Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Language Communities, or, The Foreigners' Dorm in Kamisoshigaya

When I was writing a bio for my appearances at BayCon and Westercon, I decided to get silly and couch all my language experiences as though they'd taken place on other planets instead of just other countries. What the hey - it made me giggle, right?

But in fact, this is how the analogy translates. It's where I get my culture clash and miscommunication ideas. It's not where I get my language structure ideas, typically, but in the linguistics stories I write I always need language structure *and* cultural ideas.

So I thought I'd tell you a little about the Monbusho foreigner's dorm in Kamisoshigaya, which is essentially where I had my first "spaceport" experience. The dorm was located in a nice neighborhood, a fifteen-minute walk from one train station and a twenty-minute walk from the other. (Commuting to university sure got you in shape.) The building had four wings, and five floors; all the rooms were singles. D wing and the fifth floor were occupied by girls, while the first four floors of A-C were for boys. This gender division did make for some interesting dynamics in itself, but the real complexity was in language communities.

Three hundred and sixty students lived there, from about 60 different countries. It was amazing. The student population naturally formed itself into groups and specialized. It was well known, for example, that if you wanted to throw a really good party, the Americans had to be in charge of the scheduling and food, the Australians had to be in charge of drinks, and the Brazilians had to be in charge of music.

The language groups were stronger than the functional groups, though, and they came in layers. The entire dorm population could be divided into two main communities:

1. People who spoke English better than they spoke Japanese
2. People who spoke Japanese better than they spoke English

This division was made possible by English's status as an international tongue, and the fact that everyone at the dorm was studying Japanese. If it came right down to it, everyone there could use Japanese to communicate on some level, but the Japanese-dominant and English-dominant groups were the strongest. Usually if you were in the English-dominant group, you wouldn't know the students from the other group very well, and vice versa.

Chinese, Thai, Korean, and other Asian students usually fell into the Japanese group. So did a number of Brazilians and Peruvians of Japanese descent, and some eastern Europeans (like Bulgarians).

Filipinos, however, fell into the English group, as did western Europeans and a goodly number of South Americans (and naturally the Aussies, South Africans and New Zealanders).

Within each of these two groups, then, were linguistic sub-groups. Native English speakers had their own group, which given the status of English as a popular lingua franca, was pretty open to anyone who wanted to speak English. The French and Italians tended to clump together for some reason (romance languages that aren't Spanish, perhaps?). Spanish speakers from all over the world had their own social group and they spent a great deal of time together, including having amazing parties that would last until 4 or 5 in the morning. The Chinese-speaking students had their own social group within the Japanese-dominant group.

So how does this apply to our visions of a spaceport, then?

If a lingua franca is available (or more than one) then this kind of fluid group-membership can probably be expected. If there is no obvious lingua franca to use, then pidgins might result (basically, mixtures of words from more than one language with a very rudimentary grammar - but more on those another time).

There's nothing quite so reassuring as hanging out with people and knowing that when you open your mouth, they will actually understand what you need. Of course there are cultural commonalities that can apply when people are accustomed to using the same language.

One little caveat: just because you and another person share a native language doesn't mean you can assume that cultural expectations associated with its use will also be the same. My Australian husband and I learned that early on when we started dating!

But that's a whole different story.