August 29, 2019
... The motive for metaphor, shrinking from The weight of primary noon, The A B C of being...
- Wallace Stevens
A post by a Russian Instagrammer showed up on my feed the other day. It contained an interesting metaphor that I had seen before, but never really thought about that much. It was a metaphor for our relationship with our language. In English, we are native speakers of our language. In Russian, we are носители (nositeli) - carriers of our language.
I found it interesting to consider that each metaphor implies something different about our relationship with our language, that perhaps might influence how we view it and what we do with it.
The metaphor we are accustomed to in English implies that a language is something we are born into. We inhabit it, and we steward it, natives of that linguistic territory. At first sight, it seems like a unique epithet, a fact about us as individuals, as if it’s purely incidental that that there happen to be other native speakers besides ourselves. The existence of the territory doesn’t entail the existence of inhabitants. Of course, this cannot be the case when it comes to language, but it’s implied by the metaphor.
The other perspective has a more utilitarian bent. For Russian speakers, our language is something to be carried, an idea that can be captured by more specific metaphors - the tool and the gene.
We use language to communicate with others to alter the state of the world. We make our intentions and desires known as we negotiate a world filled with other agents whose actions have a direct impact on our wellbeing. We need language to chisel, carve, saw, plane, and whittle an alliance with others that might give us a better chance of survival.
Alternatively, a language is inside us and informs, at least in part, how we perceive the world. To the extent that it does determine our perception, we’re powerless against it, just as there’s nothing we can do about our height or eye colour. One of the more interesting implications of the language-as-gene metaphor is inheritance. Just as we are carriers of our language, so one day we’ll pass it along to a new generation.
As far as I know, it’s not really clear what it means to be a native speaker. The conventional definition emphasizes the age at which a language is learned - specifically that that age must fall within a critical period of language learning during which the brain is plastic enough to build the kinds of neural pathways that are not replicable later in life.
The critical period idea is supported by a 2014 study involving children of Chinese families who were subsequently adopted out to French families at ~12.8 months of age. Years later, aged 9 - 17 years, these children were given a Chinese tone discrimination task, along with two other groups of native Chinese speakers, and native French speakers with no previous exposure to Chinese, respectively. The results are compelling - despite having no conscious recollection of the Chinese language, the adopted children were found to exhibit neural activity identical to the native Chinese speakers, that differed from the native French speakers.
Based on this, it’s clear that the language-as-territory metaphor has something going for it. Your neural pathways give you memories of a language that cement your status as an inhabitant of that particular territory. Years later, you can still recognize the terrain, even if you’ve been away for a long time.
But were these children carriers? They don’t carry a tool - if the language is just a subconscious memory, what application does it have? And they don’t carry a gene, since a lack of actual fluency in the language precludes the possibility of passing it down to their children.
So how do you view your language? Are you a native or a carrier? Or both? In metaphorical terms, you don’t have to be fluent to be a native, and you don’t have to have started early to be a carrier, you just need to put in the work.
To the extent that being a linguistic native entails being around other native speakers of a language from a young age, the budding speaker also gets exposed to the culture, customs, and behaviours that go along with the language. These knock-on effects surely create memories of another kind, that may or may not be shared by the child’s peers, contributing to a valuable, unique perspective. To see oneself as a native is to see oneself as being a product of that ecology, for whom the cultural endowment is a birthright.
To see oneself as a carrier is to be forced to consider the eventual transfer of what is carried. The choice of whether to pass a language on is a difficult one, and something everyone will have to decide for themselves. To take a personally significant example, immigrants to a new country are especially sensitive to the urgency of this question. If the language is passed on, there exists the potential that the child will never really assimilate fully, but instead be separated from her peer group as a result of all experiences in the new environment being refracted through the diverging lens of a different native language. If it is not passed on, the child loses an invaluable tool for integrating her experience and expressing herself, and the gate to a vast cultural landscape may be shut for good. There isn’t really an easy choice.
In this way, the carrier passes on, or does not pass on, a linguistic potentiality. Meanwhile, the native contemplates her relationship with the territory. These metaphors fluctuate in their relative primacy and continually inform our interactions with others. Perhaps thinking of our language as a tool with which we can develop proficiency may encourage us to get better at it, and seek out new opportunities to use it. Considering our status as natives of a place may bring our personal narratives into sharper focus and help us come to terms with who we are.
I’m grateful for the elegance and expressive power of metaphors that allow us to compress so much meaning into such tiny symbols. It’s exciting to think that there are roles beyond those of carrier and native that we can take on with respect to our language, and these metaphors are ours to discover.
Chacon, Scott. MIT Scientists prove adults learn language to fluency nearly as well as children. Medium, 3 May 2018, https://medium.com/@chacon/mit-scientists-prove-adults-learn-language-to-fluency-nearly-as-well-as-children-1de888d1d45f.
Pierce, Lara J., et al. “Mapping the Unconscious Maintenance of a Lost First Language.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 48, 2014, pp. 17314–17319., doi:10.1073/pnas.1409411111.
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (New York, 1954).
Winawer, J., et al. “Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 19, 2007, pp. 7780–7785., doi:10.1073/pnas.0701644104.