19 August 2015


Life as a Language Learning Challenge

What I've referred to as "the AJATT method" is really more of a lifestyle. You're not looking to acquire the target language, but to become a native speaker of that language. Or if you prefer, to become a person who uses it the way native speakers do--to access all the stuff you want to access. Like cool music--though I admit that Germany never comes to mind first when I think of music.

Welches ist aehnlich dieses Lieblingsliedes?
Oder welches gefaellt Sie besten?

I wish I could find the AJATT post in which Khatz says that no matter what kind of music you like, you will find someone making it in your target language. So go ahead and dump your L1 favourites and look for some new L2 ones. Find out who your long-lost identical twin would have been! Mine listens to Tim Bendzko in the car. But, I suspect, not just Tim Bendzko.

The goal to become a native speaker may seem impossible, but Khatz isn't the only language learner in the world who has become so fluent in his L2 that those who were born native speakers think that he is one of them. But the main reason I think he's on to something is that something like that has already happened to me. Twice.

"Ich bin an zwei verschiedenen Orten zur selbst Zeit . . ."

It's Frankenstein-ish, almost, to construct a parallel identity for yourself out of bits of Deutsch culture (and another out of Italiano culture). Assuming that this is how personalities come to be, we've already done it in our first languages, the main difference being that we didn't really control what bits we used in the construction. We used everything--at least until we grew conscientious enough to reject some of it. But how often can I say of something German (or Italian) that I'd rather not assimilate it, before the project to be a "cradle speaker" fails? Are there non-negotiables in culture?

I really should be answering my own questions. You see, I've already done all that to create my English-speaking self. My ability to speak (and to blog in) the language today has more to do with exposure to English media than actual people speaking English around me. So the question for all native speakers of English is: Could I pass as one of you?

Maybe? Maybe not? When I lived in New Zealand, my English was so perfect (local idioms aside, of course) that the locals were convinced I was an American. Of course, real Americans who hear me never think that I'm one of them--though I wonder whether Americans who only read me can be lulled into thinking it. (Oh, look, American readers! There's a combox down there . . .)

And if you're wondering how I came up with the phrase "cradle speaker" . . . Last week, the nice family at Saturday's Latin Mass gave me a ride home in their van. I sat next to the grandmother, who asked me how I got into traditional stuff, like Latin and veiling and Communion on the tongue while kneeling. She didn't believe that it all came from books, TV, and blogs. Surely, she argued, my own grandmother had passed something on. (Ah, wouldn't that have been nice? =P) And no matter what I put forward as evidence to the contrary, she insisted that there was no way I hadn't grown up around traditional stuff. In the end, I just smiled and let her think what she liked. A classic case of "native speakers" of Traditional Catholicism assuming that I was born one of them--that is, that I received traditional things in a traditional way--because they have no idea that there is more than one way to do it.

I'm sure that all the converts I haven't scared away yet can figure out the takeaway for themselves.


Brandon said...

I think your writing could certainly pass for American, if you made the attempt.

I remember once venting in frustration over the parish Confirmation classes that the students, could speak English but they couldn't speak Christian. Most of those were cradle Catholics, but they often never attend Mass, and as liturgy is the language of Catholicism, I suppose it's analogous to something like third-generation language speakers in a country with a different language -- their grandparents are fluent, their parents at least had a lot of early exposure and so can stumble around in it, but they've picked up at most a few phrases. However large the Catholic population in the U.S. gets, it's a culture in which most people most commonly 'speak' a non-church-going Protestant pidgin (regardless of whether they go to church or of what their actual religious affiliation is) and increasingly people don't even speak that; it's easy for the ability to speak Catholic to fade out.

On the language side, I think it's true that language has to be received and participated in as a tradition or it is never completely learned. It's the difference between someone reading books about a culture and someone actually knowing it first-hand.

MrsDarwin said...

Your English writing is fluent enough and easy enough (and hip enough, which is also key) that you could mostly pass for American, though I think that few born-and-bred Americans would use phrases such as "aye". That just sounds foreign to me. However, America is a huge and by-no-means homogenous place, so if you were to tell someone that "aye" is just what they say in the upper reaches of Minnesota, most people wouldn't know any differently.

Your accent in person would certainly give you away, though. In your videos you're speaking for an audience and flattening out your accent, but on the phone you certainly have a delightfully other accent -- not Spanish (as we're used to hearing a Spanish accent), not Indian, not Middle Eastern. Again, though, you could pass for second-generation, maybe -- "Oh, my parents spoke Tagalog at home!" -- but many second-generation kids who picked up English at school tend to speak English with the local accent.

But most Americans have an accent of some kind or another, because America is a big place. I learned to speak in Virginia, which is the northern reach of "The South", and my mom is from Louisiana, the Deep South, and so a lot of my vowels are filtered through those accents, although I've flattened out over the years. My dad grew up in Boston and Philadelphia areas, and I must have picked up something from him as well, because after I said my act of contrition a priest once asked me if I was Irish. Brendan grew up in California and is half Hispanic, although his mother doesn't speak Spanish. So he has the fairly quick, uninflected English of SoCal (surfer dudes and Valley girls are a phenomenon unto themselves.) Brandon has a fairly soft Texas accent, mostly filtered through other places he's lived (and yes, there's a hint of Canadian there too). So your own accent could be explained away, or made into an exotic personal touch. Americans who are biased against our homegrown accents, such as the Appalachian mountain accent or various "black" accents, often think foreign accents are glamorous. (Conversely, many people who think that American country accents are awesome are biased against foreign accents.)

Is English not a native language with you, then, or is it so filtered through Filipino culture that it seems foreign?

Enbrethiliel said...


Brandon -- The more German I work into my life, the more I understand language as something you do rather than just something you speak. And this fits into your observation that someone can't "speak Catholic" unless he also "does Catholic." I think we can also see an analogy between taking Catholicism out of the public square and speaking a language only at home: your children will still understand it when they hear it, but they might not use it themselves, much less pass it on.

Mrs. Darwin -- "Aye" is something I picked up from New Zealand. I've been steadily losing it since then, though. These days, I'm more likely to add "Right?" or a tag question.

I remember one time when my sister and I heard an American girl who was being interviewed on MTV say, "I'm from Southern California." We both cried out at the same time because she sounded exactly like our LA-raised cousins. For some reason (such as not having had many opportunities to speak to non-Filipinos during our visits to California), we didn't think of it as a regional accent as much as the particular way our cousins talked.

As for whether I can call myself a native speaker or not . . . I think I can inasmuch as English is an official language of the Philippines. But I always stop short of actually saying so when applying for ESL/EFL teaching jobs, anticipating that the interviewer will want to split some hairs.

Star Crunch said...

I hail from the upper reaches of Minnesota and am unfamiliar with this "aye". :)

I came across Sancta Sanctis while trying to dig up info from some other blogs, following back from one of your comments. I must have been disabused rather quickly of your being American owing to stuff like "colour", but might have suspected Canadian or British. I seem to remember just hopping around posts at random. I doubt that I ever saw anything pinpointing the Philippines because this was able to happen, literally only a few days later:

*Scanning Lew Rockwell's list of articles for the day*
"Hmm, one on smuggling. Could be interesting. I wonder who wrote it..."
*Hovers over*
"Hmm, haven't heard of her. Do I really want to start yet another writer? I've just started browsing three new blogs, after all... Oh well, why not."
"Huh, that was pretty good."
*Hovers over the "Read her blog" link following the article*
"Wait, that's the same one I just found!"

Never had a clue. :) If I'd suspected the blog wasn't by an English-as-first-language speaker, I'm sure I would have hunted around for details out of simple curiosity, and then gone through that article at least thinking "Hey, I was just reading stuff from the Philippines". But I distinctly recall my surprise at the end.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Colour" is something else I picked up from New Zealand--thanks to the tutor who insisted that I use British rather than American spelling. I could drop the extra Us and Ss now, I suppose, but I've grown quite attached to them!

That's a pretty cool story about one of my old Lew Rockwell submissions. Thanks for letting me know! =)

r said...

You can easily pass for a nerdy American who habitually uses Commonwealthisms, actually. This isn't that uncommon. (I consider "British" spellings to be Frenchified affectations, myself.)

Enbrethiliel said...


I suppose nerdiness can serve as a plausible explanation for almost anything! =)

Sheila said...

I thought you were an American at first. I'm not sure for how long I thought that -- it came up soon enough. However the main reason is ... *hangs head in shame* ... I'm Americanocentric enough that I kind of assume people are Americans unless I know otherwise. I did notice "aye" and the British spellings, but I know some rather affected Americans who do both. Heck, I used British spellings all my childhood, because my mom does, because she lived in England once and just likes them better.

My mother has a tiny, tiny bit of an English accent. Her sister, though, has a tiny, tiny bit of a Southern accent. Military family!

I have a Northwestern accent .... which *might* be the purest American accent out there. It's not usually placed as "regional" at all. Not that different from SoCal, or "newscaster English" (which is pretty much Midwestern, for some reason).

But my husband's family --- his mother is from the Dominican Republic, and so is her sister, obviously, though they both live in America now. They have, to my ear, exactly the same accent. But my husband thinks his aunt has a strong accent and his mother has no accent at all. I find this extremely humorous. I guess that accent is his "mother tongue," he can't hear it! (He just sounds Midwestern, though when he attempts to speak Spanish -- which he doesn't know well at all -- his accent is flawless.)

Enbrethiliel said...


Don't feel bad! I assume that everyone using English on the Internet is an American unless there's an obvious giveaway that he isn't: British spelling, really funny grammar, a passion for Eurovision. =P And given the sites I visit, it's the most likely correct answer anyway.

Hmmmmm. I wonder if my Spanish accent is also flawless--though it would be an Old World accent rather than an American one. I don't speak it, either, but I've listened to hundreds of hours of Television Espanol in my grandmother's room. And there was at least one Spanish trainee from my previous job who refused to believe that I didn't speak Spanish because of the way I pronounced "sabato." Never mind that what I actually said was the Filipino "sabado"! Get the pronunciation right enough and you're in!