On Language

Yeah, so I usually post things up here that are humorous or just generally document life.  Lots of people in costumes, flying dogs, etc.  No, that isn’t going to change any time soon, but today I am going to write on language.  Specifically, how people use language.

In my real life, away from this blog that seems to conjure up an idealized world, I am a student of applied linguistics.  A teacher and a student of linguistics.  On a lot of weekends, like this one, I spent time doing homework, in a network of local cafes.  I try out their coffee, use their internet and on occasion observe the people around me.

Today I was sitting in the Thinking Cup cafe on Newbury street and I was reading about bilingual education policy.  The reading was tough, all about how different countries use language policy for political means and how to tailor language policy to best fit the needs of a country.  During all of this, I was kind of sleepy.  I had a big lunch and had spent half the day with friends and was perhaps a little exhausted, so I kind of started to listen to what the people around me were saying.

Suddenly it hit me, how they were all using language.  I was so struck by it that I actually wrote notes about it.  I have never done that before in any study environment.  At one point, there was an Arabic family sitting next to me.  The son was using an iPad, while the mother and father chatted on and on in Arabic with each other, also speaking to the son in Arabic.  The son kept responding to his parents in English.  I kept thinking “the son obviously knows English and the mother must too, but they are talking in Arabic.”  The mother must be trying to preserve the Arabic in her son’s mind, using Arabic as a sort of an interior language.

Next, a man and a woman sat down next to me.  I’ve been studying class markers as well in the applied linguistics program.  The man was obviously from the upper classes.  He was wearing a very tailored suit made of expensive looking fabric.  The woman was equally well dressed.  It soon became apparent that the man was Italian or Spanish but also spoke very good English.  The pair talked very deeply about art, about lectures being given on El Greco and confirming the authenticity of certain paintings by El Greco.  It was a very deep conversation that a person who doesn’t know about art would not understand.  First, I was struck by how the man spoke, with deep authority on his subject in English.  He had obviously had to learn English to be able to operate in the art world.  The man was not trying to impress the woman, but the woman was trying to impress the man.  After a while, he let her impress him a little bit.  I wrote down part of their conversation because it was so interesting and it showed a lot about how people use language.  The man was using English because it is an international academic language that he had to learn to work in the world of art.  The woman was using her language to try to impress the man.  It was obvious as well that the man was of a higher stature than the woman.  Or maybe he wasn’t, but the language he was using (not the language itself) made it seem that way.

When I started applied linguistics a year ago, I heard a lot of people talking about “how people use language.”  I thought, well, how do people use language?  To communicate.  But somehow after a year, I’m starting to realize that it is so much more than that.

Let’s have a cup of joe to that:


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