Re: Reflections on Communicating in English When English is One's Second Language

Winer Laura (winerl@ERE.UMontreal.CA)
Mon, 10 Jun 1996 15:44:37 -0400 (EDT)

I know that the discussion on language and constructs
has been going on for a while, but I wanted to add
some comments from a personal perspective.
I am a native English speaker (or anglophone, as we
say in Quebec) who has lived most of my life in a
predominantly French-speaking milieu and am married
to a Spanish-speaker (who is fluent in English & French),
from whom I have learned a good working knowledge of spoken Spanish.
Our son, for whom English is his first language,
is just finishing his first year in French immersion
kindergarten (which means that all instruction is in
French to a group of kids who are all English-speakers.
Is everybody confused?
I mention all this just because this experience has
given me an opportunity to observe/experience the development
of concepts and language and their interaction. It is
extraordinarily clear to me that there are concepts which
either do not exist or are extremely difficult to express
in a given language (e.g. the concept of a "responsable de projet"
in French; the idea of "no tiene chiste" in Spanish) and
that the structure of a given language influences one's thought
processes; e.g. English is more direct than either French
or Spanish, but inherently more ambiguous because of the
way agreements are not made.
It is also clear that a concept which develops in one language
can then be translated into another language, but it takes
a while before it is internalized, so to speak. Example: my
son "knew" the days of the week last year in that he could
recite them, but it is only this year at school that he has
started to care about what day it is and have a much more
definite idea about the order of the days and their relationship.
If he asks what day we're going to do something and I answer
"Tuesday", he will say, "What day is that, mardi?" It is
"mardi" that has some kind of resonance for him, not Tuesday,
even though he can translate the verbal label on his own.

My experience as someone who has had both professional
and personal experiences of working in different languages
has shown me that when one is truly functioning in language
x, one is somehow changed from when one is functioning in language y,
and that my core constructs are changed from the fact of being
able to function in the different languages.

It seems to me that constructs are not independent from the language in
which they are developed, nor is language acquisition independent from
the constructs one has already developed. I don't know if this
contributes at all to people's thoughts on the subject--I hope so.

Laura Winer Research Associate LIDE, Faculty of Education, Universite de
Montreal. P.O. Box 6128, Station A Tel.: (514) 343-8069 Montreal (Quebec)
CANADA H3C 3J7 Fax : (514) 343-7286
E-mail : WinerL@ere.UMontreal.CA