Language: An Orchestra of Harmony and Purpose

Grayscale Image of Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg (1398 – 1468)

Since the invention of the printing by Johannes Gutenberg in the early 15th century the written word has become as important as the spoken word — not because the spoken word has diminished in stature, but because writing has grown in importance.  Originally writing was little more than a method of accounting used by the scribes of governing sovereigns to monitor the tax accounts of their subjects.  Today it is our primary method of archiving thought across generations and an important tool of reflection that often rivals speech as a means of communication.

As important as writing is, however, it is completely unnecessary and often never utilized in the acquisition of our first language.  Indeed, most second language learners do not acquire a second first-language; rather, they acquire a first second-language, and the circumstances in which they find themselves when they acquire their first second-language are very different from those when they acquire their first language.  This difference is especially important in how we acquire the grammatical rules that structure our messages so that they can be understood by others.  This said, human language is first and foremost spoken, and it is important that we do not lose sight of this each time we open a book written in our target language.

Although it is possible to learn a written language without knowing how to speak one; such activity is usually the domain of professional scholars.  No one today can possibly know how the language of the ancient Egyptians was spoken, but clearly we can read, with good understanding, what they wrote.  In the end, human language is a grammatically logical arrangement of symbols, and it makes little difference to our understanding of these whether the symbols are spoken, written, or drawn.  We have only to discover the rules and the meanings of the symbols.  Egypt’s ancient past provides us with plenty of written material from which we can unscramble the grammatical rules with which the sacred carvings (hieroglyphs) of ancient Egyptian scholars were etched.  Knowing the meanings of the symbols with any degree of precision is, of course, a very different task, and surely one of a much more speculative nature.

orchestral composition
A Few Stanzas of an Orchestral Composition by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

Although symphony orchestras around the world pretty much comprise the same musical instruments, the musical composition of each piece they perform varies greatly from composer to composer and in accordance with the time period in which each musical piece was composed.  Each piece utilizes the panoply of instruments available in the orchestra in different ways.  Most compositions do not require the full complement of instruments to be performed, and the instruments required for each composition varies from composition to composition.  This is called instrumentation.  If each instrument and the entire range of sounds that it produces are considered a unique phonetic range of sounds used in the production of a single phoneme of human speech, then the sounds employed in each language are akin to the instruments used to perform each musical composition.  Change the instruments, and no matter the orchestral score, the sound of the orchestra will be very different and — to those who know the original score and instrumentation well — completely alien!    Indeed, one should not speak English using the sounds (instruments) of one’s own native tongue and expect to be understood — at least, not without a heroic act of volition — by native English speakers or native speakers of a different tongue (musical composition).  This, however, is the expectation in grade schools around the world, where native or near-native English speaking teachers are simply not found or are very costly to import and therefore in scarce supply.  Although this false expectation and the all too obvious problem that it creates are somewhat resolved by the internet today, it does not change the fact that most English language learners in the world today are using different sets of instruments to perform the same English-language composition.  Oh, never mind, says the global academic community, does not someone brought up in the hills of Tennessee have trouble understanding someone raised in the back alleys of Liverpool?  Well, indeed, they do, but a native speaker of Portuguese has a much better chance of understanding Spanish, than has a native Spanish speaker of understanding  Portuguese.  Just how many English languages must we learn to speak before we all not return to our respective native tongue or choose another second language — preferably the native tongue of our closest neighbors?  Take away the mandatory universal English language requirement in schools around the world, and this is, indeed, what most people would do, if they even bothered to learn a second language at all.

And, why should they be forced to do otherwise?  If the English language is so valuable as national governments around the world would have us believe, than there should be plenty of economic incentives in the market place to fill the need for English wherever it might arise!

Literary Appreciation

Photographic image of Gao Xingjian
Gao Xingjian (1940 – present)

Somewhat after Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, he was invited to The Chinese University of Hong Kong where he was presented with an honorary Ph.D.  His introduction given by the university’s chancellor at the ceremony was long, and I was baffled by the nature of the praise that was showered upon the author.  It simply contradicted the literary and social facts of the moment.

Surely, it took little effort to transcribe the modern simplified characters of the Chinese mainland into the traditional characters of the Hong Kong peninsula and islands, but this easily accomplished digital transformation did nothing to change the fact that Gao Xingjian wrote in Putonghua (Mandarin) and that the chancellor and most of the audience had likely read Gao‘s work in Guangdonghua (Cantonese). Although the literary score was the same, the orchestra for which Gao Xingjian had written, and the orchestra in which his literary prowess was read and praised were different.   I simply could not believe that the audience, whose applause the chancellor’s praise evoked on numerous occasions, was the literary delight that the chancellor claimed.  The entire ceremony was so painfully politicized and utterly lacking in refined literary taste that I left the ceremony early.

Before leaving the building, however, I purchased an English and Chinese copy of the author’s Soul Mountain and managed to have both signed by the author before he left Hong Kong.  I then read the first copy, and sent the second to my friend in Taiwan who likely read the work in still another Chinese language.  The subject matter of the book was indeed quite good, but I found the English translation queer, for it came across, as if it had been written by a first-generation Chinese immigrant to North America. Still, my sonorous moments in English likely triumphed those of my Taiwanese friend and most of the audience at the The Chinese University of Hong Kong. who were compelled to translate as they read.

The Reading Room

Photographic image of the Suzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle
Graduate Reading Room, Suzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle

Have you ever noticed the profound silence of a graduate reading room or even a good high school library?  And, once you have spent some time immersed in that profound silence are you not disturbed when someone speaks aloud and effectively throws a stone into the placid pond on whose edge you sit?  And, the reason for your being disturbed?  Is it not that your own voice and the author’s words are no longer the center of attention in your thoughts?  After all, reading is an intimate relationship between your own inner voice, heard only by you, and those of the author whose voice you have likely never heard.

Now assume that you have been trained in English, as are most students around the world, in a classroom taught by an English teacher whose mother tongue is the same as your own.  In most cases your English teacher’s ability to express him- or herself in English is not even close to that of a near-native speaker.  What then will be the instrumentation of your English language orchestra, if not that of your own mother tongue?  This means that each time you read an English language text, the instruments that your inner voice will use to pronounce the author’s words will not be those of the author’s orchestra, but those of your own, your classmates, and your teacher.  Now imagine spending many years listening to your inner voice speaking English with the instruments of the orchestra of your mother tongue.

This is the state of the English language industry today, and for the vast majority of students will likely remain unchanged.  For what language teacher would not be embarrassed when he is repeatedly corrected by his own students whom have learned on the internet what they believe to be better instrumentation.  All, but the most highly motivated students will simply follow the teacher’s lead.