Ask Your Question

is there a meta-language behind all speech?

asked 2015-05-17 23:26:32 -0500

mikeT12 gravatar image

A bit provocative title, perhaps, but I wonder if all speech is based on some inaccessible (to us) meta-language that forms the foundation of the language we speak?

One reason I wonder is that I have bilingual friends that grew up speaking two languages; one at home and then english in public. If they are talking with friends in their non-english language and then you ask them "what did you just say" then can immediately give an english equivalent. It doesn't seem like they have to replay the sentence in their head and translate, it seems as if they have some internal representation of what they are saying in a meta-language that is neither spoken language that they can then say in either language. Or maybe they're just really good at saying it in either language?

The 2nd reason is that when I hear people who speak multiple languages fluently talking with their friends they will occasionally throw in an english word or phrase. And not just nouns, which would seem explainable if they are just looking for a label for something they don't know in their other language, but sometimes I hear verbs or entire phrases. And we're not talking just about languages related to english to some extent like spanish, but I've heard people do this in chinese which I think has a very different sentence structure than english. If it immediately makes sense to both parties, doesn't this seem like a sign that there is some underlying language beneath their awareness neither english or chinese.

edit retag flag offensive close merge delete

2 answers

Sort by ยป oldest newest most voted

answered 2015-05-18 23:31:33 -0500

usagi5886 gravatar image

I believe the 'meta-language' you are referring to is not a 'language' at all, but rather human thought/cognition. Humans (monolinguals and bilinguals alike) have a conceptual representation for what goes on in the world around them. The part of this that we are consciously aware of can be thought of as 'accessible to us', in your words, but there is of course a great deal of cognition that is unconscious.

This explains why a (highly proficient) bilingual can respond to "what did you just say" like that - in their original utterance, they are coding their concepts/thoughts through one channel (language X), and in their second one they are merely coding the same string of concepts/thoughts through another channel (language Y). Only low-proficiency bilinguals would need to explicitly translate from language X to language Y directly (because they lack the means of efficiently coding an utterance their thoughts into language Y. So, indeed, as you say, "they have some internal representation of what they are saying". They may also be "just really good at saying it in either language", but that will vary according to proficiency, the context in which they learned their 2(+) languages, etc.

Your second phenomenon refers to the phenomenon known as code-switching, which has been extensively researched from many perspectives within linguistics. As you point out, code-switching can occur with any two languages (regardless of how closely related they are), with various kinds of words (nouns, verbs, etc.), and at various levels (within a sentence, across sentences, etc.). If a bilingual person code-switches when speaking to another bilingual, they are simply drawing from a larger range of communicative resources. This can be useful to communicate nuances that are only possible in one of the two languages. From the listener's perspective, they are using two different means/channels to communicate their thoughts. Since the listener understands both languages, this doesn't cause any problems.

I hope this helps!

edit flag offensive delete link more
Login/Signup to Answer

Question Tools


Asked: 2015-05-17 23:26:32 -0500

Seen: 5,762 times

Last updated: May 18 '15