What exactly constitutes one's native language?

In another thread, the conversation got sidetracked into a discussion about Sign Language’s status as a native language and its status as a real language.

What say the Teeming Millions[sup]tm[/sup] as to the criteria for something to be:
[list=a][li]A language,[/li]A native language[/list=a]

I think the term “a language” should, for the purposes of this debate, be confined to “shared” languages.

For a system to merit the term “a language”, it should be an effective tool for conveying concepts from one self-aware mind to another. I suppose this eliminates machine languages from consideration, but I’m comfortable with that limitation on this discussion. At least, right now I am, but that’s largely because I don’t have a clear understanding of what a machine language is. :wink:

When we decide what makes a native language, I think the issue of literacy deserves consideration. Speech (or it’s deaf-world analogue, ASL) is a form of face-to-face (or at least real-time, if you want to bring telephone calls into it) language use. Written forms of communication tend to be a different type of language use. These might usefully be classified as volatile and non-volatile* language forms (these are terms I just invented, and I do not pretend that they are commonly accepted in scholarly linguistics circles). It’s my understanding that oral communication is carried out by different parts of the brain than is the encoding and decoding of writing, and while the process of acquiring skills in the latter may be significantly informed by the development of the former, the argument can be made that the spoken form of a language is in fact a different language than its written form. Thus, if a native language is to be described as the first language an individual learns for each language form (that is volatile and non-volatile), I would describe myself as being a native speaker of English and a native reader/writer of English. On the other hand kaylasmom would be a native speaker of English, and a native reader/writer of English-language Braille.

I believe this was the rationale behind of Olentzero’s assertion that deaf children who learn ASL from infancy can be considered to be native users of English as well.

*For anyone confused by my use of the terms volatile and non-volatile, I have corrupted their meaning from a bit of technical jargon involving the different types of memory that can store digital data. Roughly, volatile memory is the kind that erases the data as soon as you turn off the power on your device, so you have a clear register the next time you power up. Non-volatile memory stores the data through power supply cyclings, so it can still be retrieved after the device is turned back on. In a similar vein, speech (or signing) is more ephemeral than the transmission of graphical images.

There is no linguistic debate about ASL’s status as a real language. It is a real language just like English or French. It has a grammar, a lexicon, morphology, and whatever the physical equivalent of phonology is called. It can express abstract concepts (including referring to itself), generate previously-unheard utterances, and for native speakers of ASL the cognitive development track parallels spoken languages very closely.

A native language is any language you learn before you hit puberty and language acquisition begins to require conscious effort. You can have more than one native language, and in many parts of the world it’s not uncommon for a person to have half a dozen or so native languages. In a general linguistic sense, a sign language is pretty much like a spoken language on the back end, so being a native speaker of a sign language and a spoken language is unremarkable. Any kid who is exposed to both kinds of language and has the physical ability to do so will acquire them. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting phenomenon for study, but it isn’t at odds with mainstream linguistic theory.

Literacy has nothing to do with native language acquisition. Many people in the world are native speakers of languages that do not have writing systems.



As an aspiring student of Linguistics myself, I agree with you. In fact, I believe I’ve made some of those points in the afore-mentioned thread.

What I’m curious about is why people such as Truth Seeker feel the need to say, “Sign Language seems like a language.” What is it, then, that will qualify a means of communication as a language for folks who feel that way?

Well, I’ll have to go look at the thread and see what reasons Truth Seeker gives for that claim.

For defining native language, I would say, the language you “think” in. I had a math teacher, who was from Germany. She moved here when she was a teenager. When she first moved here, she said that although, she spoke English fluently, she still thought first in german. After decades here, she realized that she was thinking in english, and not german. As such, to her, english became her native tongue.

Seeing as I can’t speak but one language fluently, I asked others I knew that spkoe two languages fluently. After i asked, they said that they didn’t really think about it, but they guessed that they did “think” in one language.

Just a thought to aid in the definition.

One’s “native language” is the one commonly used in the home in which one was raised. (I originally had “commonly spoken” and changed it for the obvious reason, given the OP’s reference to Ameslan.)

This definition takes into account early bilingualism and children raised by bilingual parents. It doesn’t matter if they’re the last three speakers of Yukatecan in the world and deal with everyone else in Spanish and/or English; what do they use to each other in their home?

Re. the Olentzero post, I’m in total disagreement. Sign language is a language in its own right.

Reasoning (this is anecdotal, I’m afraid) - the sign language used in Hong Kong amongst hearing-impaired children from exclusively Cantonese-speaking households is very similar to that used in the UK. A sign-language-using child from the UK whose upbringing was with entirely English-speaking people can communicate with a child from a Cantonese-speaking upbringing. Therefore that form of sign language exists independently of the language being spoken around its users.

Furthermore, I can finger-spell, and I have also observed that finger-spelling in Ireland follows the ASL(?) one-handed model, whereas in the UK it is two-handed. Both the UK and the majority of Ireland speak English, yet these two parts of the languages are mutually incomprehensible.

May I amend your definition, Poly to add, “and also is the one in which the individual concerned converses with others in his home.”

If I gave the impression of arguing that Sign is not a language in its own right, I… well, apologize doesn’t seem the right word for this situation, but I guess it’ll have to do. I certainly don’t believe Sign isn’t a language and I wasn’t trying to argue that perspective.

Monty absolutely. I’d thought it implied, but “Things which ‘go without saying’ go even better when said.”

Olentzero and others: It’s my understanding that Sign Language (as opposed to fingerspelling) has its own syntax, which differs from English, being somewhat positional and analytic in form, its own system of conveying nuance – if I sweep my hand abruptly in a given gesture or move it gently and gracefully in the same gesture, I’m “saying” a “word” with a “different tone of voice.” Is this valid?

I can only speak from one example, on the cover of Sacks’ Seeing Voices which I mentioned earlier. There are three ways of using the word “why” depending on the mood - harshly demanding (“Why the hell did you do that?!”), rhetorical (“Why bother?”), and the third usage which escapes me at the moment, but is probably an informational request.

The differences are, as you noted, both in the abruptness and sweep of the gesture (the harsh “why” brings the hand down much lower than the rhetorical “why”) and in the expression of the speaker’s face.

It is I who should apologise: the “kind of” comment was from Truth Seeker. Sorry.

Thank you, Olentzero.

Now onto the issue of a writing system being one’s language: I completely disagree with that.

Writing systems are exactly that: systems of writing; systems of recording something. In this discussion, they are systems of recording a language.

Further, let’s look to Polycarp’s and hazel-rah’s definitions above regarding when a native language is formed as to the individual. A child learns to communicate well before learning to write. Of course, the child may have long been “taking pen to paper” prior to learning that particular symbols represent particular sounds or motions, but that doesn’t mean that the child is writing. Usually, this is the time that said child is merely copying other members of the household. Could even be just drawing, after all. Think of a child running up to a parent for the first time with a drawing and saying, “Look what I just drew!” And then the parent must guess and, if lucky, guess correctly!

No, writing itself isn’t a language, but rather a means of recording, conveying, and preserving works in a language. Writing, no more than the sounds or gestures, is not language.

*Originally posted by Monty *
**In another thread, the conversation got sidetracked into a discussion about Sign Language’s status as a native language and its status as a real language.

What say the Teeming Millions[sup]tm[/sup] as to the criteria for something to be:
[list=a][li]A language,[/li][li]A native language[/list=a] **[/li][/QUOTE]

Monty, I think that you should reread that thread carefully, and actually read the words of the participants, rather than looking for implied sinister intentions. No one was ever arguing that ASL was not a language in its own right, or that ASL couldn’t be a native language. There was some discussion of whether English might also (ie, in addition to, and not to the exclusion of ASL) be a native language for deaf children. You successfully argued (to me, at least), that English probably wouldn’t become a native language to a deaf child, but whether ASL could be a native language for such a child was never at issue.


Again, you are reading too much into what someone else wrote. “X seems to be Y” does not mean the same thing as “X seems to be Y, but really isn’t”. For example, if I’m driving down the highway, and I see someone pulled over to the side of road with their hood popped, I might say “they seem to be having car trouble.” Does that mean I think that they only appear to be having car trouble, but they aren’t really? No. Sometimes appearances aren’t deceiving. Accordingly, the phase “X seems to be Y” often means only “the evidence available indicates that X is Y”. If you had any doubt that this is what TruthSeeker meant, you need only have read where s/he wrote

A made up language is a praticular kind of language, so if Truth Seeker assumes that ASL is a made up language, then s/he is assuming that it is a language.

I disagree, Tyrrell McCallister. Try replacing “seems to be a language” with “seems to be human.”

And I think you should re-read the thread. I was not arguing that English probably could not be a native language for a Deaf child. I argued that it IS NOT and CANNOT be the child’s native language.

Indeed, “X seems to be Y” can have differenct shades of meaning in different contexts. I gave what I feel was Truth Seeker’s intended meaning in this context when I unpacked it as “the evidence available indicates that X is Y”, and I supported this interpretation of what TS meant with a quotation.

Is it merely the “probably” that’s bothering you? I only included that to take into account highly improbable (but not, so far as I know, technically impossible) cases like a deaf child prodigy who learns to read at age one, or a deaf child who retains the language acquisition skills normally present only in very young children until she is old enough to read, or a deaf child who somehow learns English by just lip-reading. Again, I have no evidence that any of these cases could ever happen, but I don’t know with absolute certainty that they are 100% impossible. So I say that probably they can’t happen. But I don’t consider myself to be in a position to place absolute limits on the learning abilities of all deaf children under all circumstances that could ever possibly occur.

Forgot to add:

However, if you were arguing that such absolute limits exist, then I apologize for misinterpreting you, and stand corrected.

Well, I certainly seem to be outvoted about written forms of communication being able to be classified as languages, so as an underinformed participant, I think I will stand by admiringly and take in all of this wonderful new (to me) knowledge that you are all sharing.

But I’m still a bit unclear on one point. If merely being an effective tool for the transmission of meaning from one self-aware mind to another is not sufficient to classify something as a language, then what else is required. In short, what was the answer to the first question: "What are the criteria for something to be a language?"

What of “talking drums” and smoke signals?*

*[sub]Unless those are just Urban Legends – check that – Rainforest and Desert Legends, respectively. ;)[/sub]

This is just getting bizarre. For the record, the actual quote that seems to have set Monty off was,

I think this is pretty clear. I’ll leave taking offense at it as an exercise for Derrida. However, since we seem desperate for reasons to get all worked up over nothing, I offer the following from the previous thread.

[irony=on, size=4]

So, you’re saying the deaf aren’t human is that it? That’s the most despicable thing I’ve ever heard! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! etc., etc.


BTW Tyrell FTR, that last quote wasn’t mine.