Monday, November 09, 2015

Thomas Paul Bonfiglio (2010) "Mother Tongues and Nations - The invention of the native speaker"

Close reading of Bonfiglio (2010). Slightly off-topic, but needed as background in the Standards v. ELF debate, (IF that's where I'm going). Found reference when reading Flores (2014). According to Google Scholar, Bonfiglio is cited by 40. A quick look revealed Schmitz (2012), a paper about ELF, as one citation. 

"The written language is a formidable and foreign construct to the (native) speaker," (p8).

I looked up "ebonics" (Urban Dictionary, 2015), and found the "top definition", (approved by 10301, disapproved by 5414), begins with the sentence "A poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english." [sic]. 

Refers to Milroy (1999): "Standard" languages, e.g. Standard American can best be defined negatively, e.g. excluding "Valley girls, Hillbillies, Southerners..."

Bonfiglio examines etymology of "standard" and concludes that it contains the sense of "to stand", i.e. a fixed entity, (which of course no "living" language, like English, can be). One might query how much of a sense of "standing still" someone has when they use "standard" collocated with a language. 

Basque and Catalan nationalism, in their original forms, were essentially racist, (pp28-32). 

There is no evidence of ethnolinguistic nationalism in classical times, (pp41-62). And Kirkland is quoted noting that "completely articulate patriotism must be sought in vain before the 15th Century." (p71).  Dante in 1304 is the first to use the "mother tongue" metaphor, (pp72-74).  The concept of "mother tongue", and conflation of L1 learning with lactation, continue during the renaissance and beyond. 

[I'm omitting Chapters 5&6 from this review, which continue the historical sketch. Interesting, but not pertinent to my research.]

Discussion of the motherese v generativist debate p188 et seq, references Pinker's generativist position, (of course, Pinker follows Chomsky on this). Pool (2005) represents motherese as "the catalyst for human linguistic evolution". This is a rearticulation of Dante's views from 1304. "While the capacity for human language was, in all likelihood, the product of biological changes, it was the business of environmental factors to determine which permutations were best for humans."

Distinction between infant-directed speech and motherese is made on p192 - in the evolutionary past, when language appeared/developed, the infant would have had contact with not just its mother - other women, men and children would have been directing speech at it. 

Following Fernald (1992) it is suggested that attributing language inculcation into motherese is a logical fallacy "motivated by a bias to read maternal empowerment into the process." Motherese as an alleged begetter of language seeks to embed the notion of mother tongues. But, there are no forms of ESL pedagogy which direct us to use motherese in the classroom, (p198) (!). Further, motherese is often represented as an "act of parental devotion" which will give a child educational advantages in later life, (p201). 

Bonfiglio's Google search (p202) in 2010 comparing "motherese" with "mamanaise" (the equivalent in French, yielded 152,000 and 831 results respectively. A search today (9th November 2015) yielded 92,200 and 2880. Perhaps francophone interest has increased, whilst anglophone has declined. 

Hope (2000) has made the point, (in looking at the origin of Standard English) that it is inappropriate to liken evolutionary biology to linguistic evolution. You cannot cross a bird with a rat and get a bat. But creolisation shows how distinct languages can be crossed. Arboreal concepts of language development take no account of horizontal language acquisition. 

Bonfiglio concludes that the idea of native language and native speakers constitutes an "othering". 

I was reminded of talking with a class of young Saudi English Language Learners. I asked them, "Who speaks the best Arabic?" They replied laughing ambiguously "Saudis, of course, teacher!"

NB - Watching the YouTube video of Bonfiglio's lecture on this, (38 mins, so necessarily a truncation of the book), he emphasises a point which I had not picked up properly in the reading: the European languages found themselves in a linguistic orphanage, - unlike the classical languages which had a clear history and tradition. It was necessary therefore to invent a lineage, namely their maternal/natural status. "In our bodies and in our land."  The biologizing of language. "A very dangerous movement." In this format, Bonfiglio omits his reference to Hope (2000), despite spending some time demolishing concepts of the human language tree. For me, that was the take-away from this work: that languages are unlike genetics in their ability to transfer horizontally. 


Bonfiglio, T. (2010). Mother tongues and nations. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Fernald, A. (1992) Human maternal vocalizations to infants as biologically relevant signal: an evolutionary perspective. In The Adaptive Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Jerome H Barkow et al (ends). New York and Oxford. Oxford University Press. 

Flores, N., & Schissel, J. L. (2014). Dynamic Bilingualism as the Norm: Envisioning a Heteroglossic Approach to Standards‐Based Reform. TESOL Quarterly48(3), 454-479.

Hope, J. (2000). Rats, bats, sparrows and dogs: biology, linguistics, and the nature of Standard English. The Development of Standard English1300(1800), 49-56.

Kirkland, D. (1972). France. In C.Tipton, (Ed.) Nationalism in the Middle Ages (1972) Harcourt College Pub.

Milroy, L. (1999). Standard English and language ideology in Britain and the United States. Standard English: the widening debate, 173-206.

Pool, Robert. (2005) Motherese: Over the eons, moms’ babbling to babies begat language.Research In Review At Florida State University. [accessed 9th November 2015]

Schmitz, J. R. (2012). " To ELF or not to ELF?"(English as a Lingua Franca): that's the question for Applied Linguistics in a globalized world. Revista brasileira de lingu√≠stica aplicada12(2), 249-284.

Urban Dictionary, (2015). ebonics. Retrieved 6 November 2015, from