The notion of ‘linguistic repertoires’ is not a brand-new one, but it has become fairly central to Sociolinguistics in the last few years. I’d never heard of it until this month as I’d never studied Sociolinguistics before. Now I’m doing a master’s course which includes modules in Sociolinguistics, so terms such as ‘linguistic repertoire’ form part of my…’linguistic repertoire’. So…what’s a ‘linguistic repertoire’? Well, it’s defined in this article (written by some sociolinguists) as the “totality of linguistic resources” available to an individual, so it’s much more than the answer to the question “Which languages can you speak?”. In any case, the term ‘language’ is not all that useful when trying to understand the use of…language through the lens of Sociolinguistics, especially in a global context that is increasingly ‘conditioned by’ (yay!) linguistic superdiversity. It’s impossible to define the boundaries of an individual ‘language’ and designations such as ‘native speakers’, ‘dialect’ and ‘creole’ often serve to mystify rather than enlighten, while any given interaction or text (including this one, zum Beispiel) makes use of an often bewildering range of linguistic codes, styles, registers, varieties, etc. Ya get me? Begorrah.
I was given the task of posting a description of my own linguistic repertoire in the module’s discussion forum, and inevitably my account touched on a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here, so I thought it might be of interest to regular visitors. (There’s a better-organised and better-informed account of someone’s LR towards the end of the article linked to just above.) Mine is a bit artless and plodding in places, but as they say in Cardiff, plus ça change…. I also forgot to mention that my main ‘foreign’ ‘language’ is…Europanto.
My linguistic repertoire
One’s linguistic repertoire indexes one’s biography, argue Blommaert and Backus (2011). Well, like any biography mine starts before I was born, in that my father left his hometown in Northern Germany at the age of 17 and eventually moved to Sheffield, England with my mum, who somehow came from both Dorchester and Leicester. Thus while most people in Sheffield have a distinctive way of speaking (familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Full Monty’), my family didn’t share it, although we did speak (ahem) ‘English’ rather than ‘German’. I was raised with quite a conservative set of values in relation to accent*, in that it was a family trope that pronouncing words like local people did was ‘common’. I rebelled against this to a certain extent, developing a lifelong affinity for what B & B call ‘dirty words’ as part of a far more demotic form of speech outside the house, but ended up speaking with a broadly non-regional accent, although I’ve always pronounced the short vowel in ‘baeth’ and would feel distinctly silly saying ‘ba:th’. I was exposed to German and French at school but the teaching approach wasn’t conducive to learning more than the odd fixed expression and some basic grammar.
At 18 I moved to Norwich (or, as the locals say, up Naarge) to study philosophy and literature, so acquired a fledgling command of academic discourses around post-colonialism, post-modernism and existentialism, etc. I then lived in Dublin for six years, which left a seemingly permanent mark on my linguistic repertoire in that I adopted pronunciations like ‘filum’ and started saying ‘yer man’, ‘graaand’ and ‘yis’. I can still do a passable Roddy Doyle-esque Northside accent, having felt an affinity with that part of Dublin. I later, via work, developed a command of areas of discourse including IT jargon and discourse patterns particular to software corporations.
Living in the north of Portugal I discovered an appetite (and, I thought at the time, an aptitude) for learning ‘foreign’ languages. I quickly acquired a strong regional accent, which didn’t stand me in good stead later in life. Having self-taught myself (well, it was really friends and newspapers that taught me…), I decided to try German, French, and Spanish while I was at it, in what in retrospect was an attempt to expand my range of identities, building up my linguistic capital. I remember a conversation around that time with an English colleague of mine who, having mastered those languages and more while living in ‘target language’ environments, expressed bemusement at my desire to acquire so many languages which she regarded as redundant tools since I was unlikely to need to use them any time soon. That principle hadn’t occurred to me but nonetheless struck me as a mature attitude that I nonetheless couldn’t identify with – what I’d learnt was precious and I was precious about it in turn. I moved to Lisbon and was delighted to meet someone who told me I spoke Portuguese with ‘no accent’. It’s possible they were joking – I’d only been in the country for a year at that point. I realised much later that my command of Portuguese was inevitably limited to vernacular forms in that I wasn’t ever going to be working in the language. I probably also spoke like a newspaper as that was where a lot of my vocabulary came from, and the same goes (it probably is still true) for the other languages I speak. I slowly acquired a command of ELT lingo as member of the very broad ELT ‘community’.
Although my English accent was distinctly non-specific I was astonished to one day meet a particularly perceptive Chicago cab driver on vacation who after I’d said about three words asked me what part of Sheffield I was from. I started to make friends with Brazilians who found my Portuguese Portuguese dialect hilarious and so I tried to start sounding more Brazilian; on trips to Spain I tried to sound like I was from Andalucia (erm…). I began to notice that on visits back to the UK, I felt a refreshing confidence in my ‘voice’. I felt like what Bourdieu calls a ‘legitimate speaker’ rather than someone winging it in a clearly foreign tongue. Living in China, I took pride in my speedily-acquired Mandarin, which was a bit absurd as I regularly met other foreigners who had clearly invested much more in the language. Although I inevitably left most of what I’d learned behind me, I still have an ability to recognise when people are speaking standard Mandarin. I then spent a few months in Madrid, and my Spanish developed much as my Portuguese had: good at speaking informally, advanced reading skills, little else. I’d started to realise at this point that I was depending on other languages as a source of self-esteem and to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of being from elsewhere –when I moved back to London at the start of 2006 I occasionally found myself referring to ‘other (as in fellow) foreigners’. I started a master’s course (in KCL) and developed my command of Academic Portuguese and, for that matter, English. In London through mixing a lot with Latin Americans, my Spanish and Portuguese changed. Thanks to where I was living, I developed an ability to recognise Bengali and Turkish. As for my own accent, I found it remarkable when a long-standing work colleague expressed surprise that I was from the north. Through examining I developed a knowledge of the IELTS register. Outside work my online Twitter interactions had a positive impact on my ability to express abuse and sarcasm in short written form. I visited Brazil and had to make a huge amount of effort to demediavelise my Portuguese – the Brazilians regard the European variety as atavistic and I struggled to fit in.
Through friendships with students I slowly started learning Italian, starting with certain regional swearwords, which as B & B point out can be a shortcut means of acquiring a familiarity with the vernacular. When I met my now-wife (who is Italian) I went through a period of being simultaneously impressed and intimidated by her and her colleagues’ ability to mix languages, code switching effortlessly and endlessly between English, French and Spanish. Getting my brain to think in Italian and my speech organs to not produce Spanish proved a constant struggle. Her job took us to Mexico and I experienced the same struggle in reverse. I also had to master a whole new area of place names, slang, and cultural information and had to work hard to try to Mexicanise my pronunciation. After a year there we spent a couple of months in a university in Thailand where I made a pointed attempt to fail to learn some of the language. I’d put my knowledge of Thai at about the same level as the few dozen words of Greek and Finnish I picked up on various holidays**. (My French and German have been comfortably stuck near the bottom of League 1 for at least 15 seasons.)
Regularly visiting Chiara’s family near Napoli meant my Italian features a few expressions in dialect, and then same goes for Rome, where we spent a year and a half. (Now it was Spanish that got in the way of Italian again.) Through working in a university I acquired (not without difficulty) a knowledge of the formal register of university bureaucracy, and (with a lot of assistance from others) developed my writing in a way I never really had with Portuguese or Spanish. I also had to acquire a command of the discourses around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. Now here living in London I’ve started to think of my accent as a bit of a ‘Remainer’ accent, specially when I step outside the M25. I’ve also started using the word ‘index’ as a verb, and phrases like ‘orders of discourse’, ‘dividing practices’ and ‘kurtosis’. I’m no longer as dependent on knowing foreign languages to bolster my self-esteem, and I’m also no longer sure if and where a line can be drawn between knowledge of the world and knowledge of language, between knowing a few Greek expressions and knowing where Athens is in relation to Thessaloniki, remembering who the Prime Minister of France is and being able to identify a Colombian accent, or having the command of the necessary discourses to fake it in the world of Applied Linguistics. I can now appreciate that language competence is, as Blommaert and Backus point out, dynamic rather than fixed, and that it’s not a case of acquiring and owning a number of discrete languages but rather of using different forms of language with varying degrees of competence while inhabiting specific roles in diverse situations. Here endeth my linguistic repertoire***.
*And vocabulary – my mum, who we, despite not being officially posh (and absolutely not being rich), kept addressing for far too long as ‘Mummy’, insisted on prohibiting the word ‘wee’ and imposed ‘wee wee’ as a euphemistic alternative, which is…odd because (as any expert in linguistics will happily confirm) the term ‘wee wee’ consists of nothing but the word ‘wee’, twice. This single fact more than any other explains why I still find it I important use so much bad fucking language. N.B. I didn’t include this bit in the module discussion forum post.
**As I’ve mentioned here before I happen to know some staggeringly offensive things to say in Finnish. I once offered to share them with anyone who contacted me via the Contact link. Two people did so, I sent them the expressions complete with fully idiomatic transactions, but oddly enough neither of them ever thanked me. Kuradi pärast!
***Here I drew upon a Biblical register. Thank God I didn’t follow it with ‘Amen’. Amen to that.