Bilingual Language Acquisition




Bingual language acquisition

The terms bilingual and bilingualism have received diverse definitions. In this book, bilingual (the person), and bilingualism (the condition or state of affairs) refer to the use of two (or more) languages in everyday life. Two major patterns of language acquisition have been identified in studies of early bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism, but no agreement exists with respect to the age at which bilingual development would be considered to be sequential. In simultaneous bilingualism, the child acquires two languages at the same time from birth or, as some researchers propose, before 3 years of age. Here, I use the term Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA, or 2L1) to refer to situations where the child’s exposure to two languages begins at birth (cf. De Houwer 2009: Ch. 1). This means that the question of the effect that different ages of first exposure to a language may have on the development of bilingual competence is not relevant in BFLA, but it is in sequential bilingualism. The latter could be differentiated, depending on when acquisition of a second language begins, into: (a) successive bilingualism, when the child’s exposure to a second language starts sometime between the first and third birthdays; and (b) early second language acquisition, a form of early bilingualism that happens when a child has one established language before starting to hear and learn a second language (De Houwer 2009: 4). This book focuses on BFLA – that is, on the acquisition of two languages from birth, Spanish and English in this case. The overall goal is to examine whether bilingualism affects the course of development in each language, and if so, how.

Download the full excerpt here


English and multilingualism in China’s universities

Post written by Werner Botha, based on an article published in the latest issue of English Today.

With such a large number of English language learners, as well as an increasing use of English as a medium (or additional medium) of instruction in China’s universities, one wonders how this is impacting the ordinary lives of university students in China. This issue is of particular interest because very little is currently known about the impact of globalization on the spread and use of English in Chinese university students’ linguistic repertoires. A large number of these students are not only acquiring English at school and university, but increasingly outside of their formal education, through the Internet, music, computer games, movies, and television series. Indeed, many of these students have also been shown to be highly mobile, and in most cases migrate throughout Greater China (and abroad) in order to pursue higher education degrees.

Despite the lack of studies on the use of English in the educational as well as personal lives of Chinese university students, attention has recently been drawn to the fact these students are surprisingly multilingual, and constantly switch between different languages and language varieties as they move between various communicative worlds (e.g. socializing with their friends, using online chats, etc). Not only does English offer many of these students better career prospects and tangible success in an increasingly globalised world, but the English language is for many of them a means to explore new spaces, and offers them new ways of expressing their individual identities to others in the worlds they percieve themselves to live in.

It also appears that the increasing use of English in these students’ formal education is having an impact on the ways in which Chinese students are learning their course materials, and even more strikingly in the ways these students are using multiple languages to negotiate their everyday lives. As university students in China become increasingly bilingual in English and Putonghua (Mandarin), they increase their ability to move across spaces, both in the ‘real’ world, as well as in their Internet and entertainment lives. The varieties of English these students are exposed to no doubt also effect the ways in which they can use different varieties of English to construct and reconstruct personal identities. Not only this, these students also open up opportunities for others to share in their physical and virtual lives by using English in novel and unpredictable ways. Research on the spread and use of English in mainland China needs to keep pace with these shifting, multilingual contexts of language use in the Greater China region, and especially with the rich and multivaried multilingual worlds of students in China’s higher education.

Read the full paper English in China’s universities today‘ here

The Study of Language by George Yule | 5th Edition

The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in June), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.

Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press

Is English a ‘killer language’ or one at threat?

Is English a killer language?Post written by Clive Upton based on his Editorial in the recent issue of English Today

Our editorial in English Today issue 29.3 raised the subject of English as a ‘killer language’.

We pointed to a speech given on 22nd February 2013 in which the German President Joachim Gauck called for English to be seen as the common language of Europe, and especially of the European Union.

This speech resulted in a response published  in The Times from the British Council’s Director of Strategy. John Worne was quick to try to forestall any suggestion that such an idea supported the notion, sometimes put forward, that English is a ‘killer language’ that grows at the expense of other languages.

In the latest issue this debate has been widened to demonstrate that English too might be thought to be threatened at times, as signalled by an entertaining but nevertheless serious linguistic matter that has recently arisen in the Welsh part of the UK, as reported in The Times:

 Residents in the Welsh village of Varteg are not happy with plans to rename it Y Farteg, saying that it will make them the butt of jokes. Welsh language campaigners are calling for the name change, claiming that the current title for the village is incorrect. In  the Welsh language, there is no letter V – although the same sound is pronounced [i.e. written] with the letter F. However locals say that the proposed name sounds like a schoolboy’s playground insult. Sioned Jones, 42, a resident of the village, said: ‘Just imagine how embarrassing it will be to have the word fart in your village’s name…’

The interaction between the Welsh and English languages has not been a happy one in Wales. Historically, English was frequently imposed upon Welsh speakers: in the extreme southwest of the country replacement of Welsh by English occurred through settlement as long ago as the late eleventh century, and in much of the south, where Varteg is situated, it occurred progressively throughout the period of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Replacement of Welsh by English was not sympathetically done, and created hurt and resentment. As social and political attitudes have changed, especially since the mid-twentieth century, strenuous efforts have been made to give Welsh proper official status.

But as we know, language is tied closely to identity, to the way in which speakers connect with their communities as they are now and as they have been passed on to them by their forebears. Just as the Welsh speakers bridled at having English forced upon them in the past, so many of their English-speaking compatriots now resent having Welsh forced upon them from outside their community. To the very large majority of people in the area in which the village is located, Varteg is not an ‘incorrect’ spelling but a time-honoured one, used for generations. And it seems likely that the anger at its being questioned goes deeper than the merely linguistic, so that what local Varteg residents really object to is not so much the association of the word ‘fart’ with their village, but more that the V- spelling inherited by them from their English-speaking ancestors is being eroded, and that the Welsh language is being boosted at their expense. There is no easy solution to such conflicts of language wherever they occur, but they should be handled intelligently and sympathetically on all sides.

As a postscript to this, we can now report that local objections have been heeded, and the idea of introducing ‘Y Farteg’ as an alternative to ‘Varteg’ has been dropped.

Five of the articles in this issue of English Today concern aspects of the interface between English and other languages.

Enjoy access to the entire issue without charge until 30th June 2014.


Wondrous Welsh, Published in the Times, 28th September 2013


Demise of the Subjunctive in French?

By Ronald Batchelor

Whereas the subjunctive mood is extremely rare in English and is by and large restricted to a literary, elevated style, sometimes verging in fact on the positively archaic (e.g. If I were you; Were you to come; So be it; Oh that it were so!), in French the subjunctive is still a mood to be reckoned with. What is often disconcerting to the student of the French subjunctive is that, in some cases, its use seems to conform to unmistakable and well defined rules, and in others, it seems to be a matter of choice. There are circumstances where the use of the subjunctive is obligatory, and those where a degree of choice or discretion is permissible. As far as the latter is concerned, the subjunctive’s use is often determined by instinct, particularly on the part of someone who is very conscious of the way in which (s)he uses language and enjoys an elegance of expression. A simple example to illustrate the difference: Je je pense pas qu’elle vient  could be used in a relaxed, festive atmosphere, while Je ne pense pas qu’elle vienne would be apposite in delivering a talk/lecture. Both are acceptable, depending on circumstances.

The subjunctive has its roots in Latin. Indeed, the very word derives from the Latin unctus<iungere (to join), which explains why it is most commonly found preceded by the conjunction que  followed by subordinate clauses dependent upon the main clause.

At the root of the use of the subjunctive lies the idea of an unconfirmed statement or what the French call un énoncé non-validé. The notion of doubt, hypothesis, possibility, desire, order or command, or some future act, is often associated with the subjunctive: in other words, if an idea is not clearly substantiated  or authenticated, the subjunctive may well be used. Although a standard speaker may be fully aware of the various possibilities of the required subjunctive in accordance with traditional prescriptions, it is quite likely that its application in all circumstance will disappear in speech through inadvertence and because of the frequent breaks in continuity of structure which are characteristic of the spoken word, as in: Je doute qu’elle vienne>Elle va venir? J’en doute. It is considered a sign of ignorance or poor education when a person omits the subjunctive incorrectly, a common enough occurrence. It should also be noted that in some areas of the French-speaking world, notably in rural communities, the subjunctive may hardly manifest itself at all, a comment based on long years of personal experience. It is consoling to realize that some French speakers themselves can experience difficulty with certain forms of the subjunctive, resorting for example to veuillons/veuillions for the correct voulions, on analogy with veuille, and aie for ait.

At the same time, all educated French speakers will doubtless experience little difficulty in using the present tense of the subjunctive. Yet, the imperfect subjunctive and, together with its sister conjugation the pluperfect subjunctive, is, to all intents and purposes, unknown in common discourse; if it does occur, it is usually for jocular purposes or as a parody of more elevated usage. A simple example of its facetious use occurs in the name of the well established pasta brand Lustucru. Origin? L’eusses-tu cru (Would you have believed it?). One could play around with fusse, pusse, susse, partisse, etc, and even fallusse which does not exist, falloir being an impersonal verb restricted to the third person. Some pretentious elements in French society do indeed go one stage further to distinguish themselves from the common linguistic herd and flaunt their imperfect subjunctive knowledge. Such elements meet with acid disapproval from Michel Massiam (Si l’on écrivait correctement le français, Hachette, p.205, 1985) who lambasts them as “précieux” and “snobs”. It hardly requires stressing that the average French school child would have no idea how to conjugate these two subjunctive forms, let alone use them. A whole class of French fourteen-year olds (near St Nazaire), when consulted on the topic, drew a complete, unanimous blank. Almost the same result was realized by an adult class at the University of Nantes.

The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives survive unchallenged in refined usage, in speeches and stories, but even in these cases it is almost exclusively the third person singular that is used these days (=fût, fît, mît etc.); the other forms are avoided and are replaced by the present subjunctive, and occasionally, the perfect subjunctive. It is, in reality, in polished prose writing that the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives most frequently occur. Therefore, foreign learners of French do not need to use them at all in speech, although they should be aware of their appropriateness in formal writing.

It goes without saying, then, that the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives have lost pretty well all of their former vigor associated with Chateaubriand (early 19th century) and then further back to Rabelais (16th century). A cursory and striking contrast of their current use, or lack of, may be made with their ubiquitous contemporary presence in Italian and Spanish. The imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives, as well as the present and perfect subjunctives, appear with as much constancy in these two other languages as the corresponding indicative tenses. There is no problem, indeed it is perfectly normal in Spanish, to say and write …que yo parase/parara (…that I should stop) or in Italian: che io fermassi but the French: que j’arrêtasse strikes the hearer as very odd. Whether this is because the sound of the asse in French appears rebarbative, grotesque, pejorative or just awkward is not clear, and this is cogently argued in some quarters, (consider also parlasse, assassinassions and caillasse, rêvasser, finasser, for instance), it seems quite unjustified to assert that the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives are difficult to handle since they form a natural part of normal discourse in the other two Romance languages referred to, and we refer unconditionally to all native speakers here. These two subjunctive forms cause bewilderment in many French speakers precisely because they have fallen into disuse. That they have fallen into disuse is a linguistic enigma.

In this context, two reference are made to the French speaker’s contemporary attitude to the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives, and these references underline both, on the one hand, a serious element and, on the other, a humorous and parodic approach. First, a Comité pour la réhabilitation et l’usage (dans le langage parlé) du passé simple et de l’imparfait du subjonctif was established in the 1990s in France to defend and diffuse the use of these two tenses at a national level. The instigator of this courageous but zany move was Alain Bouissière, nick-named Monsieur plus-que-parfait, a whimsical and unorthodox embalmer (of corpses) who must have sensed the need for resuscitation, linguistically and corporally. The said committee, now defunct it appears, enjoyed monthly meetings to discuss any current topic with enthusiastic recourse to the two forms of the subjunctive in question. Such was the resounding initial success of these meetings that Bouissière published Le bar du subjonctif (Hatier, Paris) in 1999.

The second reference illustrates, doubtless more accurately, the true status of the two subjunctive tenses in contemporary France. We enter the realm of Astérix, which, far from representing an infantile attachment to light-hearted comedy, indulges in intelligent use of language and, notably, play on words, a preoccupation greatly appreciated by an adult readership. Suffice it to quote the names of three Roman generals: Claudius Quiquilfus (Les lauriers de César, p. 19), Gracchus Quiquilfus (Ibid. p. 23), and

Encorutilfalluquejelesus (Le tour de Gaule, p.26). Goscinny, author of the bubble dialogues, plays with the endings of the subjunctive, adapting them to his burlesque aims.

The -fus derives from fusse (from être) which is to be interpreted as a change from the third person fût, while the sus derives from susse (from savoir). The util in the middle of the third concocted name recalls eût. Adult readers instructed in the traditional use of the now abstruse forms of the subjunctive are sensitive to these playful nuances.

In a general way, not all forms of the subjunctive are observed. Moreover, many French speakers would not be aware that regarde in Il faut que je le regarde is a subjunctive form. The je/tu/il(s)/elle(s) forms of the present subjunctive of er verbs are the same as those of the indicative, which is not the case in Spanish and Italian, and given that the overwhelming number of French verbs are of the er ending type, it is little wonder that the French subjunctive is losing its prominence. It may be that there is a tendency for the subjunctive in the present tense to be particularly preserved with certain common verbs where the indicative and subjunctive forms are widely divergent, or the actual final sound is dissimilar. As no more than an illustration, the third person of the indicative and subjunctive forms of some verbs is:

Verb/indic/subj: aller/va/aille; devoir/doit/doive; dire/dit/dise; écrire:/écrit/écrive;

être/est/soit; faire/fait/ fasse; falloir/faut/faille; mettre; met/mette; prendre/prend/prenne

The death knell of the present and perfect subjunctives is not sounding just yet, although the imperfect and pluperfect forms are well and truly dead and buried, for all the endeavors of the embalming resuscitator alluded to above.

It is not the place here to offer the numerous nuanced circumstances where the various forms and tenses of the subjunctives occur (see my Reference Grammar of French, Cambridge, 2011, pp409-439).

(Adapted and modified from Reference Grammar of French, Cambridge, 2011)

Bilingualism. Memory, and Emotion

by Hugh Knickerbocker and Jeanette Altarriba
University at Albany, State University of New York

Several models of bilingual memory describe the interplay between lexical and semantic stores of memory in bilingual individuals attempting to comprehend and produce speech. However, while these models have emphasized the pattern of connections between general linguistic and semantic clusters across languages, only a small amount of work has investigated the perception of emotion across languages. Numerous lines of research have showcased emotion effects and have provided insight into the effects of emotion and language on semantic and autobiographical memory.

Multiple studies have investigated the automatic activation of emotion words across first (L1) and second (L2) languages. The findings of these studies are heavily influenced by the pattern of language dominance exhibited by the sample of participants. Procedures such as the Stroop task, where participants report the presentation color of a word rather than the word itself (e.g., the word ‘fear’ presented in the color blue is responded to more slowly, as opposed to the word ‘box’ in the color blue), or priming, where response to a target word is faster when it is preceded by a related prime word (e.g., participants respond faster to ‘depressed’ when primed by ‘sad’) as compared to an unrelated word, have shown similar emotion effects when bilinguals are fluent and regularly use both languages (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986; Sutton, Altarriba, Gianico, & Basnight-Brown, 2007). However, emotion effects can be limited to one language if bilinguals have a clear dominant language.

Research into the automatic processing of emotional language has led to even more interesting insights into the structure of autobiographical memory in bilingual individuals. Research has utilized skin conductance response (SCR) where changes in the conductivity of the skin are measured as an indication of autonomic nervous system responses. Stressors should result in an autonomic nervous system response that can be detected by monitoring sweat levels on the skin. Increases in sweat increase the conductance across participants’ skin. Bilingual research using SCR measures provides insight into the automatic processing of emotion across L1 and L2. This research has found that late learners of L2 exhibited SCR effects to emotion words (e.g., sadness) in both their L2 and L1, but only exhibited SCR effects for reprimands (e.g., shame on you) when they were presented in their L1. During debriefing interviews, participants reported unique automatic memory retrievals from their youth when presented with reprimands. These memories were typically events where participants were reprimanded as children by a family member or other authority figure. These findings provided strong evidence of the existence of language-specific memories that can best be retrieved through the use of a specific language (Harris, 2004; Harris, Ayçiçeği, & Berko-Gleason, 2003).

Research into conscious retrieval and autobiographical memory has also provided evidence of language-specific memories. Investigations have found that memories tend to be more available for retrieval in the language in which they originally occurred. Bilinguals generally provide memories with a greater level of detail and elaboration when retrieving a memory in the language in which the event occurred. Studies of the autobiographical memory of bilingual immigrants who changed their daily language usage as a result of emigrating have bolstered this view. This research has examined the ‘reminiscence bump’ which is a time period between the approximate ages of 10 and 30 that results in a greater number of autobiographical memories. The reminiscence bump tended to shift to match the time period of emigration. More interesting, the memories of the participants were clearly divided between their two known languages. Memories before immigration (and the reminiscence bump) were stored in participants’ original language. Later memories that were from a post-immigration period were stored and more easily retrievable in the language that participants were forced to switch to as a result of their immigration event (Schrauf, & Rubin, 1998, 2000, 2001).

The processing of emotional speech by bilinguals has already begun to clarify some of the idiosyncrasies of semantic and autobiographical memory retrieval and structure. We now know that emotional stimuli can have the same impact regardless of language, as long as participants have similar levels of fluency and daily usage in all known languages. However, some emotional connections remain unique and highlight features of autobiographical memory.

Fazio, R. H., Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Powell, M. C., & Kardes, F. R. (1986). On the automatic activation of attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 229-238.

Harris, C. L. (2004). Bilingual speakers in the lab: Psychophysiological measures of emotional reactivity. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, 223-247.

Harris, C. L., Ayçiçeği, A., & Berko-Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 561-579.

Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (1998). Bilingual autobiographical memory in older adult immigrants: A test of cognitive explanations of the reminiscence bump and the linguistic encoding of memories. Journal of Memory and Language, 39, 437-457.

Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (2000). Internal languages of retrieval: The bilingual encoding of memories for the personal past. Memory & Cognition, 28, 616-623.

Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (2001). Effects of voluntary immigration on the distribution of autobiographical memory over the lifespan. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, S75-S88.

Sutton, T. M., Altarriba, J., Gianico, J. L., & Basnight-Brown, D. M. (2007). The automatic access of emotion: Emotional Stroop effects in Spanish-English bilingual speakers. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1077-1090.


Find out more about Memory, Language and Bilingualism here.

Sapir, Whorf, and the hypothesis that wasn’t

by Aneta Pavlenko, Temple University
author of the upcoming book The Bilingual Mind
and what it tells us about language and thought

One of the linchpins of human information-processing are the frames of expectation we apply to the constant flow of information. These frames allow us to impose meaning on the things we see, hear, or read and to position ourselves with regard to ideas and arguments. In the case of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH), these frames require us to adopt one of the three recognizable positions: for (which may brand us as radicals), against (a marker of a skeptic or a rational thinker), or in-between (a sign of a temperate scholar willing to consider the pros and cons of everything). The adoption of conventional frames of expectation saves us a lot of valuable time – once we know (or think we know) what each position means and where each party stands, we can jump right in the middle of any argument and hammer in our own point of view. I have experienced the power of this conventionality firsthand when I gave an interview about my book, The Bilingual Mind, to François Grosjean at Psychology Today: some readers immediately branded it as defense of the relativist cause (at best) or ‘nonsensical relativism’ (at worst). Yet there is a downside to unquestioning adoption of conventional frames of expectation – it leaves us vulnerable and unprepared for changes in the terms of engagement. The Bilingual Mind is a case in point: I do not argue for or against the SWH because I do not see it as a legitimate scientific phenomenon. The purpose of the book is to show that the SWH ‘as we know it’ is a phantom, if not a fraud, and has little to do with questions that preoccupied Sapir and Whorf.

The manufacturing of consent on the SWH began when Sapir and Whorf passed away and their ideas landed in the hands of others. Driven by the desire to make complex notions, articulated by linguistic anthropologists, fit experimental paradigms in psychology, Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg transformed them into two ‘testable’ hypotheses. These hypotheses – one ‘weak’, one ‘strong’ – appeared in their definitive form in Brown’s (1958) book Words and things:

linguistic relativity holds that where there are differences of language there will also be
differences of thought, that language and thought covary. Determinism goes beyond this
to require that the prior existence of some language pattern is either necessary or sufficient to produce some thought pattern. (p. 260)

Soon the newly-minted SWH took on a life of its own, multiplying and reproducing itself in a myriad of textbooks, articles, lectures, and popular media. Yet ideas don’t travel easily across disciplines and Brown’s and Lenneberg’s reformulations departed from Sapir’s and Whorf’s original arguments in several ways. To begin with, they articulated the hypothesis in monolingual terms (while Sapir and Whorf were interested in the power of multilingual awareness). Secondly, they shifted the inquiry from obligatory grammatical categories, such as tense, to lexical domains, such as color, that had a rather tenuous relationship to linguistic thought (color differentiation was, in fact, discussed by Boas and Whorf as an ability not influenced by language). Third, they shifted from concepts as interpretive categories to cognitive processes, such as perception or memory, that were of little interest to Sapir and Whorf, and proposed to investigate them with artificial stimuli, such as Munsell chips. In doing so, they moved the discussion further and further away from Sapir’s primary interest in ‘social reality’ and Whorf’s central concern with ‘habitual thought’.

When we look back, the attribution of the idea of linguistic determinism to multilingual scholars interested in second language learning and language change makes little sense. Yet the replacement of open-ended questions about linguistic diversity with two ‘testable’ hypotheses had a major advantage – it was easier to argue about and to digest. The transformation was further facilitated by four academic practices that allow us to manage the ever-increasing amount of literature in the ever-decreasing amount of time: (a) simplification of complex arguments (which often results in misinterpretation); (b) reduction of original texts to standard quotes; (c) reliance on other people’s exegeses; and (d) uncritical reproduction of received knowledge. Eventually, the very frequency of its reproduction made the SWH a ‘fact on the ground’.

Today, the received belief in the validity of the terms of engagement articulated by Brown and Lenneberg still reigns unopposed. Yet the focus on ‘non-linguistic cognition’ of ‘monolingual’ speakers in the experimental lab gave rise to a self-defeating line of inquiry that has little ecological validity and little in common with Whorf’s interest in thought insofar as it is linguistic. The purpose of The Bilingual Mind is to consider what is meant by linguistic thought and what non-trivial effects languages have on such thought in monolingual and multilingual speakers. Far be it from me, however, to claim that the book aims to move the inquiry on language and cognition ‘forward’. It does not – if only because I agree with Kuhn ([1962] 2012) that the metaphor of science as ongoing march forward is utterly misleading. My goal is to convince at least a few readers to move ‘away’ from the deeply familiar – yet inherently flawed – terms of engagement articulated for us by Brown and Lenneberg, to ‘backtrack’ towards the questions posited by Sapir and Whorf and to adopt more realistic terms of engagement with the relationship between language(s) and thought that take into consideration language change and the undeniable bi- and multilingualism of the majority of the world’s population.


The Bilingual Mind is due to publish February 2014.


A note on Register, or Level of Language, in Spanish

By Ronald Batchelor

A most dominant factor in the use of language is register, or variety or level of language determined by the communicative situation in which the speaker/writer finds herself/ himself. In other words, the level of language we resort to depends, to a very large extent, on whether we are speaking with friends, which would attract a colloquial style, writing a letter, delivering a lecture involving a standard style, or writing a book frequently entailing a formal, elevated style of expression. Levels of language may therefore differ over a range from informal to formal, and are determined by four factors: sex, age, professional or social status, and intimacy. All these features affect, in varying degrees, the way we use language in areas of vocabulary and grammar.

A simple formula for assigning register (henceforth called R) to vocabulary and grammar could be: R1* vulgar, possibly offensive; R1 colloquial, elliptical, casual; R2 standard, polite, educationally sound: R3 formal, literary, scholarly. Such subdivisions are arbitrary and there could be some movement between them, but they do seem to hold water for most linguists. What is clear, however, is that language-sensitive speakers would consider as “incorrect” many expressions in the R1 or R1* category. As they say in Spanish, “Está mal dicho” or “Es una palabra malsonante”.
Looking towards the future, it is possible that some of what are deemed incorrect usages assigned to R1 will end up in an R2 category. A simple illustration: the Mexican use of the x in México, once shunned in Iberian Spanish, is now accepted in Spain. In point of fact, it appears quite regularly in the Spanish press. It is manifestly obvious that the Spanish language, spoken over vast territories, from the Río Bravo (Río Grande) to Tierra del Fuego, will entail great diversity, and even uncertainty, in the light of which what is “correct” in one Spanish-speaking country may be considered “incorrect” in another.

The Real Academia Española (RAE) was once recognized as the guardian of the “correctness” and standard register of Spanish, but this can no longer be the case. There are as many Academias as there are Spanish-speaking countries. And they all enjoy linguistic parity. As a consequence, the judgment of correctness has become arbitrary in many cases. An Argentinian would find the juxtaposition of adverb and possessive pronoun (adelante mío=in front of me), (cerca tuyo=near you), perfectly admissible, and would classify these structures as R2, but these expressions would appear strange to a Colombian, a Mexican or a speaker from the Iberian Peninsula who would doubtless reject them. How many speakers of “standard” Spanish would admit delante mío as R2? Probably no one outside Argentinian. No disagreement, of course, on the acceptability of delante de mí/cerca de ti, everyone considering them as R2. All Spanish speakers would unanimously agree on the use of ante mí (before me) as an R3 expression. Yet, delante mío, delante de mí, ante mí all have validity in their own way, depending on circumstances, region, locality, and country.

Paradoxically, in the case of Mexico, and this point may be applied to Peru and Colombia, and even Argentina, Spanish, as imported from Peninsular Spain from the sixteenth century onwards, felt conservative constraints, doubtless on account of distance from the “mother” country, so that some vocabulary, as heard and seen in Mexico, has an archaic resonance, falling into an R3 category. It is the author’s experience that Mexican speakers prefer certain terms that are now high register, or of less or restricted use, in modern Spain: alberca instead of piscina, platicar instead of hablar, regresar instead of volver, caminar instead of andar, and even the apocopation of a before a feminine noun, once common in the Spain of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: la primer casa/página/vez, instead of la primera casa…

A compelling argument pleading for the rich diversity of register in the different Spanish-speaking countries lies in the more than well documented origin of Spanish itself, and of all Romance languages for that matter. They derive largely from Latin, which gradually and inevitably splintered into French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and Spanish, as Roman administrators followed Roman legions. With distance in time and place from Rome and Lazio, the surrounding area, Latin speakers of Roman origin began to speak a different, and therefore, for many, a bastardized form of Latin. Vergil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid would have turned over in their grave on hearing a degenerate form of Latin in the Roman Empire of the third, fourth and fifth centuries AD. The fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by the fall of the Latin language. The lesson is clear, and “Heresy” I hear some say. Spanish, like all Romance languages, is a deteriorated, low-register form of Latin. But, a type of expression generally considered faulty or “incorrect” in Latin generated a new standard, culturally exciting and linguistically exalting, and this linguistic “deterioration” resolved itself into the marvel of the languages of Cervantes, Racine, Manzoni and Camōens. A case of R1 usage finding its way into R2 and R3 usages over the succeeding centuries.

(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of Spanish (600pp). See pp 3-10 for chapter on Register)
3 examples of range of register, taken from Spain, A(rgentina) and M(exico):

R3 disturbar; R2 fastidiar, incordiar, molestar; R1 enchinchar M, hinchar A, chinchar;
R1* chingar M, dar el coñazo/la puñeta (a) (+many more)
R3 seno; R2 pecho; R1 lola(s) A, delantera; R1* chichis M, tetorras (+many more)
R3 recrearse; R2 pasarla bien A/M, pasarlo bien, disfrutar, divertirse, gozar; R1 pasarla mil puntos A, pasarlo bomba/la mar de bien; R1* pasarla a toda madre M (+many more)
(Taken from my Cambridge Using Span. Synonyms)



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A note on the Concept of Gender in French

by Ronald Batchelor

To the English-speaking beginner, the notion of masculine and feminine gender for French nouns comes as a surprise. Perhaps it should not be so. For in most European languages of Indo-European origin, and this includes Arabic, Pashto, Hindi, among many others, but excludes Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Turkish, gender distinction forms an integral part of grammatical discourse. But let’s play the devil’s advocate.  For such a beginner, the concept of gender assigned to inanimate objects appears extraordinary, lacking all logic and convincing definition. So much for the logic of “Ce qui n’est pas logique n’est pas français.” It seems to make more sense that gender should find no place when applied to inanimate objects, as in English. One may quote she for a ship, but this is the limit.

However, the idea of gender in French is a presence to be reckoned with. One of the neo-Latin languages, French inherits the concept of M. and F. gender, just like Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. One may understand M. and F. nouns in the context of humans (male and female) and some animals (again male and female). But that a table in French should be F. (=la table), like the Italian tavola (la), (but M. tavolo (il) is also common in  Italian!), and mesa (la) in Spanish, while couteau (le) in French, coltello (il) in Italian and cuchillo (el) in Spanish are M. defies rational explanation. Indeed, linguists agree that no rules may be established to justify this arbitrary application of gender to nouns, save for those pointing to persons and some animals. And even here, gender seems to go a bit transvestite. That a male should be F. as in French victime, Spanish víctima, or Italian vittima, or a female should be M. as in French membre, Spanish miembro or Italian membro merely dims our understanding even more.

                        Moreover, in many European languages, from Greek and Latin, through to Czech, German, Polish and Russian and the Scandinavian languages, for example, one has to confront a further gender applied to nouns: neuter. In Romance languages, fortunately this is not the case, although in Spanish, there exists the vigorous use of adjectives with a neuter value (=lo). The imagination is stretched beyond all reasonable bounds in Old Church Russian where a fourth gender occurs with a mixture of plural M. and F., the equivalent of they. However, for our purposes, we may safely concentrate on French M. and F. nouns which have repercussions throughout the French sentence since they require agreement of adjectives and past participles. Oddest of anomalies, here we come.

The gender of numerous French nouns has never been stable over the centuries, which explains serious hesitation felt, at one time or another, by practically all French speakers. The same comment applies to other Romance languages. This variability is partly due to the diverse origins of words, changes based on analogy with other words in the same language, and the constant requirements of adapting to new circumstances, as with the accession of females to what was once an exclusive male precinct. Three simple examples of the variability of genders over the centuries is the French M. noun le miel which is also M. in Italian (il miele) but F. in Spanish (la miel); fleur is F. in French and Spanish (la flor) but M. in Italian (il fiore); opéra is M. in French but ópera is F. in Spanish, and opera is also F. in Italian. Little wonder that perplexity reigns here since opus/operis is neuter in Latin. In short, the study of gender is a testing minefield, requiring meticulous attention. Indeed, our Cambridge Reference Grammar of French devotes thirty-six pages to the subject in the light of current French usage.

                        The common expression “discuter sur le sexe des anges” (“to indulge in Byzantine quibbling”) says it all. Such a discussion points to an interminable and seemingly fruitless wrangling over the sex, and therefore gender, of angels, although sex and gender are not the same thing. Whether angels can be exclusively male or female, and whether their gender in French is M. or F. are unresolved issues. Of course, only the gender of ange concerns us here. Consensus of opinion suggests that ange is only M, witness the entry in the admirable Canadian MULTI Dictionnaire of de Villers which states unequivocally that “ange est toujours masculin” (our underlining). This opinion finds support in the Belgians Hanse and Blampain’s excellent Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne. Yet, this trenchant assertion flies in the face of evidence adduced by Grevisse’s Le bon usage which quotes such prestigious authors as Vigny, Flaubert, Nerval, Zola and Saint-Exupéry, who also assign a F. gender to it. The simple fact is that French, as with other Romance languages, finds itself unavoidably caught up in gender issues that remain adamantly blurred by virtue of the relationship of the nature of gender and the constantly shifting sands of nouns. To conclude the matter of ange, nearly all contemporary French speakers view it as M. For further confusion on the sex of possible supernatural beings, démon/démone is merely another illustration of this labyrinth, although the F. form is little used these days. This said, Chateaubriand uses the F. form in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (near the beginning of chapter 12, book 3).

(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of French)


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Communication Disorders in an Age of Impact

by Louise Cummings

Nottingham Trent University, UK

As academic researchers, linguists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work on the lives of individuals and on the growth of national economies. There is one field within linguistics where impact is more readily demonstrated than in any other. This is the study of the many ways in which language and communication can break down or fail to develop normally in children and adults with communication disorders. These disorders are the focus of a recently published handbook, the Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, which brings together 30 chapters on all aspects of the classification, assessment and treatment of communication disorders. The chapters in this volume will speak for themselves. My purpose in this short extract is to demonstrate how, in an age of impact, the case for the academic study and clinical management of communication disorders could not be more persuasive.

I begin by revisiting a quotation which I included in the preface to the handbook. It is a comment which was made in 2006 by Lord Ramsbotham, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. He remarked: ‘When I went to the young offender establishment at Polmont, I was walking with the governor, who told me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist’. This statement focuses attention quite forcefully on an issue which clinicians and educationalists have known for years: the remediation of impoverished language and communication skills can have a significant, positive impact on one’s life chances and experiences in a range of areas. These areas include social integration, psychological well-being and occupational and educational success. Conversely, the neglect of language and communication impairments presents a significant barrier to academic achievement, vocational functioning and social participation. The area of professional practice which aims to mitigate these harmful consequences of communication disorders – speech and language therapy (UK) or speech-language pathology (US) – has played an increasingly important role in recent years in raising awareness of these disorders. That increased awareness has been felt not just among members of the public in the form of greater tolerance and understanding of communication disorders, but also in policy areas which have the power to transform the provision and delivery of speech and language therapy services.

It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm.

If the human impact of communication disorders does not persuade the reader of the merits of this area of academic and clinical work, then perhaps the economic implications of these disorders will make the case even more convincingly. A report1 commissioned by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK and published in 2010 found that speech and language therapy across aphasia, specific language impairment and autism delivers an estimated net benefit of £765 million to the British economy each year. In 2000, the economic cost of communication disorders in the US was estimated to be between $154 billion and $186 billion per year, which is equal to 2.5% to 3% of the Gross National Product.2 It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm. This is in addition to the abdication of any type of social responsibility to the welfare of its people.


 1 Marsh, K., Bertranou, E., Suominen, H. and Venkatachalam, M. (2010) An Economic Evaluation of Speech and Language Therapy. Matrix Evidence.

2 Ruben, R.J. (2000) ‘Redefining the survival of the fittest: Communication disorders in the 21st century’, Laryngoscope, 110 (2 Pt 1): 241-245.

The Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders
, is now available from Cambridge University Press.