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5 - Foreign Languages and Linguistic Awareness

  We saw in the previous unit how the process of learning one's mother tongue develops from the sub-verbal language to verbal language in a mostly unconscious way. The first experience of linguistic awareness - awareness of one's own linguistic proficiency - is at school, when one starts studying the grammar of one's own language (until then taken for granted and considered a natural phenomenon that did not require questioning in any way) and one faces the learning of one or more foreign languages.

ON THE NET (italian)
Andrea Camilleri

ON THE NET (english)
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (T. S. Eliot - 1917)

  Subjects used to speaking one language during childhood and facing foreign languages at school age experience "multilingualism". Subjects who have learnt more than one language from birth on the other hand experience "plurilingualism"1.

  The Self - i.e. the individual conscious of his identity and of his relationship with the environment - and personality are greatly influenced by language. Even if "it is often the Unconscious rather than the conscious Ego which depends on linguistic experience"2 , there is a very strong and univocal relationship between the Ego and language. It would be, therefore, plausible to argue that, when a plurilingual experience occurs, there are two Egos (and then a split personality, schizoid tendencies).

  Researchers have investigated the possibility of psychic disorders tied to plurilingualism, but the results point in a completely different direction

['] even if there is a double personality in a coordinated (i.e. a perfect) bilingual person, such duplicity does not imply a pathological split personality, but, on the contrary, it implies that that person will have a certain depth and understanding of different worlds and has acquired a strong defense mechanism too3.

  The need that often plurilingual individuals have (and in certain cases multilingual people, as well) to switch from one code (language) to another, the so-called code switching, is a positive and fruitful mechanism, and "it is significant of a fundamental unity of the internal structure and dynamics of the personality of an individual"4.

  There is therefore no dangerous presence of more than one Ego, but, on the contrary, a sort of meta-Ego, "that controls and synthesizes the various verbal and communication behaviors corresponding to different linguistic codes"5. The plurilingual individual has a more complex and receptive psychic structure.

  Studies carried out on plurilingual children have shown that code switching implies an early knowledge - although it may be incomplete - of the varieties of the languages. From the moment in which a language is no longer a spontaneously used instrument, but becomes an object of meditation, i.e. when language is used to describe a language, we are talking about "metalanguage". In the case of plurilingual children, we can, therefore, talk about "metalinguistic conscience"6.

The subject plurilingual since childhood generally reaches a higher degree of meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic development than monolingual subjects7.

The main difference between learning one's mother tongue during childhood and the scholastic learning of foreign languages (or the detailed and rational study of one's mother tongue) is only determined by the degree of awareness.

During the cognitive stage, a person learning a foreign language is engaged in a conscious mental activity with the objective of finding a meaning in language [']. The inner processes that go on during these stages may be the explanation of the conscious effort experienced during learning in different linguistic contexts8.

If, before, the infant had learnt to connect sounds and concepts, sounds and affects, the subject learning a foreign language is provided with linguistic awareness:

The human speaker/listener is conscious of his Self as a communicating agent. Linguistic competence is nothing else but total self-perception and total self-control ['] it should be clearly stressed that linguistic awareness has nothing to do with self-centeredness or narcissism9,

and this is because, being an instrument for communicating with the rest of the world, it is at the same time an awareness centered on one's self and on others.

  When a multilingual individual learns a language at school, he is in fact living a metalinguistic experience: nothing is any longer spontaneous or automatic, nearly everything is subject to rules explicitly explained and to be learnt in a rational way. Even in this case, the affective component is very important: the relationship with the teacher, the environment in which the language is taught can determine in a substantial way the student's attitude towards the learning of a foreign language. The best results are obtained when there is a strong and positive relationship with the teacher (a sort of didactic transference) or with whoever one is learning the language from, or when there is a strong tie (aesthetic, ideological, affective) with the culture or the countries in which the language is spoken.

The personal, socio-cultural, linguistic, attitudes - as cognitive-affective sets - can be related ['] to the position or reaction of the receiver. A message is first of all a stimulus, and a response, conditioned by the affective tones and by its content ['] Feeling and emotions are rarely absent from verbal forms, even if at times that may seem entirely untrue ['] the sounds of a language can carry symbolic values or emotional memories [']10.

According to the most recent studies in cognitive psychology, we store information in a short-term memory (also called operative memory) or in a long-term memory. For example, linguistic information is elaborated in four phases: selection, acquisition, construction of new inner connections and integration of the new information with the old information in the long-term memory.

  This is why language courses advertising the rapid learning of a foreign language with a large number of vocabulary and linguistic structures puzzle us. Often when memorization is very rapid, but occurs in an emotionally sterile environment, the relationship with what has been learnt is so weak, that it is confusing and just does not have time to be deposited in the long-term memory. As T. S. Eliot says in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse11.

With all due exceptions, the faster the learning process occurs and the less the situation in which it occurs has any emotional or affective significance (or it is an emotionally negative experience), and therefore the less the learning process is stable.

The linguistic-communicative competence in two languages/cultures becomes an invaluable asset only if the whole human personality is complete in its performative, cognitive and in-depth conscious dimensions, and is therefore involved in controlling the two communication systems12.

WWhen a language becomes part of one's identity, code switching can become both an adaptive and expressive modality. Switching code becomes a psychological choice that comes from the deepest Ego of the speaker. This has been demonstrated, in studies conducted on mother-tongue Spanish populations implanted in English-speaking countries13.

   It is possible to find this kind of code switching also in prose fiction. There are poets who switch codes in one poem, as in this case:

  Quienes Somos

  it's so strange in here

  todo lo que pasa

  is so strange

  y nadie puede entender

  que lo que pas aquì

  isn't any different

  de lo que pasa allá

  where everybody is trying

  to get out

  move into a better place

  al lugar where he can hide

  where we don't have to know

  quienes somos

  strange people of the sun

  lost in our awareness

  of where we are

  and where we want to be

  and wondering why

  it's so strange in here 14

  To take possession of a foreign language is, as we have seen, a deep and involving experience, and at the same time, for those who are not born plurilingual, it can be an opportunity to become aware of one's own language proficiency. In the following units we will deal with the mental processes related to reading, writing and, finally, to translation.

Bibliographical references:

ELIOT T.S. Collected Poems 1909-1962, London Faber and Faber, 1975. 1st ed. 1963. ISBN 0-571-10548-3

ORTIZ VÁSQUEZ P. Quienes Somos, in The Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingüe, n. 2, 1975, p. 293-294.

POPLACK S. Sometimes I'll start a sentence in Spanish y termino in Español: toward a typology of code-switching, in Linguistics, n. 18, 1980, p. 581-618.

TITONE R. On the Bilingual Person, Ottawa-New York, Legas Publications, 1995.

1 Titone, p.48-49.
2 Titone, p. 37.
3 Titone, p. 42.
4 Titone, p. 43.
5 Titone, p. 88.
6 Titone, p. 88.
7 Titone, p. 186.
8 Titone, p. 21.
9 Titone, p. 28.
10 Titone, p. 28.
11 Eliot 1975, p.14.
12 Titone, p. 177.
13 Poplack 1980.
14 Ortiz Vásquez 1975, p.193-294.