Thursday, January 24, 2008

The logic of non-standard German

… or maybe "The 'deficit hypothesis' never dies".

A couple of days ago, NPR ran a piece on Seyran Ateş and her new book, The Multicultural Mistake (originally Der Multikulti-Irrtum). She's a very famous women's rights lawyer, former Woman of the Year in Germany, etc., and one of the most visible members of the Turkish community in Germany and in Europe beyond. She's a formidable figure in current German and European culture, and I'll sidestep all the rich controversy about the book to simply note that the interview includes this:
We have in the third generation children who do not speak very well German," Ates says. "They cannot speak very well their own language — they are not integrated in the culture, they do not even know how big is the city in which they live in."
One on-line review of the book has a closely related German version:
Dass damit Jugendliche heranwachsen, die sich „irgendwie“ einer idealisierten Türkei zugehörig fühlen, gleichzeitig aber übersehen, dass gerade in der Türkei jemandem, der gut Deutsch und Türkisch spricht, alle Türen offen stehen, denen aber, die weder die eine noch die andere Sprache richtig beherrschen gar nichts.
I can't comment on knowledge of city populations, and don't quite know what it means to be integrated into a given culture, but I'd be truly stunned if it turned out that any child in any Turkish-German community really did not control at least one language natively. Many of them, from what little I know about it, speak regional dialects of one or both languages, and of course there will be contact effects — borrowings, maybe some interference, whatever. Written standard languages are naturally learned in school and many kids in Germany don't have textbook control of the written prescribed standard. The German quote in particular makes it sound like this is about investment in that particular variety of language, not language generally.

Looks like another case where the rhetoric should be turned down a couple of notches unless somebody has the data to back this up. And, of course, another case where people are apparently willing to make big claims about language without any knowledge or evidence.


Oscar Madison said...

What accounts for the Yoda-like locutions in the English translation of the quote? Does the original German come across as equally awkward? Is that tied into the speaker's language integration point?

Oscar Madison said...

By the way, here's Google's English Translation of Seyran Ates's web page:

herzlich willkommen auf meiner Homepage. Welcome to my home.

leider schaffe ich es aus Zeitgründen nicht, meine Homepage rechtzeitig auf den aktuellen Stand zu bringen. Unfortunately, I think it creates for reasons of time, my home in time to the current version. Es lohnt sich daher auf andere Seiten auszuweichen, wenn Sie aktuelle Informationen benötigen. It is worthwhile therefore to avoid other pages, if you need current information. Natürlich kann ich auch die eine oder andere Mail zeitnah beantworten. Of course, I can also one or the other mail timely answer.

Sehen Sie es mir deshalb nach, wenn das eine oder andere etwas veraltet ist. See me why, when one or the other is a bit outdated. Die Zeiten sind wie sie sind. The times are as they are.

Herzliche Grüße Cordial greetings

Seyran Ates Seyran Ates

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, I should have commented on that. She writes beautiful German, but her English is clearly accented and the points you note are just limitations on her English. Thanks.

A.S. said...

The sentiment that Ates voices is very widespread among educators and politicians in Germany -- there is even a term for it: Doppelte Halbsprachigkeit (‘dual semilingualism’). As far as I can tell, none of the linguists who have looked at this issue have ever found any evidence of such a semilingualism among young people with a Turkish background. Instead, they have found plenty of evidence of systematic code switching of the kind you would expect, and of course they have found that there are young people who do not speak German very well (but who of course speak flawless Turkish, even though it might be limited in terms of registers, as it is only spoken at home).

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, that's exactly what we expect in those situations, although not every community has a lot of real code switching. Thanks.

Joe said...

Yeah, I've talked to people who know such communities and there seems to be no evidence for this doppelte Halfsprachigkeit, which is really just the old stereotypes about immigrants in the US too ... I've heard it repeatedly about Chicano communities and others.

TootsNYC said...

"the old stereotypes about immigrants "

Not to mention the old stereotype about "these kids today!"

Mr. Verb said...

Quite true!