Debating language standardization

By February 6, 2018Literacies

Late last year I attended the conference “Language Standardization and Linguistic Variation in Asia from Sociolinguistic Perspectives 社会语言学视角下的亚洲语言变异与标准化国际学术研讨会” at the University of Nottingham-Ningbo, China (UNNC). It was hosted by UNNC’s Prof Anwei Feng, known to many for his work on trilingual minority education and University of Nottingham UK’s Prof Nicola McLelland. Prof Feng is a member of China’s network of bi/trilingual education scholars, and he explained that the name of conference scared off many network members because standardization is a bit of a hot potato in the field. It turned out, however, that there is enormous benefit to talking about standardization rather than treating it as taboo. Rather than simply advocating standardization, the conference offered a rich discussion of problems with standardization-focused language policy, as well as exploring various top-down and bottom-up ways that language norms and ideas of language prestige emerge, not only in China but also in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and even amongst Japanese labourers in plantation-era Hawai’i.

The conference was funded by the Research Office of UNNC and the “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies” (MEITS) project. MEITS is an enviably enormous research project funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Council drawing together researchers from the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham and the Queen’s University, led by Prof Wendy Ayres-Bennett. It seeks to establish the value of multilingualism and language learning, as part of government efforts to stimulate language learning within the British education system. One of the project’s six strands focuses on language standardization, led by Prof McLelland (cf. her earlier co-edited volume Standardization: Studies from the Germanic Languages, 2002). This conference offered MEITS researchers a window into experiences of language standardization across many multilingual contexts in Asia. It also offered researchers from different disciplines a rare chance to come together and talk about overlapping research questions, methods and findings. The conference consisted of four keynotes and nineteen presentations (abstracts here). The scheduling allowed all participants to hear all the presentations, leading to a high degree of engagement and building good foundations for future collaborations.

One key theme was the multiplication of standards of a language, as opposed to standardization resulting in just one monolithic standard. Our first keynote, by Prof Anvita Abbi, described Standard Hindi as “not a point but a range”; there are many regional Hindis which are treated by speakers as the standard. She explained how this fits within a society where multilingualism is both normal and valued. Another keynote, by Chinese language policy expert Prof Minglang Zhou, explained how Standard Mandarin (i.e. Putonghua), like Hindi, has developed into clear regional varieties, and asked how the standardization process, which is aimed at reducing linguistic diversity, can in fact reduplicate it. Prof Feng’s speech also dealt with regional variation in Putonghua; he framed this diversity within 《大华语》(The Big Sinitic Language Group) a concept which accepts the existence of local Putonghua varieties, as well as other Mandarin topolects, within a hierarchical linguistic order topped by the national standard.

Prof Abbi’s keynote introduced a second key theme: the problem of “excessive standardization”, where attempts to disassociate the standard from any particular dialect may lead to an official variety that nobody can understand, and which is therefore rarely used. Through various presenters we heard illustrative examples, including in my own presentation, which showed how standardization marginalizes the Zhuang minority language in China, especially under conditions of marketization. Prof Feng’s presentation put this kind of standardization policy in context, explaining that minority language standardization itself follows a standard (and not necessarily responsive) procedure in China. It is a three-step process of standardising literacy/script, vocabulary, and then digital rendering (i.e. creating a type-able Unicode).

How it is that top-down policies can reach this extreme, where standardization becomes the end in itself, rather than a means to create a useful lingua franca (or other goals), can be explained by recalling how ideological language standardization is, as Prof Imtiaz Hasnain reminded us in another keynote. He presented South Asia as a place where language is just one way by which social information is conveyed, and where both societal and individual multilingualism are not chaotic socio-cultural accidents but intended and desired. He contrasted this to the monolingual and colonial mindset of top-down measures to define and promote one standard language.

Developing a standard language is often intertwined with developing language examination regimes, and the fourth keynote speaker, Dr Luo Lian, gave a insight into these dual processes in China. She compared the two official streams for testing Putonghua, the 民族汉语考试 (Ethnic Groups Han Language Exam: “MHK”) by which the Putonghua of first-language speakers of China’s official minority languages is assessed, and the 汉语水平考试 (Han Language Level Exam: “HSK”), by which the Putonghua of foreign learners is assessed. She found not only that the standard of literacy expected of minorities was much higher than that expected of foreigners, but also that using non-standard albeit popular expressions in these exams could be treated as evidence of language proficiency rather than as mistakes, especially by HSK markers. Kerim Friedman discussed the last decade’s elaborate testing regime for indigenous language proficiency in Taiwan – there are now 168 tests – and the mismatch between “teaching to the test” and teaching useful, living Pangcah, one of the most widely spoken of these languages. We were reminded that standard-setting, and testing against official standards, are key means by which states are able to “see” language diversity (following Scott 1998).

Another key theme across the conference was standardising orthography and script. Prof Abbi explained how many Indian language groups have considered the development of a standard written form of their as language empowering and crucial for schooling, which is in turn crucial for language maintenance. Another senior researcher, Prof Premsrirat, explained her group’s efforts to facilitate communities across Thailand developing their own standard orthographies and scripts, and the enormous pride and expressive facility that can result from such efforts. However, we did not shy away from discussing potentially deleterious impacts of standardization, including orthographic standardization erasing language variety, the politicization of orthography and script choices and how prioritising written standards can exhaust funding at the expense of supporting spoken language. Nor did we shy from discussing the factors that can restrict the enduring impact of standardization policies, such as creating a written standard but not creating avenues for it to be learnt.

In this vein, the theme of standardization as a process that minoritizes languages was explored. For example, Hiroyuki Suzuki and Gerald Roche each talked us through the top-down and grassroots processes of creating a Standard Tibetan. Their research shows these processes are leading to discursive invisibility for many languages in the Tibetic group, as well as many non-Tibetic languages with long histories of being spoken across the Tibetan Plateau, as well as contributing to actual language shift for many of these languages. These and other presentations – including Nick Palfreyman on sign language varieties in Indonesia and Ying Ding on Shibe in North-West China – noted the dynamics amongst speakers themselves, where participation in formal processes of standardization can empower certain speakers, certain varieties and certain imagined communities over others.

Finally, we also considered that various identities may not be readily performed in a standard language, instead utilising features associated with other language varieties and registers. Hui Zhao and Xiaomei Wang explored China’s Beijing and Tianjin dialects, respectively, from identity construction perspectives, Hideko Abe explained the deliberate, context-sensitive use of features associated with Japanese language’s gendered registers in transgender speakers’ identity constructions, and Patrick Heinrich introduced us to “dialect cosplay” by young Japanese who use features mined from previously stigmatized dialects to stylize their “boring” standard speech.

In sum, this was a stimulating conference program and those embarking on any standardization policies have a feast of food for thought! I encourage you to read the conference abstracts, as not all presenters are mentioned by name above, and share your thoughts in the comments section below. Stay tuned in 2018 for details of an edited publication based on this conference.

References:

Linn, A. R. and McLelland, N. (2002) Standardization: Studies from the Germanic Languages. Amsterdam; Philadelphia, PA, Benjamins.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Authoritarian High Modernism. Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (pp. 87-102). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Author Alexandra Grey

Alex has completed her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney and is now waiting for graduation day! Her thesis is in sociolinguistics, analysing China's minority language policies today with a focus on Zhuang language. She also teaches various subjects in policy development and law at Macquarie University law school, and she was previously a legal researcher and advocacy trainer at a Chinese not-for-profit organization in Beijing, continuing there after a stint with AusAID's Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program. Between the NGO and the PhD, Alex studied Mandarin at BLCU and Tsinghua University in Beijing, adjudicated and lectured in debate, and completed her Masters in Applied Linguistics. Alex has written for the Lowy Interpreter, Whydev and The China Beat blogs.

More posts by Alexandra Grey
  • Pia

    Thanks for sharing, Alex. I can only imagine how engaging the academic dialogue was in that conference. I think the beauty of the conversation comes from acknowledging both the benefits and burdens of language standardization. To standardize or not to standardize a language surely makes an engaging debate subject, which is not likely to end in an easy, final word.

  • LauraSK

    A great summary of what sounds like a very engaging conference. You answered my question in your final sentence – looking forward to seeing some publications out of this. Based on your summary, an edited book or special journal issue would be highly valuable to anyone interested in language standardization.

  • LauraSK

    Hideko Abe’s presentation sounds very interesting and reminds me of a recent discussion in an email list I’m part of. I think her work my be of interest to that group.

  • Hanna Torsh

    How do we manage diversity and unity in the context of communication? That seems to be the key question underlying langauge standardisation discussions. In particular, the tricky issue of both retaining and supporting minority languages while ensuring access to dominant codes. I find it really interesting how issues of language standarisatstan you raise highlight that those codes are never natural but always created at some point.