My friend told me recently that he had a discussion with his roommate and his roommate’s girlfriend about the different ways in which languages are learned. The roommate learned to speak Spanish at home, while his girlfriend learned to speak Spanish in school. The girlfriend apparently speaks the language more “correctly” and can thoroughly understand the grammar of the language, whereas the roommate has been able to communicate in the way that he learned at home without necessarily being able to describe those same grammar rules.
As someone who studies Italian, the question of the correct way to speak a language is an interesting one for me. It is an especially interesting topic for the Italian language because Italy only became a unified nation in 1861, and its many regions all speak different dialects. When Italian children go to school, they are taught how to speak the “proper” and “standard” Italian. It seems almost strange to tell people that their mother tongue is somehow incorrect when they are able to aptly communicate with people from their homes. Much of the development of the modern Italian language occurred over a time in which certain people, such as Francesco Petrarca, wanted a unified Italy. Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio are considered among the greatest Italian writers, even though they lived during a time in which there wasn’t even a nation called “Italy”. Eventually the standard for poetry was provided by Petrarca and prose by Boccaccio, but each wrote in their own dialects. Therefore, the development of modern Italian is highly influenced by their own Tuscan roots.
This brings me to my own personal story. My mother, an Italian-born woman, once spoke with a coworker in Italian because he had found out that my mother was Italian. He used the Italian that he had learned through his education while she used the language with which she was raised. The coworker commented that the language she spoke was not truly Italian.
So what does it mean to speak a language correctly? If I make grammar mistakes in my Italian courses, I’m marked down. The same is true with regard to English grammar in many other classes. Who gets to choose what the standard is for a language? What are the possible ramifications of saying that another person’s mother tongue isn’t “proper”? Does a type of class system form in which the wealthier and more educated can exert their influence and create standards by which they can distinguish themselves from the rest? As someone who loves majoring in a language, I am not suggesting that we should dismantle grammar rules. There is a sense of unity and community that comes from speaking a common language in the same way, which undoubtedly helped in providing a sense of solidarity among the different Italian peoples. What I am suggesting is that people should be conscious of the ways in which they address how other people choose to express themselves, especially in colloquial settings. The ways that we speak are formed by the people with whom we interact and where we develop those language skills, and so there will always be people who will be able to understand these “incorrect” or “improper” methods of communication as perfectly normal.
Pride is the enemy of learning a language. Students of languages, by virtue of not being native to the language, should work to speak the way most native people speak for practical reasons. However, it seems silly to assert that native speakers somehow don’t speak their own language properly, and even sillier when that opinion comes from someone who is a student of the language. Assuming that what one learns in a classroom is the only way that native speakers should communicate creates a narrow view of what it means speak a language. As in many other areas of education, students of languages should especially recognize that they are lifelong learners, being open to new and different ways by which people communicate.