Friday, 5 February 2010

Linguistic Leniancy

I was once on holiday with a motley crew of tourists when a guy called Dave decided to show off his linguistic skills. He'd lived in China for a few months, and picked up some Mandarin, which he proceeded to flaunt in front two girls from Hong-Kong. However, no matter how hard he tried, the girls had no idea what Dave was saying. After he explained in English what he was trying to convey, the girls did recognise the traces of meaning. He was partly faulty on tone (notoriously difficult for foreigners) and partly on pronunciation.

Dave was very disappointed and a bit embarrassed, but also confused. How had he managed to order all those meals, to greet all those people, to have all those conversations, if he couldn't actually be understood? One possible answer is, instead of Dave learning Chinese, the Chinese had learned Dave. That is, after a few interactions and a lot of contextual help, they had understood that a particular incoherent sound meant that he wanted some noodles/was asking the time/was saying hello.

Recently I've been thinking about what happens when two populations with different languages mix. Several studies have considered this using computational models. Several suggest that one language usually takes over, and that bilingualism is not stable. What the Dave's example suggests is that speakers are extremely forgiving when dealing with people who do not speak their language, especially when gesture and context can make most meanings clear. It's also a good example of the fact that people can communicate despite large discrepancies in their mental representations.

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