Language Problems, Language Related Social Problems, Metalinguistic Activities

1. Introduction

Just like anywhere else in the world, also in Slovakia, the language users or whole language communities face numerous bigger or smaller language problems. The project called “Language and Communication Problems in Slovakia and Their Management”2, which was launched in August 2018 and is to last until July 2022, aims at uncovering various types of language problems as well as concomitant communication problems which speech communities in Slovakia face, with a special regard to the Slovak community as the majority community, then to the Hungarian and the Roma communities, which are minority communities with a substantial number of speakers, finally the community of the Carpathian Germans as a small community. Within the Slovak community the problems which the researchers are dealing with include the problems of the use of standard Slovak and Slovak dialects as well as language problems related to teaching Slovak in the minority communities. As to the minority communities the researchers are investigating various kinds of language and communication problems in these communities and making propositions concerning the ways of their management. The project also includes theoretical and methodological questions concerning the investigation and management of language problems and their ideological determinants.

The theoretical background for the project as a whole is the Language Management Theory (LMT), more exactly the expansion of the LMT on the basis of the management theories of other types of problems3 and application on the Slovak linguistic and social context. LMT was developed by J.V. Neustupný and B.H. Jernudd in the 1970s and 1980s as a more comprehensive alternative of the Theory of Language Planning.4

The management of language problems in Slovakia has not always been based on scientific principles and approaches so far, it has either been spontaneous or politically manipulated, and some of the problems have not been tackled at all. By the application of scientific principles and approaches the research team wants to achieve that the experience with the general problem solving as well as language problem solving in different communities be used in the management of language problems in Slovakia.5

The project topic is being approached from two perspectives: the first is the theoretical base for the whole research and the other is the application of the theoretical concepts. This paper aims to be a contribution to the theoretical base of the project, by trying to answer the question what kinds of problems LMT or a new theory of language problem management should deal with.

2. The scope of LMT

As can be seen from the above description of the project, the key concept of the project is that of “language problem”. This concept is of utmost importance for any theory which aims at dealing with the management of problems connected in some way to a language or to languages. The traditional definition of “language problem” in LMT – a negatively evaluated deviation from the norms or expectations concerning the verbal, communicational and associated socio-cultural behaviour of the participants in a particular interaction6 (cp. e.g. Nekvapil 2006: 97, 2009: 3, 2012: 160) – may be suitable for the small-scale simple management of inadequacies, but it seems much less satisfactory for the small-scale or large-scale organized management of metaproblems occurring trans-situationally.7 If we want to be able to define the “language problem” in a more comprehensive and at the same time more elaborate way, we must start with more general questions of how to delineate the scope of LMT, i.e. we should answer the question: What kinds of language problems should LMT be concerned with?

2.1. Language problems proper

We may possibly limit “language problems” to those instances when changes in the discourse or in the so-called language system8 are being brought forth predominantly for linguistic and communicative reasons. That means that the foremost goal of language managing activities is to enhance the quality of communication or eliminate miscomprehension in communication.9 Of course, speaking in a different way in order to communicate more efficiently is usually not the ultimate aim of the interaction, only a means to achieve some other, non-linguistic aim, so it may not be simple to separate this group of problems from those below. One would think, for instance, that creating a standard language has purely linguistic and communicative goals, i.e. to be able to communicate within a language community in the most efficient way, yet we know that often there is a hidden or unhidden agenda behind it, e.g. nation building, gaining poli tical independence, elite closure etc. (Cf. Milroy 2001: 534–5)

This group of problems best conforms to the traditional definition of “language problem” in LMT: they usually manifest themselves in deviations from the norms (even if it is not always simple or even possible to identify these norms). Some of these problems can be successfully managed within the simple management, especially the micro level inadequacies. E.g. correcting a slip of the tongue has evidently purely linguistic and communicative reasons: to ensure the grammaticality, stylistic adequacy and comprehensibility of the discourse.

The requirement of the goals being predominantly linguistic does not mean that the means of accomplishing them should also necessarily be “linguistic”. On the cont rary: it is duly emphasized in LMT that successful treatment of language problems – especially those which are handled within large-scale organized management – involves intervention into a number of fields outside linguistics. For instance to incorporate new terminologies into a language will not be successful if it consists only of coining new words and phrases and no attempt is made to disseminate them during the implementation phase of the LM process. (Cf. Hübschmannová–Neustupný 2004) Dissemination inevitably requires managing the outside world, not the language itself; something what Neustupný and other proponents of LMT call communication ma nagement and socioeconomic or sociocultural management. (See e. g. Neustupný–Nekvapil 2003: 186 and passim; Nekvapil 2009: 8–9; Neustupný 2012: 299) The management of many problems involves also the management of concurrent language ideologies.

2.2. Language related social problems (where intervention is needed)

Since the borderline between language problems proper and other kinds of language related problems is blurry, it may seem feasible to extend the concept of “language problems” to include those non-linguistic – social, political, educational, cultural, religious, etc. – problems the management of which requires changes in discourses or ultimately in the so-called language system, even though the real goals are clearly non-linguistic and non-communicative, e.g. lessening discrimination based on unequal allocation of power by “PC talk” or giving a new name to an Australian “rat-like” animal in order to save it from extinction 10.

I would definitely argue for including this type of problems among the issues which should be managed within the LMT framework. One of the arguments is the intent of bringing forth language changes. It seems expedient that all interventionist approaches should be considered part of LMT. Although these problems probably seldom manifest themselves in deviations from the linguistic and communicative norms, they clearly demonstrate the participants’ “behaviour towards language” (see below) and so they are legitimate object of interest of experts in LMT.

Another argument in favour of the inclusion of this type of problems among language problems to be dealt with in the LMT framework is the great social utility of ma naging language related social, political, educational, cultural, religious etc. problems. As we know from critical discourse analysis and other critical approaches, language helps to create and sustain a lot of social injustice. Eliminating or alleviating social injustice is a non-linguistic goal, but it can be fostered by linguistic means, which may require changes in discourses and even in the language system. This should therefore be considered part of LMT, even if most laymen do not realize that discriminatory language use is a problem11, and so these issues cannot be comfortably tackled within the “problem-is-what-the-layman-perceives-as-problem” paradigm.

Finally, as was suggested above, the large-scale metaproblems are seldom purely linguistic and communicative, they usually (maybe always) have social consequences; this is also a reason why LMT and other possible language problem management approaches should be concerned also with that kind of social problems the management of which entails intervention into discourses or language ideologies.

2.3. Language related social problems (where no intervention is needed)

Theoretically, we have the possibility to extend the category of LM even further, to every language-oriented act (or dealing) which reflects any possible form of “behaviour toward language”, not just interventional behaviour.

“Behaviour toward language” as opposed to ordinary “language use” is mentioned as a matter of course in the works about LMT. (See e.g. more recently Sloboda et al. 2010: 95–6; Nekvapil 2011: 880; Marriott–Nekvapil 2012: 155; Nekvapil–Sherman 2013: 91) It is not clear, however, what this ready-made term is to denote exactly. Although in theory the authors claim that language management covers all forms of “behaviour toward language”, i.e. all forms of metalinguistic activities (see Neustupný 1994: 52; Nekvapil 2009: 2; Dovalil 2013: 150), when specified, the authors usually have interventionist activities in mind. E.g. Nekvapil and Nekula (2006: 310) explicate “behaviour toward language” as “the activities aimed at the production and reception of discourse, that is, metalinguistic activities”. Activities aimed at the production and reception of discourse as metalinguistic activities, are undoubtedly interventionist activities (since ordinary language production and reception is not a metalinguistic activity), however, “metalinguistic activities” do not subsume only these two, but also metalinguistic reflection, i.e. thinking and consequent talking about language (including all linguistic research aiming at the description of discourses and language, with no intention to bring about changes in them).

A non-self-contradictory explanation of what “behaviour-toward-language” means, can be read in the announcement of the 3rd International Language Management Symposium, which defines language management “as any sort of behaviour toward language, in other words, the various forms and manifestations of attention devoted to language or its use.” It goes without saying that “attention devoted to language or its use” includes also non-interventional metalinguistic activities like “innocent” reflexions about language and language use.

According to the cited statements all metalinguistic activities could be said to be the object of language management, including thinking and talking about language matters without the slightest intention to change anything in the discourses or in the language. In this case LMT should have concern – among others – towards problems dealt in forensic linguistics (Gibbons 2004, 2007; Coulthard–Johnson eds. 2010), like e.g. analysing the language of a blackmailing letter to find the blackmailer or deciding on the basis of a linguistic analysis whether a statement was a slander (and thus a language crime) or not, even if the management of such issues does not require intervention into the language. (Nobody would think of re-writing the blackmailing letter not to be blackmailing or a slanderous statement to be void of slander, let alone change the language in a way that no blackmailing letters or slanderous statement could be produced in it.) And we could go even further and present – say – Quirk’s A comprehensive grammar of the English language as a monumental example of language management effort – after all, a written grammar definitely belongs among “[v]arious forms and mani festations of attention devoted to the generation of sentences or communicative acts”. (Marriott–Nekvapil 2012: 156; see also Marriott–Nekvapil 2012: 155)

Since probably no proponent of LMT would like to go thus far, I tend to think that all non-interventionist metalinguistic activities should be excluded from LMT. In fact, actually they are not included, but theoretical definitions of LMT and the delimitation of “behaviour-toward-language” should be put in line with the practice. So broadly conceived language related problems do fall within the scope of applied linguistics, which shares with LMT its central interest in language problems (Davies–Elder 2004: 1–4, 11; Davies 2007: 158), but applied linguistics does not necessarily aim at bringing about changes in discourses or the language system.

4. JAKOPROS and language problems

Language problems dealt with in the project mentioned in the Introduction are typically unstructured, large-scale metaproblems called also “wicked problems”,12 which have to be managed in an organized way. Both in respect to Slovak and in respect to the mino rity languages (Hungarian, Romani, and German) the focus is on the problems of mino rity speakers, whose variety or language is in some way stigmatized.

On the one hand the speakers of Slovak dialects (as opposed to the speakers of the Slovak standard) suffer discrimination, since the standard is the preferred variety considered “correct” and adequate to be used in public spaces; this way they can be considered a minority because of lack of political and social power to promote their interests. (Cp. Skutnabb-Kangas 1990) On the other hand the speakers of minority languages (as opposed to the speakers of the majority language, which is Slovak) are disadvantaged in many respects. Speakers of dialectal Hungarian and German (who constitute by far the greatest part of these speech communities) suffer double stigmatization: their varieties are considered less valuable both in respect to the Slovak language as such and the Hungarian and German standard, respectively. As far as Romani is concerned, the absence of a well-known standard variety prevents the speakers from feeling doubly stigmatized.

Though the management of the large-scale metaproblems is alleged to be based on the management of small-scale inadequacies in face-to-face communication in LMT, some of the ways of small-scale simple management of these problems are evidently unacceptable on the level of large-scale organized management.

One example may be suppressing dialectal features in face-to-face communication to prevent stigmatization, as a small-scale simple management of the problem. On the level of large-scale organized management the change of language ideologies should be fostered as the best solution: linguistic standardism should be replaced – or rather supplemented – by linguistic vernacularism, using additive approach to mother tongue education, i.e. considering the standard as a valuable variety which is to be added to the equally valuable vernacular variety without replacing it.13 As we can see, the small-scale and the large-scale management are based on completely different attitudes: the small-scale management aims at preventing the problem by changing the linguistic behaviour, not dealing with the discrimination, while the large-scale management seeks to eliminate the discrimination.

Another example is using occasional code-switches into Slovak or ad-hoc paraphrases in the first language to fill in a language lapse or a language gap.14 These are often applied communicative strategies in Hungarian, Romani and German speech communities and as a matter of fact they solve the problem very successfully – in the framework of small-scale simple management of inadequacies in face-to-face communication. However, this strategy is not applicable at all in large-scale organized management of the “language lapse” or “language gap” metaproblem. One of the ways to ma na ge these problems in the framework of large-scale organized management is to widen the scope of mother tongue education and of the bilingualism in these communities, so that the minority speakers would be exposed to the first-language equivalents of the Slovak words, phrases or grammatical structures, or (if they are already exposed to them to some extent), to substantially increase this exposition. (Lanstyák–Szabómihály 2005: 65, 2009: 62–64; see also Hübschmannová-Neustupný 1996) Again we can see that the small-scale management and the large-scale management are completely different.

The metaproblems mentioned above seem to belong to the first category of problems dealt with in Section 2.1. (language problems proper), since they all have to do with the “quality” of the communication, the way the discourses are formed, the difficulties the speakers come across when forming these discourses because of their restricted competence in the standard variety in the first example or in their first language in the second example. However, since their way of speaking is often stigmatized, the language problem is embedded into a social problem and thus the whole “package” can be said to be a language related social problem.

This way the examples presented above affirm our contention that both language problems proper and language related social problems requiring intervention into the “language” should be the object of language problem management in LMT and its expansion into a new theory that would include concepts and methodologies used in the management theories of other types of problems.

5. Conclusions

The paper has dealt with the problem of delineating the scope of Language Management Theory and possible new approaches to language problem management stemming from it. It has aimed at identifying the kinds of problems which should be treated within the framework of these theories. In applied linguistics, three different circles of problems are handled: 1. language problems proper, 2. language related social problems whose management requires intervention into the “language”, 3. language related social problems whose management does not require intervention into the “language”. In contrast, it is argued that LMT and similar language problem management approaches should include only the first two of the afore mentioned three circles of problems.


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