Theodore Dalrymple on the Gift of Language

Although it is quite expensive by the time it reaches the shelves of my local Borders store, City Journal is nonetheless a very worthwhile investment as a magazine filled with incisive and useful social commentary. In the latest issue is a nice essay by Theodore Dalrymple on the subject of language; responding, in part, to arguments advanced by Professor Steven Pinker in his The Language Instinct but which have since grown in popularity and acceptance.

Dalrymple takes aim at the idea that the acquisition of language is part of human nature and all humans therefore naturally acquire the level of expression needed for their own social and cultural circumstances. As he summarises:

Children will learn their native language adequately whatever anyone does, and the attempt to teach them language is fraught with psychological perils. For example, to “correct” the way a child speaks is potentially to give him what used to be called an inferiority complex. Moreover, when schools undertake such correction, they risk dividing the child from his parents and social milieu, for he will speak in one way and live in another, creating hostility and possibly rejection all around him. But happily, since every child is a linguistic genius, there is no need to do any such thing. Every child will have the linguistic equipment he needs, merely by virtue of growing older.

The problem, Dalrymple argues, is that such thinking serves to trap people in their cultural confines.

Beginning in the 1950s, Basil Bernstein, a London University researcher, demonstrated the difference between the speech of middle- and working-class children, controlling for whatever it is that IQ measures. Working-class speech, tethered closely to the here and now, lacked the very aspects of standard English needed to express abstract or general ideas and to place personal experience in temporal or any other perspective. Thus, unless Pinker’s despised schoolmarms were to take the working-class children in hand and deliberately teach them another speech code, they were doomed to remain where they were, at the bottom of a society that was itself much the poorer for not taking full advantage of their abilities, and that indeed would pay a steep penalty for not doing so. An intelligent man who can make no constructive use of his intelligence is likely to make a destructive, and self-destructive, use of it.

We frequently read about the problems and challenges of disenfranchised Muslim youth in Sydney and Melbourne. On the occasions that I have had the opportunity to talk to people from these demographics, I have often been struck by their paucity of language. Of course, it might be argued that the argot of the disenfranchised Muslim — habiblish, for want of a better term — is a result of their disenfranchisement rather than the cause of it. However, I wonder whether, in light of Dalrymple’s essay, enough emphasis is being placed on teaching second generation Australian Muslims English?

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