Conquest of English

Language is a tool (and more).

Posted Jul 19, 2017

J. Krueger
Source: J. Krueger

In my experience it appears to be self-deception when someone believes to possess two mother tongues. ~ Albert Schweitzer (translated from the German by J. I. K.)

Sprich deutsch! ~ Julius Welland, maternal grandfather, complaining about my immature boyhood speech

The English language dominates the world’s spoken and written word. More people know English as a second (or third) language than any other. Those who wish to travel or do international business must know some English. Those who want to publish academically must know English well enough to express ideas and findings in a way that satisfies the editors, many of who no longer are native speakers of English. The French- and the German-language countries have seen their academic publications whither and die, or convert themselves to English-language outlets. These trends have given birth to new variants of English, such as Journalese or Blog-ese.

When I was a student of psychology at the University of Bielefeld in what was then West Germany, the young and dynamic faculty pushed an English-language curriculum. Some students, acculturated in an atmosphere of ‘resistance,’ objected to the extra work and its U.S. American overtones. Those with Marxist sensibilities smelled the stench of imperialism and bourgeois hegemony. Perhaps they were just lazy, or too busy with teach- and sit-ins (which were nicely labeled as such in English).

My conversational English was poor at the time, but I accepted the Anglophone reading assignments, gradually awakening to the idea that the U.S. and other Anglophone psychology were “where it’s at.” West German psychology was still struggling to overcome its wartime and post-war traumas of having been decapitated and eviscerated. There were no great old professors at Bielefeld who could convey a sense of a great tradition. Contemporary Anglophone psychology was the order of the day. We soon developed a kind of Double Dutch, a syntactically Germanic form of speech saturated with English concepts, buzzwords, and neologisms. Looking back, I think what we had there anticipated the currently widespread linguistic form of Denglish. In Germany today, Denglish blares from the media, and the young folk love it and develop it. I put in evidence a photo I took in the Swabian backwoods. Der Military Shop offers discarded American materiel and trinkets – or China-made replicas. I bought a camouflage flashlight. Just in case.

Reading Journalese at university did nothing for our conversational prowess. The language of lectures and seminars continued to be German (with added jargon). My first publication (Krüger, Möller, & Meyer, 1983) appeared in a German-language journal, Die Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie. For me, the conquest of English began in earnest when I reached the University of Oregon to pursue doctoral studies. In a class of 14, there were 2 non-native speakers. There was Asher Cohen, who is now the Rector of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Asher seemed unperturbed by the struggle to master English. He did it his way, I did it my way. During the first semester, I brought a dictionary to class (no google translate back then). I crammed English words of all kinds, slowly realizing that English is the largest language in the world. English absorbs words from all corners and they never completely die. They stay in the dictionary, perhaps with a note of being archaic, obsolete, or just ‘obsolescent.’ I bought 2 dictionaries of slang as well. It took me some time to understand that slang is a fast-moving target. How many times did my friends laugh or quietly despair at my usage of old slang. I did not care. My goal was to get as many words as possible into ‘semantic memory’ (how apt a term!). There were times when my speech flirted with incomprehensibility. Too many strange words! I think I have mellowed, but the readers of this blog shall be the judges of that.

For a short while, I lived under the illusion that I might lose my accent. It couldn’t be done. The English language allows – and demands – terrifically subtle shades of vowels and diphthongs. I can fake some of these subtleties, but others I cannot even hear. A brain needs to be younger than 15 years of age to configure this sort of thing. My accent is now such that some consider it light, others consider it Russian (or Scottish, or Guanche, or whatever), whereas still others hear the German tongue right away. I find that the British are most discerning here. Once I say ‘Hello,’ they reply ‘Oh, you must be from Germany’ (read this sentence with a British accent in your mind’s ear). I spoke German to my kids at home but they knew of course that I was bilingual. At first, they had no concept of accent. What they thought they heard was just daddy’s voice. Things changed when they brought friends to the house who would remark on my accent. My kids also began to understand that an accent is still a stigma (immigrant off the boat) in the U.S.. They spared my feelings, saying that the way I sound is just me, not Germany. Still, there was a moment of bittersweet pain. As it turned out, I am unable to pronounce my elder daughter’s name in just the way that everyone else does. Lauren. There’s the subtlest of vowels. It’s not the letter r. It’s the ‘au.’ When I don’t try, it comes out too close to ‘ah,’ and when I try too hard, it comes too close to ‘or.’ No such trouble with my younger daughter Stephanie. Incidentally, my vowels have gotten longer, among other small changes, so that now the Germans too tell me I have an accent. My two-accented existence is a metaphor for my blended identity.

I never hired a diction coach to nag me out of my accent, although I considered it. Some people encouraged me not to do it, saying that the somewhat intimidating Teutonic texture of my speech might convey some of the authority I want in the classroom. I don’t have to wear a suit and a tie. I just show up and speak. I kind of like it. More importantly – and this is the point of this essay – I have doggedly continued to refine my writing; first for the journals and then for this blog. And if you think the job is not done, you are right. The work continues, and it is rewarding.

English and German are part of the same linguistic family. They are not that far apart, and one might think that picking up one after knowing the other is not a big deal. But it is. In the academic context there is a deep difference about what it is that gives a text its force. In German, nouns and noun phrases do most of the work. Since the 19th Century (it was different and better before then), German writing has been suffering from a sickness known as the nominal style. In the nominal style, it is ideas, concepts, and abstract constructions that are considered important. Verbs often appear only in their weak and auxiliary from. To have is to be, or something. In stark contrast, good English writing entrusts the verb with the work. Action verbs dominate; they rule; they make the case. This is the Anglo-Saxon tradition. There is someone who does something to someone. That’s a sentence. No clauses, no passive voice, no turgid prose. With time, I came to like and then love this style. I may lapse into Hegelian prose now and then, but I correct course as soon as I can, with a little help from my friends. Many friends have lent editing hands along the way. I remember Mick Rothbart’s, my graduate advisor’s, red pen, and Judith Schrier’s saintly patience with my manuscripts over many years at Brown.

I try to convey the lessons I have learned to my students. They commit the usual sins. Too much wordiness, too much repetition, too many non sequiturs, too many violations of parallel structure, too little use of alliteration and metaphor (too many similes), and overall, too little playfulness and courage to be creative. For the latter, I offer an anecdote (true story). I once published a paper on statistics in the American Psychologist (Krueger, 2001). I argued that significance testing can be reconstructed along Bayesian lines. Bayesian statistics takes its name from the Reverend Bayes, who flourished in 18th Century England, trying to prove the existence of God by inductive means (it did not work). The core of Bayesian statistics is the eponymous (here’s a favorite word) ‘Bayes’s Theorem,’ or ‘Bayes’s Rule.’ A few commentaries came in and the American Psychologist invited my to draft a rebuttal.  And so I did, defiantly calling my rejoinder ‘Bayes rules’ (Krueger, 2002). The production editor sent me an email, asking if it shouldn’t be ‘Bayes’s Rule.’ This email – as Bertrand Russell would say – kept me cheerful for a week. If you savor it, as I hope you do, notice that ‘Bayes rules’ expresses the strong Anglo-Saxon style, kind of like ‘Bayes rocks.’

My love of English writing continues to grow, only to flag once in a while, as when I see how certain linguists suck the life out of it. But swift recovery cometh. When distraught from reading standard Journalese I refresh myself with Russell, Orwell, or one of the British Darwinists. It’s fun, and therefore I blog. Write on!

Albert Schweitzer anticipated some of my challenges as a non-native speaker. He had it easier. He grew up in the Alsatian town of Günsbach, which was then part of the German empire. His family spoke French in the home, but Elsässisch, the Alsatian dialect, a variant of the Alemannic form of German, surrounded him like a womb. So French may have been his mother’s tongue, but it was not his mother tongue. In his memoirs, Schweitzer (2015) reflected on this circumstance and concluded that the mother tongue leaves an indelible mark. If you think you are bilingual, Schweitzer has a test for you. “[Ich komme ihm] alsbald mit der Frage, in welcher Sprache er zähle und rechne, in welcher er mir das Küchengeschirr und das Handwerkszeug des Schreiners und des Schmiedes hersagen könne und in welcher er träume” (pp. 60-61). Ask yourself in which language you count and “reckon,” and in which language you dream. Still, Schweitzer missed an important element of the mother tongue. The mother tongue invests words with emotion. It offers the ability to “feel” poetry and the lyrics of popular music. English poetry does not touch me. It is a pity, but it is normal. To feel the words, I must read Heine or Eichendorff. Psychological science has confirmed these impressions. Recently, Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, himself bathed in the Hebrew language as a child, has illuminated the mother tongue’s emotional power (Hayakawa et al., 2016). It is a good thing, but not always. For instance, Boaz deliberates in English before making investment decisions. The Hebrew choice would be too emotional, and potentially irrational.

Hayakawa, S., Costa, A., Foucart, A., & Keysar, B. (2016). Using a foreign language changes our choices. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20, 791-793.

Krüger, J., Möller, H., & Meyer, W.-U. (1983). Das Zuweisen von Aufgaben verschiedener Schwierigkeit: Auswirkungen auf Leistungseinschätzung und Affekt [The assignment of tasks of varying difficulties: Effects on evaluation of performance and affect]. Zeitschrift für Entwicklungspsychologie und Pädagogische Psychologie, 15, 280-291.

Krueger, J. (2001). Null hypothesis significance testing: On the survival of a flawed method. American Psychologist, 56, 16-26.

Krueger, J. (2002). Bayes rules. American Psychologist, 57, 70-71.

Schweitzer, A. (2015). Aus meinem Leben und Denken. 9th ed. Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer.