Book Review: John McWhorter’s “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”

John McWhorter, author of “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue” and linguistics professor at Columbia University. One of his research interests is how socio-historical phenomena affect languages. It is that interest, it would seem, that is further investigated throughout the current book. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is essentially a history of the English language that seeks to explain the mysterious grammatical complexities of our native tongue. Where many people might argue that some grammatical phenomena are the result of mere chance, McWhorter details a journey through history, a story of people mixing, interacting, and infecting one another’s speech. In this way, the author lends evidence to the English narrative that serves to explain why English is the way it is and why it isn’t something else.

The author’s perspective is that there is too much emphasis on the fancy foreign vocabulary that has been borrowed into English and not enough focus on the grammatical changes. He points out that plenty of people from different cultures who interact end up sharing and blending language and that English is not any more special than any of the other cases. He seeks to dispel the age old story of English; that it came from Old English to Modern English primarily by Germanic tribes invading Britain and then getting three loads of words dumped on them first by the Danish and Norwegian vikings, then the french, and finally by the latin found in works by classical authors. McWhorter writes, “English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary” (McWhorter). He thinks that English grammar is complex due to the nature of the language’s travels.

While McWhorter does not address any cultural, racial, linguistic, or gender issues in a negatively critical manner, he does make some mention of the nature of things insofar as they pertain to the development of the present state of English. He merely notes that part there was a blending of people, culture, and language between the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in Britain with the Celts. People blending aside, McWhorter does not make many conclusions pertaining to gender (as both genders use language similarly). He explains the linguistic issues of English as a result of many people coexisting, commingling, and cohabitating.

Some of the practical or concrete implications of the topics in this book is that it offers insight into why English might be so difficult for others to learn. This knowledge may help teachers to have patience with students as they are attempting to acquire the language. Outside of that, this book serves as more of a friendly and approachable non-linguist-layperson guide into some of the peculiarities of English grammar with a little history behind said peculiarities presented in an entertaining format.

As an ESL teacher, this book has better prepared me with the knowledge I need to better advocate for my students to people who are curious about, ignorant of, or hostile to English learners. I have gained a better understanding into why English is as difficult as it is and better relate that difficulty to those who may not believe it so. With this knowledge, I am equipped to advocate for my students by making clear the nature of the strain and laboriousness that English learners undertake when attempting to learn the language.

As an ESL teacher, some people may ask me questions about the English language. It is to my great appreciation, then, that this book as given me some potential answers to the most inquisitive of the populace.

For instance:

Question 1: “Why does English have a meaningless ‘do’ in polar questions such as: ‘do you like rice?’ and in negative statements such as: ‘I do not love the bears.’ The ‘do’ in each phrase does not exactly mean anything”.

Answer: The meaningless ‘do’ is a legitimate feature in the Celtic language (and Cornish and Welsh) and, after years of interaction between those languages and English in blended families and mixed friends, the ‘do’ jumped into the English grammar. Initially, it was more prominent than it is nowadays, but change is the nature of language and eventually some uses of ‘do’ in English fell away. One such example of a ‘do’ once had but now forgotten was the ‘do’ in a construction such as “I do eat” where today we simply say “I eat”.

Question 2: “Why does English use a verb-noun progressive construction to denote present tense such as I am running?” No other Germanic language uses a construction like this to do that.

Answer: In fact,  other languages that do this are Welsh and Cornish. A product from the influence that blending cultures has on a language (in this case English).

Question 3/4: “Why were there some rules in English I learned about such as: don’t end sentences with prepositions or don’t’ split infinitives, yet people do those exact things in writing and in speech?”

Answer: The answer is in our history, in dealing with prepositions, people wanted to emulate Latin, which does not end sentences with prepositions, but English is its own beast and so naturally goes its own way with where prepositions land. Regarding the rule against splitting infinitives, it also stems from Latin. However, the difference is that in Latin, infinitives are just one word such that ‘to run’ may be realized as the made up Latin version of ‘torun’. Whereas in English, infinitives take the form of two words ‘to’ and some verb such as ‘run’. It is easy to split infinitives with other words when they are already split apart.

This book is most certainly intended for popular consumption and as such, it is certainly not a text book or research report. The information is presented in a manner that makes the book a ‘page-turner’ and keeps the interest of the reader.  This style of writing, for this sort of information, is the spice or seasoning needed to make this area of linguistics more than bland meat. It is the unfortunate truth that much of the linguistic literature can be bland and any author who writes with Lawry’s Seasoned Salt is a blessing.

In conclusion, this book is an excellent read. It succeeds in setting the record straight insofar as how English came to be. It successfully dispels any illusions as to how English has changed over the years. The book is written in such a style that makes it more like reading a story or account of the people who molded English over the years and that makes it a pleasurable read. I would certainly recommend this book to any person (outside of ESL/Linguistics) as well as any person within the ESL or Linguistics community.

Myth – There’s simply too much to learn.

I’ll Never Know Everything!

Okay… this one might be true. You might never know every single word that exists in your target language, but cut yourself some slack, do you know every single word in the English language?

I know a lot of English and consider myself fluent but there is no way I’d be able to hang with nuclear scientists and understand every bit of jargon they use.

Or consider some non scientific slang you might hear… like bubbler!

“Op’ (common involuntary midwestern noise) scuse’ me, just need the bubbler (drinking/water fountain) there…”

I learn new words in my native tongue every week!

Fluency is a difficult word to define and everybody seems to have their own definitions of what “fluent” is and looks like. I personally believe that “fluency” means I can survive in a country where that language is spoken. As such, I would consider myself fluent in a language if I had the ability and confidence to go out, find some sort of housing, shop for food, make friends and plans, and be able to take part in community events while speaking with people and understanding them!

If I can work a job in the target language, then that’s mega-fluent in my book! Your grammar might not be 100% perfect, your pronunciation may not be 100% correct, and you probably won’t know every single word that you hear but that’s okay! I’ve never had an instance where a speaker of another language got mad at me for trying to speak in their native tongue and making mistakes. People are flattered and generally impressed that you are making the effort to communicate with them in their language!

Myth – I can never practice with real people.

Nobody Speaks “X” Language Around Me.

Good news: Technology today has eliminated this problem!

There are a number of websites and apps you can utilize in order to find speakers of the language you are learning to practice with. Some of my favorite websites and apps to use for finding language exchange partners are:

  1. italki
  2. whatsapp
  3. facebook
  4. skype
  5. interpals
  6. and more…

It’s important and wise to be careful about using the internet since you don’t actually know who you may be talking to. When I am looking for a new language partner I like to make sure they have a well made and complete profile that I can check out and determine if they are somebody legitimate and would make a good language exchange partner for me! Even when people send me requests I check them out before responding right away. It’s just something that makes me feel more safe and comfortable when striking up conversation! It usually turns out well, sometimes you will find people that don’t want to practice as much as you’d like to but the great thing is that you can have as many language partners as you’d like!

Some of my language exchange partners have even turned into good friends!

I had an English-Spanish language exchange with a girl about my age who lives in Peru while I was in college. From there we skyped for anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours once or twice a week before I had to go to Spanish class! We still keep in touch but due to busy schedules it’s not quite as much, however, we still get along great.

Myths – I’m too busy

I Don’t Have the Time to Learn a Foreign Language

We lead incredibly busy lives. However, there are 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in one week! Let’s look at where some potential time might be gained.

  1. Drive times: pop in a podcast or listen to music in your target language
  2. Shower time: podcasts and music!
  3. Breakfast time: enjoy a level appropriate book (or maybe a podcast or some music)
  4. Lunch break: great for a 5-10 minute Duolingo lesson
  5. Family dinner: find a pleasant music soundtrack to play quietly in the background
  6. T.V. / Netflix: Try watching in your target language or check out the subtitle feature
  7. Cooking time: try foreign recipies written in the original language… or it’s a podcast/music opportunity
  8. Make time: wake up 15 minutes early so you can read a book, do a lesson, listen to some jamz, etc.

Think about the time you spend on activities like these. They may last only 10 minutes to an hour but if you incorporate your new language into those activities the time will add up fast!

You don’t need a 3 hour study session, you need consistency.


Article Review: Ellen Bialystok’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent”

General description/purpose of article. What is the main premise of the research? How is it contextualized?

The purpose of the article is to summarize research on the effects of bilingualism over the lifespan. The effects on linguistic performance and cognitive performance are discussed as well as the potential mechanisms responsible for the effects. The author believes that since bilinguals regularly use both languages, and both languages are activated, that the speaker has a unique situation that “creates a problem of attentional control” (Bialystok 2009). Bialystok says that the need to control which system is utilized is the primary causes of the cognitive and linguistic consequences of bilingualism. The research article is contextualized in the area of cognition and brings together multiple research findings in order to support the proposal of the author.

What perspective on bilingualism do authors put forward? What are the theoretical underpinnings? How was the data collected? How do these methods reflect a perspective on the part of the researcher?

The author’s perspective comes from the field of cognitive linguistics. The first implication of bilingualism discussed is the negative effect on vocabulary size and rapid lexical retrieval. There are a number of studies cited and explained. The first is a study that sought to examine the vocabulary size of bilingual children versus the monolingual counterparts. The researchers used the standardized Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test for the participants. It was found that bilingual children control a smaller vocabulary in each language compared to the monolinguals. Another study cited found that bilingual adults had slower lexical retrieval in each language compared to monolinguals. A number of tests have been used to show this finding such as picture naming tasks, verbal fluency tasks, identification through noise tasks, lexical decision tasks, and others. These tasks show that there is some interference by the competing language in the mind of the bilingual. The researcher states that by “manipulating the relation between the words in the two languages… systematically changes bilingual performance, suggesting that there is a central role for the relation between the words in these effects” (Bialystok 2009). A further finding is that the deficits in lexical access for bilinguals persist  with aging. Three tests, the Boston Naming Test, the PPVT-III which is an English vocabulary test, and some verbal fluency tests were used by Bialystok to test the receptive vocabulary of the participants. In all the tests, bilinguals both old and young performed more poorly than the monolingual groups. Researchers offer the connectionist model for the explanation that the bilinguals have weaker links in the connection required for “rapid and fluent speech production” (Bialystok) because they use each of their languages less often than monolinguals. A different explanation proposed is that the “reduction in lexical access to the conflict that is created by the competition from the corresponding item in the non-target language” (Bialystok). In other words, in the bilingual mind there is competition between two words and the bilingual must use their executive processes to produce language. It is postulated that some of the increased abilities in executive processing that bilinguals obtain are due to a ‘practicing’ effect. These abilities are used so much in natural language production that they become practiced and more honed.

Bialystok then discusses the effects of bilingualism on conflict resolution and executive control. It is postulated that bilingualism has positive effects executive control which involves “inhibition, shifting of mental sets (task switching or cognitive flexibility), and updating information in working memory” (Bialystok). Children were given a grammaticality judgement task and it was found that bilingual children were better able to ignore the distraction from meaning and identify grammatically correct sentences. In general it was found that bilingual children are able to solve problems with conflicting/misleading cues earlier than monolingual children (Bialystok). A study by Carlson and Meltzoff (2008) is cited where the researchers examined various aspects of executive function with nine tasks to determine the specific advantages held by bilingual children. The authors point out that “It was not the case that the bilingual children were simply faster, or smarter, or more developmentally advanced” (Bialystok), but rather that the bilingual children simply did better on the tasks that mirrored the conflict in language selection. The bilingual children excelled on the tasks “that presented conflict between competing options” (Bialystok).  Bialystok also used a Stroop task on both young and old monolinguals and bilinguals to show the cognitive advantage bilingualism brings in executive control and conflict resolution. It was found that the bilinguals of all ages performed better than the monolinguals in this task.

The next topic discussed is free recall and working memory. Since working memory is a part of the executive control system and bilinguals experience benefits in that system, it is postulated that bilinguals may also have improved working memory. Bialystok points out that working memory tasks have often been tested with verbal memory measured by free recall. This is problematic since bilinguals have already shown disadvantages in regard to verbal tasks. It is then suggested that nonverbal tasks be used to test working memory to find any benefits. Bialystok ran such an experiment and found that when there were harder demands for control and inhibition that monolingual performance declined before bilingual performance lending some evidence to the conclusion that nonverbal working memory is improved by bilingualism.

Is there a cultural, racial, or gender component to this article? If so, what aspects are highlighted or omitted? Why are they important?

There are no overt cultural, racial, or gender components to this article. The author focuses on the aspect of bilingualism in itself. This is important because it is indicative of the all encompassing nature of the bilingual experience in that it does not matter the culture, race, or gender, the cognitive effects of bilingualism are evident. The author does point to the need for the incorporation of different cultures in continued research in order to better understand the effects of bilingualism for bilingual individuals. Bialystok makes note that for most studies, the bilinguals being studied were fully bilingual and used both languages regularly with great proficiency. It is clear that this sort of bilingualism is not always the case and that it is essential for future research to look at different degrees of bilingualism, how much bilingualism, and what language pairs maximize the potential benefits brought on by the bilingual experience. The importance of further studies regarding the different degrees of bilingualism stems is important because there is not just one sort of bilingual and it would be interesting to see if people who are not fully bilingual experience similar effects. It would also be of value to continue studies dealing with proficient and consistent L2 users of a language to see if the effects of bilingualism could be obtained by people who are just learning a foreign language. Studies following how much bilingualism is necessary for the cognitive benefits would help to establish any potential critical periods or quantities of input that need to be met in order for the benefits of bilingualism to occur. The importance of studying different language pairs is because it may be the case that there are indeed differences in bilinguals whose languages are similar versus those whose languages are far apart.

What are the theoretical, practical, or concrete implications of the conclusions and outcomes discussed in this article? What do the authors’ data and data analysis attempt to tell us? What does this knowledge contribute to our understanding of bilingualism?

The theoretical, practical, and concrete implications of this article are that clearly there are some benefits bestowed to individuals on account of being bilingual. The overall conclusion is that “bilingualism is one of the experiences capable of influencing cognitive function and, to some extent, cognitive structure” (Bialystok 2009). The research attempts to show that conclusion and does so successfully. The data and findings given in the article show the differences between the bilingual mind and the monolingual mind. They show that bilinguals have smaller lexicons in each language than their monolingual counterparts and that they also have slightly more difficulty in lexical retrieval. The data also show a certain cognitive advantage bestowed upon bilingual individuals as a result of their bilingualism. The findings provided evidence that bilinguals have greater executive processing abilities than their monolingual counterparts. This knowledge contributes to our understanding of bilingualism by further illuminating some of the effects of bilingualism and how the bilingual experience affects the individual on a cognitive level. The author then leaves the topic open for further investigation and makes it clear that research in this field is by no means concluded and that there are many more variables to research.

Sources Cited

  • Bialystok, Ellen. (2009). Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 12, (1), 3-11.
  • Grosjean, F., and Li, Pi. (2013). The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. Chapter 8 & 9.

Myth – I don’t have an aptitude!

I’ve Never had a Mind for Foreign Languages

Stop. Right. There. You most certainly do have a mind for foreign languages! When you were born every language was a foreign language. Babies come into the world as universal language learners.

They (you) are primed for learning any given language whether that be Mandarin, Russian, Afrikaans, or Korean!

Kids become specialized language learners as they are exposed to their mother tongue. While you may not be a baby anymore, you still have the mental capacity to learn a language. Some people even argue that adults are better language learners than children because you know what works best for you! You know how you learn best and you can manage your own time! At the end of the day, you most definitely have a mind for language.

Stay tuned for ideas, tools, and tricks to enhance your learning!

Myth – it’s too hard!

Learning a Language is too Hard!

This couldn’t be farther from the truth and especially when you break the language down into small manageable milestones to build up early successes and confidence. When you see how well you are doing and quickly you are coming along you will know that learning a language can be made easy! Keep the right mindset and keep moving forward.

It’s OKAY to make mistakes!

Think of how a child learns their first language, how many times does that child make a mistake? A lot. It’s a learning process and you learn from your mistakes, so don’t sweat it! Making mistakes is one of the beautiful parts of learning a language. While teaching English in Mexico to kids one student, while learning names of common animals, very boldly and excitedly exclaimed that the word for “abeja” (bee) in English was “sheep!” The class got a good laugh out of it and I corrected him. That memory stuck with him and he will forever know that “abeja” means “bee” and that “sheep” is “oveja.”

Its moments like these that remind me of my own mistakes I’ve made while learning a foreign language.

In my second year in high school Spanish, my teacher gave the class the speaking assignment to stand up in front and talk about an activity they liked doing. When it was my turn I stood up and tried to say, “I like mountain climbing without ropes!” so I said, “Me gusta escalar montañas sin ropa!” I felt proud that I nailed this line until I saw the look of confusion on my teacher’s (and classmates’) faces. I had actually declared, “I like mountain climbing naked!” So… needless to say I learned from that mistake and have never forgotten that “ropa” means “clothes” and not “rope” … false cognates will get you!