Canetti’s Languages.

I’m still reading Alien Tongues (see this post), and I’ve come across a really interesting footnote (yes, I always read the footnotes):

Sometimes, of course, the idea of the “mother tongue” is crucial. In Lettres parisiennes, Nancy Huston remarks, I can make books and children only in an un-mother tongue” [Les livres, les enfants, je ne peux les faire que dans une langue non-maternelle]. See my discussion of Marina Tsvetaeva in Chapter 5; and consider the case of Elias Canetti, who writes in German. German is Canetti’s fourth language, as English was Conrad’s fourth language, but Canetti’s situation is much more complicated than that of Conrad. Canetti’s first languages were Ladino, Bulgarian (soon more or less forgotten), and English. German was a secret language between his mother and father which he was not allowed to learn: “Among the many intense wishes of this period, the most intense was my desire to understand their secret language. I cannot explain why I didn’t really hold it against my father. I did nurture a deep resentment toward my mother, and it vanished only years later, after his death, when she herself began teaching me German” (The Tongue Set Free [New York, Seabury Press, 1979], 24). The actual lessons seem to have been anguishing: “It was only later that I realized that it hadn’t just been for my sake when she instructed me in German with derision and torment. She herself had a profound need to use German with me, it was the language of her intimacy. . . . So, in a very short time, she forced me to achieve something beyond the strength of any child, and the fact that she succeeded determined the deeper nature of my German; it was a belated mother tongue, implanted in true pain. The pain was not all, it was promptly followed by a period of happiness, and that tied me indissolubly to that language” (p. 70).

I’ll have to read The Tongue Set Free one of these years; of course, I’ve had Crowds and Power sitting around for over a decade, so I may be some time. (My previous Canetti post has also been sitting around for over a decade with no attention paid, poor thing.)

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I find the use of German as a secret language between his parents rather surprising, because I’ve always heard that that doesn’t work with small children. If you use a different language tio communicate things you don’t want your children to understand they’ll pick it up almost immediately. We didn’t do that with our daughter, because we wanted her to grow up trilingual, and she did, but I feel sure that if we’d only used Spanish for things she wasn’t supposed to understand it wouldn’t have worked.

  2. I was surprised by that too; how on earth do you keep a kid from understanding something he wants to understand?

  3. Keeping the number of available stimuli very low, perhaps — especially in a situation where the child cannot access other resources in that language. If the parents aren’t trying to keep secrets from the child by using the ‘parental’ language, they will naturally switch to the ‘common’ language as soon as the child is paying attention.

    A bit like an Anglophone trying to learn Scandinavian languages (or Dutch, or …) by immersion — it’s very hard to keep the natives from switching to English. No ill will, it’s just easier.

  4. especially in a situation where the child cannot access other resources in that language

    Surely a young child needs no other resources. Hearing his parents speak the language should do the trick, as long as he hears it often enough.

  5. ə de vivre says:

    My grandmother was in a similar situation with Czech. She grew up in Texas and from my understanding was about a generation removed from a time when it was the main language of the community. Given the stories I’ve heard, they used it infrequently enough that she never had the chance to acquire it naturally. I don’t think they felt the need to code switch to a mystery language much until she herself started speaking pretty solid English. I guess growing up Catholic in Texas was hard enough, they didn’t want her being Catholic and speaking a funny language.

  6. Despite what people think, it takes a conscience effort (by someone interacting with them) to teach a child a language, beyond what they hear even 25% of the time. My 4 year old son speaks English and German, and has absolutely loved to watch Spanish shows since he was 2, but can’t understand a single word ( as far as I can tell ).

    And beyond that, my children don’t even listen at all 99% of the time anyway. So, maybe it’s just me. Probably most children are excellent listeners.

  7. @Paul Ogden, we learned in another thread that very small children don’t pay attention to language that’s not directed at them.

    The awareness that something is being withheld comes later — not too late to achieve native competence, perhaps, but at a time when the child can actually be included in the parents’s conversation in the common language, and they will naturally chose that.

    My point is that by the time Canetti discovered that he was missing out on German, he might not in fact be hearing it often enough to learn it.

  8. It’s well-established that just listening to a language, without any of it being directed at you, is not enough. On the other hand, full interaction is not necessary — there are cultures where adults don’t speak with children until after they can talk.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    there are cultures where adults don’t speak with children until after they can talk.

    Once when my daughter was about 6 years old I was asked to take care of a baby girl for the afternoon, in my house. Of course I spoke to the baby in the course of caring for her, and my daughter said “Mom, she doesn’t speak!” implying that it was useless to speak to her as she could not answer.

    About the cultures in question, I wonder about how true this is about the adults. Does it mean they never “address” the children, or they don’t try to have one-sided “conversations” with them, pointing things out, etc as in most other cultures? Surely they must say things like “open your mouth” and other simple sentences. In any case the children must hear the language spoken to and from older children.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    I have a distinct memory of sitting on the floor in a large room where a group of adults (some of them family members) were standing around talking, one or the other of them occasionally turning around to say something to me. I was puzzled because when they were talking among themselves I could not understand a word, while when they turned to me I understood everything (yet they and I were all speaking French, at that time the only language I had ever heard). I guess I must have been around three years old.

    When a child is habitually spoken to in one language while the adults around speak to each other in a different one, the child may acquire a passive knowledge of the adults’ language (hence the uselessness of a “secret language” if used often enough), but in order to achieve speaking competence the child must need to respond in the language he or she is spoken to.

  11. Surely they must say things like “open your mouth” and other simple sentences.

    Probably yes, but the TV (which cannot teach an L1) can do that much.

    In any case the children must hear the language spoken to and from older children.

    That of course is the key to the situation. It’s only unusual people like me who learn their language more from parents than from peers.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    JC, where and in which types of cultures do parents NOT talk to their babies? The nuclear family with their own house or apartment, with few children, living away from their own relatives, is not the norm everywhere. In many places people have many children, babies are normally carried but once they are able to walk another child is on the way and the previous child is cared for by older children. Grandparents and other relatives of all ages live nearby if not with the parents and children. And there is no TV (or need of it).

    It does not seem to me to be just a coincidence that babies start to walk and talk at approximately the same age: the age when they start to be independent of parents or other caregivers and need a means of interaction independent of physical closeness.

  13. I don’t remember now, but I’m sure they were “tribal” cultures researched by anthropologists rather than large-scale urban cultures.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Exactly what I think.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Keeping the number of available stimuli very low, perhaps —

    Yes; that worked beautifully with French, which my parents used as their secret language (first only with each other, then also with the older children against the younger ones…) on quite rare occasions.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    If you use a different language tio communicate things you don’t want your children to understand they’ll pick it up almost immediately.

    This is true if your children have already been “exposed” to that language spoken in similar circumstances. If for instance you had spouted a quotation in Latin, Japanese or any language your chidren had never heard, they would not have understood.

  17. George Gibbard says:

    I have also read of a culture where it was said, “Why are you talking to the baby? She can’t understand you,” and it was in New Guinea, but I don’t know more specifically or where I read it. A psychologist I know is certain that the culture in question (when I mentioned it to him) is thus raising less intelligent children than they might, and apparently knew research to back his claim.

  18. It’s well-established that just listening to a language, without any of it being directed at you, is not enough.

    I have met many second-generation immigrants in the US and Canada whose parents did not speak English with each other, but the kids don’t speak the parents’ language.

    I suppose it becomes like listening to music in a foreign language, without any sense of what the words are referring to, they are just sounds.

  19. I suppose it becomes like listening to music in a foreign language, without any sense of what the words are referring to, they are just sounds.

    Once the kid turns 12 or 13 this effect can be observed no matter what the languages involved are, of course.

  20. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m curious what the basis is for saying English was Joseph Conrad’s 4th language. The usual account is that Conrad went from Polish to French to English. I think he had some schooling in German before he was first exposed to English, but also had schooling in Latin and Greek, and spent parts of his childhood in at least close proximity (with some exposure and/or development of passive competence?) to speakers of Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Russian. But if English is counted as 4th, only one of those many other candidates can be included in the count ahead of it.

  21. I know of many immigrant children who are exposed to two languages: the parents’ language at home, the country’s language at school and everywhere else. If their parents converse with them in their language, they also become fluent in it. If the parents use it only to communicate with each other, the children can still largely understand it, but they cannot really speak it.

  22. I agree that English was Conrad’s third language in any practical sense. It was said that his English vocabulary (presumably meaning the semantics of the English words he used) was influenced by French and his grammar by Polish.

  23. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @marie-lucie:

    where and in which types of cultures do parents NOT talk to their babies?

    Hoff (2006. How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review, 26(1), 55–88) lists the Maya and the Warlpiri among them, as well as certain African-American groups in the American South.

    Anecdotally, I can attests that parental secret languages work; my own parents used Hebrew for that purpose, and while I did learn some, none of my younger siblings did except for isolated words (typically, the nicknames used for them, such as הקטן haqaṭan ‘the small one’ or הילדה hayaldah ‘the girl’).

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