Language matters — language matters?

Dr Maryam Mariya writes about the often passionate debate on language versus language.

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Living away from home immersed in another culture, the sights, the sounds and the language, one feels a sense of belonging. You left your home country with a tidal wave of events crashing in on your life; such as the tsunami. You moved seeking better opportunities. You carried all the memories, left all the special people in your life, clinging onto the special moments you spent with them, you carried what you have of your language, which you see as the purified language.

You live in a completely new environment, speaking the foreign language that you learnt at school. Which was not a foreign language to you as you spent your whole life immersed in it: your country’s education system relies on this language as a medium of instruction, your country’s economy depends on the language, and you attended classrooms where teachers punished you if you spoke in your first language in the classroom...

Where you live now, it is their first language. You get native speaker friends. You work with them. You go about your life doing grocery shopping, working, doing everything in their language. Do you feel you are fluent in this language? How do you feel about your first language?

You say you carried your first language with you. You have conserved what you know of the language. You have that vocabulary you have acquired. You use it at home with your family. You use it with deep appreciation. You are very proud of your first language.

Fast forward six years. You haven’t visited your country in a very long time. You are thrilled to be back home with your family and friends. You are overwhelmed with all the love, affection and food. You breathe in the air of your home country. You smell the aroma of local food wafting through the air. You hear the sounds, tones and tunes of your language. You can hardly breathe! And then you feel something is not right. You hear some strings missing in the guitar of your language. The broken note. The missing note. You get irritated, frustrated. Did it strike you very hard?

Your language is yours, you think to yourself. But what is so different that you are hearing?

You hear the sounds of the second language being used more than the first. This would have a big impact on the first language competence? You have many questions and confusions so you resort to reading some research on these developments.

According to many linguistics researchers, the native language more or less coexists with the second language. The maintenance of the first language depends on innate talent. You are able to preserve your mother tongue if you are good at languages even if you have been away from its natural environment. The first language fluency depends on how you manage the different languages in your brains. 

The missing brokenness you hear of your first language after years of being away can be a linguistic hybrid of your language by the influence of the second language. You hear an urban dialect of your language. You sit with your friends from the days in a café. Crowded place. A young man comes up to the food counter. Points at a snack and says: “Meena ethi theena yah okay tha?” (Is this thing okay for you?). The young person next to him replies: “Cool vaane, dho?” (It would be cool, yea?)...and the conversation continues with a concoction of the first and the second language. You feel fascinated yet baffled. You can tell the striking difference between your friends’ language use compared to the young peoples’ language use. Research theorises if you are more familiar with another language, you are more likely to change your native language? You feel that this adaptability is something you would celebrate - this is a mere proof of your inventiveness of language?

Language attrition is not a bad thing. It is just  a natural process. You see that these people have made changes to their grammar that are consistent with their new reality. You allow yourself to learn and use languages and you allow yourself to make changes. From a linguist’s point of view, there is no such thing as being terrible at your own language. For you and many of us, our mother tongue is bound up with our deeper identity, our memories and sense of self. 

After years abroad, you shouldn’t be surprised by this. Still, you have to admit that there is something a bit sad about your friends and family using words you no longer understand; a hint of loss, perhaps, or unexpected distance. There’s probably a Dhivehi word for that, too. But you may need a bit more time to recall it? In modern times, it is easy for you to have access to your own language, to learn more about it. You have ways and means of keeping up with the new jargon.

You have to be mindful that language is always evolving and growing, and embarking on new adventures that, not unlike this discussion, will continue...

Dr Maryam Mariya holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics (Massey University) and is currently a Senior Tutor at the Centre for Tertiary Teaching and Learning (Waikato University). Her mother tongue is her life long passion and she has a strong desire to preserve indigenous language and culture.

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