A powerful speech act

steve3I attended yesterday the official swearing-in of a new judge on the Virginia Supreme Court, Steve McCullough. The process was an interesting example of a powerful “speech act” (an utterance that causes something to happen), namely having the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court transform an ordinary citizen into a fellow Supreme Court Justice by a few simple words spoken as an oath of office. The magical transformation only happens, however, if the oath is spoken correctly. President Obama in 2009 had to retake later the oath of office because Chief Justice John Roberts did not prompt him with the exact correct language, so that Obama did not say the line correctly. It’s not likely in that particular case that anyone would question whether Obama was really the President of the United States (although, given the birther controversy, that may have happened, if he had not retaken the oath). In the case of marriage vows, a similar transformational speech act, the absence of the concluding statement, “I now pronounce you husband and wife” often is played up in fiction and film as meaning that the couple is in fact not legally wed (i.e., The Graduate, The Princess Bride).

The oath of office actually was made interesting by the fact that the new Justice held his 2-year son, Andrew, as the oath was being administered, while Andrew’s mother held the bible on which Steve swore the oath (and tried to quiet down her son). Speech acts may be accompanied by such nonverbal signals as the presence of an official document of some sort or the wearing of prescribed clothing, as, in this case, the black robes, which visually transformed Steve from a citizen into a Justice (the “robing” was also done ceremoniously). Part of this official act was also that it took place in a prescribed location, namely the Chambers of the Virginia Supreme Court, a place set apart from normal everyday life (no cell phones allowed, sitting and standing at prescribed times, always beginning one’s addressing of the Justices with the formula, “may it please the court”). In linguistics, we would say that the “felicity conditions” (i.e., in this instance, all the outer trappings) for this “commissive” speech act (it commits Steve to fulfilling the oath of office) have been fulfilled.

Into this august environment came Andrew, who chimed in merrily while his father took the oath. It struck me at the time that the kind of informality represented by having a new Supreme Court Justice hold a babbling 2-year old during such an important official government ceremony, in the presence not only of the other Justices, but also of the Governor of Virginia, members of the Virginia legislature, and other high officials, was something that might not be done in all cultures. In the US, we like to see our government officials as being no different from ourselves, often choosing a political candidate by the fact that he’s “just like us” (open question of how well that works out). Being a doting father is part of that image projection and having children close by in such instances is both accepted and valued. When you’re the US President on an official visit to Vietnam, having noodles and cold beer at a neighborhood joint in Hanoi is just the kind of “ordinary joe” behavior we like to see.

I don’t usually hobnob with the Governor and the Supreme Court, but Steve is a former VCU student, whom I hired as a lab assistant back in the early 1990’s when I ran the Language Lab. After graduating from law school, he worked for a while for my wife’s law firm, so we’ve known Steve and his family for a long time. It’s great to see a former student have this degree of success. I asked Steve after the ceremony whether he figures that being a Supreme Court Justice will be an interesting line of work. He answered that there are likely to be engrossing cases that come up, but that a lot of it will be routine and less than exciting – just like all jobs.

Learn to code or to communicate

President Obama writing JavaScript

President Obama speaking Indonesian

The President speaking Indonesian

Our Virginia General Assembly, according to Wikipedia, the “oldest continuous law-making body in the New World” has in recent years been responsible for some real screamers in terms of proposed new laws. Those include proposals to ban low-riding pants and measures that would allow legally blind people to drive motorcycles. Some have attracted national attention, such as a law to give fertilized eggs legal status as persons or, most recently, the proposed requirement for invasive transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion, which included the stipulation that the woman’s medical record indicate whether or not she viewed the ultrasound or listened to the fetal heartbeat.

This session a proposed law would allow high schools in Virginia to consider computer programming as a substitute for learning a foreign language. Currently, either 3 years of study of a single foreign language or two years each of two different languages is required for the college-prep diploma. Virginia is not the first state to consider such a step. Florida is currently considering a similar change and Kentucky has implemented it.

In a story from my local NPR station, a high school student was all for it:

“That would actually make my year, not only does it make sense, it’s something that I’m interested in…Because in Spanish class earlier today I was just sitting with my head down like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ But here I feel like I can express my interests better.”

 His comment may say more about the quality of local language instruction than about the wisdom of changing the requirement. Interestingly, a computer science teacher at the same school, Chris Neville, had a different track:

“Some kids aren’t necessarily ever going to use Spanish, the kids who really need it, are probably the kids who don’t want to take it,” Neville said. “I don’t believe in really locking kids into what they want to do right now, because I changed my mind 14 times before I decided what I was going to do.”

And besides, says Neville, the fundamentals of programming, like logical reasoning and problem solving, are more in line with math than foreign language.

Indeed, the idea that a programming “language” is equivalent to a human language is strange and misguided. The procedural steps, hierarchical reasoning, and logical branching in coding are closer to mathematical skills and concepts. In math and programming, there tends to be a particular (and often unique) correct pathway or answer. Linguists would be happy to explain that this is far from how human language works. Language is rarely used to simply transfer information back and forth, as common folk wisdom might assume; instead it is full of stops and starts, interruptions, broken sentences, simultaneous speaking. Mostly, there is little logic involved. Rules of grammar may be cut and dry, but that is a small part of what constitutes human communication in any language. The study of language pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that deals with the significance of speech in real human discourse, has shown how tied language is to the particular context in which it is used, and therefore how dependent all conversation is on cultural cues and clues. The inextricable connection between language and culture is one of the major insights that comes from the study of a foreign language.

Monolinguals typically see differences among languages as being mostly semantic, i.e. just using different words for the same concepts. But the word designating the same object in different languages may have very different real meanings. The word for forest in German is Wald, which, as in English conveys the idea of a lot of trees together. But the word in German has rich overtones that harken back to the Germanic tribes’ pagan worship of trees, the mysterious forest happenings of the best known Grimm Brothers fairy tales, and place names like the Schwarzwald (Black Forest), all of which (and more) imbue the word Wald, when used by speakers of German, with historical and cultural associations unique to that language. Learning a language provides entry into the deep recesses of a culture – a proficient second language speaker gains an insider’s perspective.

One of the real tragedies of not providing an incentive for adolescents to start learning a language while in school is related to the age at which it is easiest to learn languages, namely early in life. The critical period hypothesis points to the biological and psychological developments in humans that make it difficult to learn a language well when starting language acquisition as an adult. In fact, children, given their innate curiosity and lack of self-consciousness, are ideal language learners, eager to imitate and not afraid to make mistakes.

I am totally in favor of high school students learning computer programming – I see this as fundamental to 21st-century life (see my piece on digital literacies). However, there is no reason coding should be considered as an alternative to language learning. In our interconnected world, the ability to communicate with others requires both computer skills and sensitivity to cultural issues in language use – something best learned through second language study.

Whistled languages

Oaxacan in Mexico using whistling language

Oaxacan in Mexico using whistling language

I am currently visiting the Manassas Battlefield Park in northern Virginia, where the two battles of Bull Run took place during the US civil war in the 1860’s. It’s amazing to follow the strategies of how the generals on each side placed their troops in anticipation of battle. A major part of that process was the need to gather information about the other side – how many soldiers, how much artillery, where located, etc. There was also the need to communicate within armies during the battles, particularly among groups of the army separated out on the flanks and in other configurations. No telephones or Internet were available, but they did have the telegraph, signal flags, and signal rockets (so-called wig-wag).

As far as I know, they did not use a form of communication which was highlighted in a story on NPR this week: whistling. We’re not talking about whistling songs or whistled cat calls, but rather a fully functioning, long-distance whistling language. The story was about a German scholar studying Turkish whistling in northeastern Turkey, which he fears may be dying out, as mobile phones make long distance communication more efficient (and more private). According to the story, whistled Turkish can be heard as far as 4 miles away. A recent story in the New Yorker discusses whistle Turkish.

This is not the only example of a whistled language. One of the most studied is Silbo Gomero, which is whistled Spanish used in the Canary Islands. It was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009. Silbe Gomero is complex, using the tongue, lips and hands and requiring users to vary the frequencies at different speeds. Whistled speech is also used in Sochiapam Chinantec in Mexico.

Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero