Monday, December 19, 2011

About my perceived bilingualism

Blaming my assumed mother tongue on my mother

There is a widespread misconception of my relationship to the English language that ought to be cleared up once and for all. Native speakers of English have often assumed, and still assume, that English is my first language too, or that I've been completely bilingual (with English and Norwegian) more or less since birth.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, but because the explanation for my apparent bilingual or native-English condition is such a long and complicated story, I've been resorting to a simple explanation, namely that in addition to my almost two decades in the UK and in the US (1970-1988), I had an American-born mom.

In other words, I "blame" my English on my mother, because this seems to satisfy people so I don't need to explain more than that.

The truth is this: English is indeed my second language; I did not grow up bilingual. I've been bilingual since my twenties, but not since childhood. Because people find this difficult to accept or understand (including many Brits and Americans), I've developed the habit of "blaming" my bilingual condition on my American-born mom, but in actual fact she has absolutely nothing to do with it. There is less than a quarter-truth in this; her influence on my English skills as a child may be reduced to 1/16, and even that would be generous.

This is something many people find very difficult to accept because of the basic principle widely adhered to, which may indeed be a myth, namely that  a person who grows up with only one language (mother tongue) will find it extremely difficult if not impossible to learn another language and develop it to the same level as his/her mother tongue, for this original capacity withers with age.

I'm not a linguist myself, and not a philologist either. As a lay-person with some personal experience in this field, I will however argue that the difficulty of learning a second (or third or fourth) language as an adult depends upon the extent to which an individual has retained the capacity from childhood to adapt to, attain, and acquire the mastery of new languages. This capacity definitely withers with age; however, some people lose most of this capacity at puberty, perhaps, while others may retain most of it into their early thirties. I probably belong to this latter category.

Technically and literally, however, i.e. on the surface, I'm not lying when mentioning my mom in the above manner. The assumption is then made that American English was my "mother tonge", but the only English she exposed me to was to teach me some silly songs like "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?". She was born in Brooklyn alright, but to Scandinavian parents who had only been living in the U.S. for a few years; a Danish father and a Norwegian mother. She had a younger brother who became 100% American and never knew anything else, but she used to travel back and forth across the Atlantic (by ship during the twenties and thirties when she was growing up), attending school on Long Island and in Oslo, where she lived with her maternal grandmother. (She told me in her mature years that she had desired to be Norwegian because she felt most at home in Norway.) Her last arrival in Oslo was perhaps an unfortunate timing: It was in the fall of 1939, six months before the Nazi invasion and occupation. She told me, however, that occupied Oslo wasn't that bad, it was rather peaceful if you were not directly involved in political activities (like my father at the time, who was a telegrapher for Milorg, the military underground resistance organization in Telemark; -- a very different story unrelated to this).

Anyway, my mother became an actress just like my father (they met in the theater), and she always spoke Norwegian as or like a native born Norwegian -- professional Norwegian (like my father the philologist) without the slightest trace of a foreign accent. The way I experienced it, English was simply another "strange" language that she was familiar with and that she tried to teach me from time to time -- not very successfully, because I found it a little awkward and felt embarrassed about it for some weird reason. So my mom teaching me English as a child didn't go anywhere, never got off the ground. I remained totally ignorant of the English language until the sixth grade, i.e. at age 12, when I learned so-called "School-English" from Norwegian teachers who didn't quite master the language themselves beyond the elementary level they were teaching.

Already at that stage, however, all my fellow classmates kept insisting that I must have been taught English before, but this wasn't true except that bad wolf song I had long forgotten. As a matter of fact, I remember a few years earlier, in the third grade (when I was 9), we had a expatriate all-American boy in our class. When his mother bropught him and introduced him to us in American English, none of us understood a word. One of the other boys remembered how to count to 10 in English, that was it. I remember this American boy well; he didn't understand Norwegian, the old teacher didn't know any English, so he sat there very quietly, hour after hour, making drawings and scribbling notes and browsing through books in a language he didn't know. It must have been a lonely experience that he handled amirably well. The rest of us were troublemakers more or less, but this "alien" kid was always behaving perfectly in his silence, in his calm, with an atmosphere of peace and harmony.

After a year ot two with Norwegian "school-English", I had acquired enough written skills to correspond with my maternal grandfather before he passed away a few years later in Austin, in 1964. I also began to write with my uncle Howard, my mom's younger brother. In the years that followed, I was challenged to negotiate between these siblings (mom and Howard) who apparently had some kind of philosophical or semantic differences dating back to their childhood maybe. Howard and grandpa, both sailors, lived in Galveston. (In the early days they lived in Jamaica, New York.)

Anyway, when I was in high school (which was still called "the gymnasium" from its Greek origin in those days), my English grades were not the best; they were OK, but my German grades were in fact better. At age 19 I was arrested for cannabis and spent 5 months behind bars (released on parole; the sentence was 7 months) and then re-arrested for a similar offense a few months later, which resulted in two weeks in custody and then a suspended sentence.

London years

These unpleasant experiences, plus some additional factors that go beyond the scope of this article, prompted me to move to England, spending the first six months or so in Eastbourne on the south coast (because I had a fiancee at the time working as a nurse there), enrolling in some English classes to extend my residence permit (not needed today unless you're from a non-European country) and eventually getting into a couple of drama schools in London -- The Phildene Stage School (now ancient history) and Mountview Theatre School (better known during the past decade as Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, following her Majesty's blessings I guess -- which gave me a 1 year visa, renewable on an annual basis as long as I was a registered student.

It was in these years, in my early twenties, that I learned my English. Not before. Prior to this, my English was as undeveloped and as full of syntactical, structural, grammatical errors, mispronunciations, sometimes using words that don't even exist in English etc. as any other person who has grown up in a non-English speaking culture. But then again, after a few years in London, I encountered a middle aged English lady who insisted that I must have been speaking the language since I was a child. And because my speech at that time was British, it wouldn't have helped to blame it on my American born mom.

The question is, how did this happen? Well, in the first place, I was undergoing professional speech training, phonetics. We were doing various plays, first of all by British playwrights and foreign plays (like Anton Chekhov) translated into British, but also American playwrights like Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams. So we were coached not only in so-called Standard English (also called "the king's English" or rp = received pronunciation), the default everybody had to master, but for the sake of American plays, we learned to emulate spoken American English (also typical American body language, intonations etc. as distinct from British) by professional phoneticians and dialecticians, sometimes using the phonetic alphabet as a learning tool, but mostly by speech drilling, i.e. listening and imitating.

Secondly -- and for me, looking back, this is probably the most important: We were doing lots of Shakespeare. About a decade later, when I was living in the U.S. I also became thoroughly familiar with the King James Bible, which I actually read from cover to cover. And along with the great classical poets of later dates (Blake, Keats, Byron, etc.), Shakespeare and the King James Bible represent the core, the soul, the origin of modern English. I fell in love with the language, pure and simple, it filled me with enthusiasm.

Although we can easily understand Shakespeare today -- the different meanings many words had four centuries ago are usually clarified through context -- it would not be so easy to understand if we had used the pronunciation common at the time, because it seems like the great vowel shift had not yet run its full course even by the early 17th century. (i.e. take the word "knight" which was pronounced like the German "night" (plus the preceding k) in Middle English, hence the retained historical spelling; after the great vowel shift, the short e-sound had become "ai".)

Exile years

Anyway, a few years later I moved to America (in 1976) for reasons too numerous and complicated to include here, and shortly after that I changed my everyday speech (and also my spelling habits) to American English (helped to a great extent by the phonetical training I had received in England in connection with doing Arthur Miller and Edward Albee).

Now here's the complication, which should help you understand why I blame it all on my mom for the sake of simplicity: I entered the U.S. on a six months' visa and ended up living there for twelve and a half years. In other word, I was an illegal or "undocumented" alien for most of that time. And in order to pull that off, I had to assume a natural-born American background. (It goes without saying that I would have had a far worse "birther" problem than Obama if I had run for president.) Besides, my non-immigrant status could never have been adjusted anyway because my old drug conviction bans me for life from obtaining a green card.

My crucial illegal Americanization took place in Las Vegas, after about eight months in Los Angeles. (In other word, I had only been in the U.S. for one year at that time.) I managed to land a job as a change boy for Lady Luck Casino, where instead of an investigative background check, they gave everybody a polygraph test conducted by a mature ex-cop who was an expert on the polygraph. And I pulled this off, miraculously perhaps, for two reasons: In the first place, I was employing my acting skills. This means that my fictitious background -- born in New York, attending grade school and high school in Danton, Ohio etc. -- some details I had picked up from a lady who had grown up there -- this wasn't experienced by me as "lying" while on the box, as it was called, but as playing, say, Edmund in King Lear. And if I overreacted to a question, I managed to repeat the same reaction (blood pressure and heart rate!) after every following question. So I beat the poly in the face of a professional American poly expert, an ex-cop. I should have been a spy, a Cold War sleeper!

This was really the litmus test of my illegal Americanization. Shortly after, I got my first driver license at the Nevada DMV by claiming birth in New York and showing them a fake California ID card (purchased by postal order) which they mistakenly believed had been issued by the California DMV!! My genuine social security card had also been procured in California (and they neglected to mark it as belonging to a non-citizen, which they were supposed to), so I was all set -- except an American passport, of course, but that kind of thing carried a ten year prison sentence, so I didn't even entertain such an idea.

But now you're getting the picture. Add to the above the decade I spent in the U.S. when only my very closest friends, people I lived with and so on (who were all Americans), knew that I was not an American, that I was in fact an illegal alien. I developed a new philosophical concept, namely illegal alien anarchism, the idea of the total outlaw who does something illegal every time he takes a breath, every time he crosses the street, on this forbidden territory. It goes perfectly hand in hand with pot smoking and similar crimes, a widespread practice at the airports and other taxi stands in my cabbie-days in Phoenix, L.A. and Houston.

My speech

People who only read me on the web sometimes ask about my speech, my accent. My Norwegian accent is something that comes and goes, I guess. I talked to an American friend on the phone some years ago, a person I had only known through the internet, and he said he was thrown off by my accent. It's been 23 years since I left America, so although my speech at that time was basically indistinguishable from that of other Americans, this may have changed over time. On the other hand, there may be a difference in my case between speaking on the phone, when I'm not "warmed up" and talking to people in person, because almost every time I converse with an American visiting or arriving in Norway, I'm asked if I'm an American. Earlier this fall, in August in fact, I became acquainted with a young Irish-American dude (we attend the same history classes); he struggles with his very rudimentary and broken Norwegian, so our conversation runs in English for the most part. About a week or two ago, he asked me if I was Norwegian, which I confirmed. This seemed to bewilder him, because he thought I was American. The same thing was assumed by some Afro-Americans I had a conversation with a few years back.

Hence this article!

It seems to depend upon the tuning of the phonetic ear. In America, I always lived very openly and brazenly as an illegal alien anarchist outlaw, perfectly camouflaged as a natural-born American among other natural-born Americans (except my fellow L.A. cabbies who were often Russians and Africans), but I was always, instinctively, wary of the INS, customs officials and the like. Some of those people have highly trained and developed phonetic sensitivities, and my name alone (which was never changed or moderated) could always arouse suspicion, especially when I came to Texas -- but that's a different story. On two occasions, both in Texas, I escaped disclosure by the skin of my teeth, by bluffing. Yes indeed, I should have been a spy.

Noam Chomsky

And then we have Noam Chomsky's theory of linguistics, which is so revolutionary that he his scientific caliber has been compared to those of Einstein, Darwin, Newton, and Galileo in their respective fields. This may seem to make it extremely difficult for mainstream culture and media to ignore him in the future, but so far they've been doing that very successfully with Rudolf Steiner for a century.

This is something I recently came across -- not by reading Chomsky's books on linguistics, unfortunately, but by listening through a fascinating lecture series by Seth Lerer, Ph.D. (Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Stanford University). The title is The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition Parts I–III , and it consists of 36 lectures of 30 minutes each, i.e. 18 hours in the aggregate, along with a Course Guide. Highly recommended.

Lerer devotes his 35th lecture to Noam Chomsky. What Chomsky has done is to dismiss most of the abstract alienating analytical approach suggested by former researchers in this field and put linguistics back into the context of the truly human, thus echoing Plato in a sense. To put it in my own flawed and non-native lay words: Instead of collecting all kinds of data with regard to a language and then construct theories about peoples with different languages living in different, often mutually incomprehensible, universes (hence "the clash of civilizations" and so on), Chomsky has proposed a theory or hypothesis, namely that one has to start with syntax: All human beings are born with a deep structure of language ability, which makes them capable of acquiring the mastery of any language. Languages themselves are surface structures, thus acquired communication techniques. Thus, one deep structure common to all humans, and then surface structures.

And here's the brief summary of professor Lerer's 35th lecture in this series:

"35. Linguistics and Politics in Language Study
Get a compelling introduction to Noam Chomsky, the founder of modern linguistics, and to the social, cognitive, and philosophical implications of his work. The legacy of Chomskyan linguistics, you'll discover, goes far beyond the technical terms of the discipline to embrace a politics of language study itself."
Let's dwell for the moment on the consequences of this theory: The way I see it, which seems to concur with Chomsky's model, it makes no difference whether the language a person is using for verbal or written communication is a "first", "second" or "third" language. What counts is how well the individual has acquired mastery of the language in question. If Russian is your first language until the age of 4 or 5, and then you move, say to the U.S., Russian will still be your "first language" when you're 50, but your grasp of English is probably a lot better due to years of usage, experience, and practice. If you acquire a new language in mature years, as a young adult, you're far less likely to forget your first language, but your mastery of your second language may still exceed your mother tongue in the course of decades. Besides, some children grow up bilingual and trilingual, and in many such cases it may be difficult and complicated to determine which is the first, the second, and the third language and so on.

As an example from well-known history, take England in the high middle ages, when the country had three languages (Middle English, French, and Latin). Middle English survived as a mother tongue after the Norman conquest (1066) because when the ruling class, the Normans, gradually lost contact with their old country (France) they married English women who spoke English to their children.

Spiritual considerations

It has been argued, from a spiritual-anthroposophical point of view, that because Chomsky is a materialist, he doesn't consider language to be a gift of the gods, but a function of the brain. He doesn't ask who designed that multi-nuanced language program. Personally, I don't think that's of much consequence in Chomsky's case. It's easy to fill in the gaps. When children are born with a deep structure for later language learning (the surface structures), one may easily conclude that this deep structure has been in the making in pre-existence, i.e. prior to conception and birth. So the theory stands as it is, with or without the spiritual deepening.

I don't think the absence of a "designer" with regard to the deep structure matters that much for Chomsky's theory at present, although it may certainly corroborate it in the future. Spiritually speaking, the surface structures, the human languages themselves, have come into existence through the Archangels, in their capacity as folk spirits, guardians of peoples and nations, the architects of human languages. This means that when one consciously acquires a second or third language later than early childhood, it may be very helpful to be aware of this and consciously work with these Archangels. This is also the case for translators, especially when poetry and classical literature is to be recreated in a different tongue. You want to retain the meanings and intentions of the original author in a manner that has the same beauty, flow, poetry, nuances, subtext (between the lines) in the language you're translating into. And this can't be done without the active cooperation of the two Archangels involved in any given translation, consciously or subconsciously. That's how you get Shakespeare in German, for instance, or Goethe in English.

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