Judging language in court

In the news these past weeks, the trial following the tragic and race-motivated killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year. His friend Rachel Jeantel has been talking before the judge, talking in African American English that is, a fact which has won her much mockery and a rather rude questioning from the defence lawyer regarding her ability to understand English (even though she was born and raised in Miami), to which she replied: “I don’t understand you, I do understand English”. 

While some criticised her ‘poor grammar’ and others tried to justify her language by the influence of her mother’s native Haitian creole, Jeantel merely represents a huge section of the American population who grow up speaking a non-standard dialect of English in their homes and communities, only to be told when entering public institutions that the language they speak is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘ungrammatical’. 

It is neither, it is simply not the same as Standard American. If she says to the defence lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you”, she is simply using the preterite “had” in a perfectly acceptable way which would be familiar to millions of other African-Americans across the country. They would also be able to tell you that “I don’t be listening that much” is the correct form, and that “I ain’t be listening that much” doesn’t work.

As I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, there are multitudes of linguistic variation across the USA, only this one holds particular stigma. Linguists like John McWorther who wrote on this subject for Time openly caution against this type of linguistic prescription – not only prescribing rules that govern language which do not reflect the way that people really use it, but by doing so reinforcing an elite class and stigmatising an entire population because of the way they speak.

The linguistic prescription which results in the categorical repudiation of African American English has social ramifications akin to  racial profiling. From school to the job interview to the witness box in a court-room, every institutional environment operates with an assumption about your intelligence and trustworthiness based on the way you speak English. The current situation in the USA is hardly the first or the last of such cases through history, but is perhaps all the more surprising for occurring in what is supposed to be a wealthy western democracy proud of its grounding in the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. As it turns out, the dialect you speak, perhaps as much as the colour of your skin, is a discriminating factor in social integration. If we hope to realise Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” then surely Rachel Jeantel’s testimony should be judged not by the form of her grammar but by the content of her words.

Why bilingual is better

I recently read an article talking about how bilingualism tends to push back the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I looked into it a bit more and it turns out to be quite old news. For the last decade, different research has been showing that those who speak more than one language on a daily basis have increased cognitive function in old age. Specific experiments have looked into the effects of bilingualism on executive control tasks in older people, and the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Multilingual speakers fare better in every case, not to mention that they have also been shown to be better at multitasking at any age.

It’s interesting to see how different news sources report this type of research. You can see for yourself the contrast between the sober article in The Guardian from 2011, going through the experimental results and quoting the researcher, and the overblown claims of NPR from a few months ago, stating inaccurate things like “speaking more than one language could prevent Alzheimer’s” or “save you from Alzheimer’s disease”. It can’t, if it’s in your genes it’s in your genes, but the added brain function of bilinguals can better fight the damage and delay the symptoms. The New York Times opted for this engaging interview with the research professor in Toronto responsible for the latest positive findings.

Of course, all this only works if in old age you are actively speaking more than one language on a more or less daily basis, not if you learned French in school and use it when you go on holiday to Nice once a year. The best thing then is to learn two languages from the start. It was once commonly thought that bilingual babies would somehow get more confused, and the idea of teaching them two languages was frowned upon. Now we realise that monolingualism is the unusual state of affairs in terms of our history. In his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond talks about how most tribes-people learn to speak at least 3-4 languages through necessary interaction with neighbouring people, be it play, trade or marriage.

Coincidentally, Diamond also reviewed some of the academic articles mentioned above for Science and then spoke to the BBC about it all a few years ago. So what advantages do bilingual babies, kids and grown-up kids have? Here are some of the reasons why bilingual is better:

  • more flexibility when dealing with changes of rules  
  • better at focusing in confusing situations 
  • better at processing sounds in noisy environments and tuning in to important information
  • augmented attention, inhibition and encoding of sound
  • better at prioritising tasks and multitasking
  • better at editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important detail
  • better at complex spatial reasoning tasks
  • better at learning phonological patterns in a new language
  • and last but not least, according to the Canadians, bilinguals bring in more income