English after about 10 but put her back in Germany and her German was perfect, or let her get angry at her mother and the Yiddish was out like knives.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 8:30 PM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you don't actively use "C" it's not going to stick, especially with 2 main languages and another 2 ancillary ones.

You didn't really think/process in it (just absorbed gossip through it) so it didn't stick. You can still recognize it as the dialect that it is, but the reinforcement isn't there. The neurophysiology of language is more complicated than just vocabulary and grammatical rules.
posted by porpoise at 8:46 PM on September 19, 2016

Our kid just started at a language immersion school, and so I've been reading a lot about language acquisition.

Like some of the others above, I think you didn't learn language C because you were not required to learn it to interact with others. You were not expected to understand or respond, and so you didn't. Just being exposed to a language isn't enough--an adult speaker has to engage the child in speaking, provide feedback and reinforcement, etc. (This is true of reading as well and is why children can't learn a new language or how to read just from television or screens). It's also a truism of bilingual education that children pick up on which languages are "important" (i.e., actively used in multiple settings by many people) and often resist learning ones that don't seem important.

In your case it seems that not only was the language not "important" and not something adults actively engaged in with you, but that on some level the adult women of the family may have deliberately used it as a kind of code so that they could discuss things that they didn't want children to overhear? I can see why maybe they wouldn't have pushed you to learn it.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:34 PM on September 19, 2016

Nthing everyone who says that you don't pick up a language you don't use.

My mother tongue is Tamil, and that's all I spoke until I was three. I switched to English at school, and my extended family (with the exception of my grandmother) are all Anglophone, with the result that although I spent the vast majority of my life in Tamil Nadu I barely speak the language because I almost never had to.
posted by Tamanna at 12:00 AM on September 20, 2016

Also nthing, if it's not used regularly and over a long period of time, it gets forgotten quickly.

I grew up in the US with a Norwegian grandfather. Norway is quite similar in that it has place-specific dialects. My grandfather's family were from Lofoten, quite far north. I grew up with him speaking Lofoten dialect to me, though of course we all defined it as Norwegian. My grandfather's family and friends were all originally from Lofoten, so. The only words I remember are bestefar, god morgon, tusen takk, and ha det bra which he pronounced more as ho de bro. On the other hand, we had neighbors who had immigrated from Mexico and I can still, to this day, carry on a basic conversation in South American Spanish (Spaniards use different pronunciation). Why? I was speaking Spanish nearly every day with our neighbor friends, plus we had Spanish lessons at school. I only ever heard Norwegian (Lofoten dialect) with my grandfather; there was no one else to speak it with.

I only even found out there were dialects when I briefly dated a Norwegian who was from the south. I had wondered why the Norwegian I heard seemed harsher to my ears than what my grandfather had spoken. Turns out that, yeah, Lofoten dialect is considered deeply provincial. There was a documentary a while back where they interviewed people from the area, and it was like a light switch went on – I could recognize the sounds! They felt so safe, warm, familiar. I could hardly understand a word, but that was it, that was what my grandfather had spoken to me.

I now live in a country where I speak yet another language, one I only started learning at age 10. I don't have much of an accent in it, but the accent I do have? It is not American or English... it's Norwegian. The specifics may be jumbled, but the sounds stick around.
posted by fraula at 6:29 AM on September 21, 2016

I agree that the main point is probably that you didn't interact in that language - that's the reason parking your kid in front of the Spanish language TV station will not result in a Spanish-speaking kid. Language acquisition requires interaction, unless you're talking about deliberate self-study.
posted by timepiece at 1:17 PM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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