Linguistic theory in Dubai

Is this Arabic or English? Or is that asking the wrong question? (Transliteration: sbaisi tinisi tshikn and shrmb*)

Is this Arabic or English? Or is that asking the wrong question? (Transliteration: sbaisi tinisi tshikn and shrmb*)

I’ve often wondered what linguistic theory would look like if its foundations did not lie in 19th century Europe and 20th century America but in 21st century Dubai. Would we still think predominantly in terms of discrete languages or would we take a more holistic view of communication? Would we treat linguistic diversity as the default and consider monolingualism as an exception worthy of special (but somewhat marginal) attention? Would mainstream journals deal with diversity in communication as the norm and would we then have some smaller special interest journals such as a Journal of Monolingualism and maybe another one devoted to International Studies in Monolingual Education?

A coach at the Dubai Ice Rink yells at a group of kids: “Boro, boro! Let’s go, boys! Yallah!” Does it make sense to think about this utterance in terms of code-switching? In the most mainstream current analysis of this exclamation, the coach would be seen as mixing Persian, English and Arabic and we would then have to ask why he is mixing. As the audience remains constant and he is basically saying the same thing (‘let’s go’) three times, we would most likely start to muse about the identities he is claiming by switching: Is he trying to affiliate with the Persian, English and Arabic “speech communities” (another of those theoretical concepts that no longer make much sense)?

I overheard this interaction as a bystander and so cannot claim any further insights as to what the coach was trying to do other than the obvious: he was trying to get a group of exhausted 8-12-year-olds to keep together in a crowd and to keep them moving. From the labels on the kids’ uniforms, I know that they are from a school attended only by Emirati students (rather than non-nationals who make up more than 80% of the UAE’s population). In terms of their ethnic looks, the kids look all different – as befits the inhabitants of a place that has been a kind of way-station at the cross-roads of Africa, Asia and Europe since time immemorial. I cannot guess where the coach is from. As I just said, going by looks is even more pointless in Dubai than in most other parts of the world. He could have been Emirati but the statistics about teachers in national schools suggest that he is more likely to hail from elsewhere.

Khaleeji (Gulf Arabic) has always been a “mixed” language and variationists break it up further into Coastal and Saudi; the former can be subdivided into Emirati, Kuwaiti, Omani etc.; Emirati can be subdivided into Bahrani, Bedouin, Coastal, Shihhi, etc.; not to mention Ajami, another traditional language of the Gulf, which is mostly classified as an “Arabicized Persian dialect” or some such. You get the idea: it’s complicated …

If Khaleeji as the ancestral way of communicating in Dubai challenges linguistic theory, contemporary linguistic and communicative practices render it completely useless. Artists and designers have been among the first to have embraced obvious heterogeneity as foundational rather than condemning it as deviant. Salem Al-Qassimi, a designer specializing in bilingual urban design, for instance, refers to Dubai’s seemingly chaotic linguistic practices as “Arabish.” Arabish originally referred to Arabic texting in the Latin script but “is now more than just that. It is a way of speaking and a way of life,” he explains.

So, what does all this complexity mean for linguistic theory? We need to step back and let go of linear lenses such as the monolingual and variationist ones. In fact, you do not need to spend time in Dubai to do that; we could also turn to the natural sciences. The physicist (and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry) Ilya Prigogine wrote in his 1997 book The End of Certainty that linearity is no longer a viable form of scientific thinking. He explains that linear science only works well where it deals with phenomena that are close to equilibrium.

The social contexts where many mainstream linguistic theories developed could be described as spaces of equilibrium and – combined with the desire to imitate classical science – it is not surprising that order and stability became the bedrock of linguistic thinking.

However, the natural sciences have moved on, noting “fluctuations, instability, multiple choices, and limited predictability at all levels of observation” (Prigogine 1997, p. 4). Chaos theory recognizes that, as complexity increases in a system, precision and relevance become mutually exclusive.

Trying to describe even a mundane little utterance such as “Boro, boro! Let’s go, boys! Yallah!” precisely with current linguistic tools (“Arabic,” “code-switching,” “code-mixing,” “English,” “multilingualism,” “Persian,” “speech community”) renders the analysis either meaningless or irrelevant.

Whether we take our inspiration for a new linguistic theory from the chaotic world around us or the natural sciences may be a matter of preference but change our lenses we must. Bob Hodge has a useful preliminary introduction to chaos theory for TESOL practitioners here.

*Standard English: “Spicy Tennessee Chicken and Shrimp”

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • vahid

    A very useful post for all of us, indeed! I read each and every single line with great interest. Many thanks for sharing!

  • Great post. I also really want to know what the teacher intends to do with an utterance like that. As you allude to at the end, second language acquisition and TESOL researchers have been interested in chaos/complexity for several years now, but what you’re suggesting actually seems to go beyond their conception of it. Indeed, Teaching ENGLISH to speakers of OTHER LANGUAGES and SECOND LANGUAGE acquisition both seem to suggest bounded linguistic systems, and I don’t think researchers in those areas are interested in pushing the envelope beyond that. What do you think language education that rejects the ideology of bounded languages would look like?

  • Thom

    I still don’t see how you claim that “speech community” could be irrelevant. If this coach were in a different time, different place, different people influencing his social interactions, he would use different words. Maybe by incorporating non-linear concepts into how “speech community” is interpreted, a clearer understanding could be achieved. What would a non-linear understanding of language achieve? This is a curious question. Thank you for bringing up this point for discussion.

  • Li Jia

    I think Chaos Theory is also applicable for TCSOL (Teaching Chinese to the Speakers of Other Languages).
    I’m a Chinese, honestly if you ask me how to learn Chinese, I really don’t know how to answer this question and I’m quite sure large groups of Chinese people have no idea about Chinese grammar, but there is a group of Chinese teachers who will have to “know” how to teach Chinese to non-Chinese speakers as they have been sent to various Confucious institutes and Confucious classrooms all around the world (104 countries have established such insitutes and classrooms till the year of 2011). One of my colleagues used to be a director of Confusious classroom in Mandalay, Burma. She once shared some of her teaching experience with me, saying that she and other Chinese teachers took for granted that “grammar” should be the first essential task to teach Burmese students as all of the textbooks imported from China are all grammar-centered, but later she found that teaching grammar didn’t work out the way she expected, so she had to figure out some other flexible or “situated” way to tackle with the the formalized knowledge in textbooks. Later it turned out she’s right not strictly focusing on the formal grammar teaching but choosing the way the locals fit. In this way, I think she has already adopted Chaos Theory unintentionally by adjusting her previously assumed teaching knowledge into a more pragmatic or situated context.
    On a second thought of her “taken-for-granted” knowledge of teaching grammar first and plus the ideology of compling textbooks for non-Chinese speakers, I couldn’t help asking myself where this grammar-first-ideology comes from as it is not the way Chinese people learn Chinese. How can we assume that its’s appropriate for non-Chinese speakers to start with grammar learning? Later, I realize how much Chinese people have been “influenced” by English and its teaching ideology in China where every student starts with their formal English learning mode with grammar. Accordingly, such grammar-first ideology in English for Chinese people somehow directly transfers to teaching Chinese to non-Chinese speakers aroad.
    Now I couldn’t help recalling how much we used to suffer in learning grammar and only few of us stand out the decade of “edurance test” and finally become a fluent English speaker. Shouldn’t we reconsider our language teaching theory? Or shouldn’t we embrace the complexity of language learning and teaching as individualized or situated case?

    • Saluton Li Jia

      As always been that I was disappointed with the Chinese government for not wanting to introduce Esperanto in the country. With the large resources and poeple of Esperanto, all learners of languages should learn Esperanto first before embarking onto the next foreign language. The teachers would be able to communicate with the learners in getting to know the parts of speech in the native language. I improved my Chinese language very much now post my Esperanto language.

      I certainly see very result achieved in the Kong Zi Xue Yuan overseas but merely the great data to the government of Chinese and of course the CRI programme which I listen to daily, zong gua huan qiu.

      Many people still doubt the effect of Esperanto, why not take a 50 hours trial and you can see more about it. Torturing the learners as well as tormenting the teachers as ignorance dwells in the modern society. The urge of UNESCO of learning Esperanto is still not being largely recognised by the elites especially the language teachers.

      • Li Jia

        Saluton Sinjoro,

        A few minutes ago I was sort of mediated in a series of questions related with the normalization of native-English variety. Who are consistently calling for the mode of “world Englishes”, who are overtly acting as “deaf-speechless” but covertly enjoying the “profit” of neoliberalism, and who are pragmatically doing social welfare for the contribution of equal linguistic landscape? I think, as a sociolinguist, one is not supposed to be only concerned about the language performance, that is, the scientific basis of language study. More importantly a sociolinguist should relate more to social theories in understanding the distribution of language resources. Back to your disappointment on Chinese government not adopting Esperanto as the first or additional foreign language, governmental choice or individual choice actually is not about which language is earlier to learn or which language is linguistically advanced (if we can judge a language like that), it is more about the political economy of language. I definitely admit that Esperanto is simple and easy to follow as I used to touch upon some basic knowledge about it while teaching students a linguistic course. It is true that we don’t have to waste our time learning something that could be never well-acquired or commanded, but right now, it seems more urgent to reveal the “lies” that linger on billions of Chinese people’s minds “if only I could speak good English”. ..

  • Very thought-provoking. But such a different world from that which so many of us occupy in everyday life where code-switching across languages is totally, and completely non-existent. I’m talking about life for those from dominant fundamental language groups in places where (enforced) monolingualism continues to be very much the norm, and where, for example, a white, upper middle class American doesn’t even typically have the linguistic tools to be able to engage in inter-linguistic code switching (intra-linguistic code switching is a different story).

    I so wish things were different for those of us stuck on these monolingual islands. But they aren’t — and these islands are in fact pretty large and recalcitrant to any type of significant modification/alteration in many, many places in the world in particular, North America and Europe. Sure, there are millions of regular linguistic code-switchers in those places, but they almost never hail from the dominant fundamental (language) group.

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  • Rąwąn Alħąlwąni

    Hello Professor Piller,

    It is interesting how multicultural cities today have become so familiar with these linguistic theories such as code-switching, speech communities, and multilingualism. I have been to Toronto, Dubai, and now in Sydney and you can actually see more and more of such a scene described above by Professor Piller. The scene of a foreign mother code-switching with her children, for example, or two speakers from the same country code-switching their chat too is familiar these days. Whenever I find myself in the train or the subway stations I actually get across such an interaction where you notice English and suddenly another language. It seems to me that the speakers’ minds actually doing it unconsciously in non linear way.

    Sometimes when I think about code-switching when I talk to my Arabic friends, I only come up with two conclusions. Either using Arabic or English words are easier to explain the thought I want, or you have to follow the lead of your group; that is if they speak in English or Arabic all the time, you go on with the same language. So I can say that there is a monolingualism force that can lead to linear speech with same language speakers that to some extent it does not allow code-switching.

    Best regards,
    Rawan Alhalwani from APPL941.