My command of Taiwanese (Hokkien) is not great. It was technically my first language, but my parents were already using English with my older brothers by the time I came around, so I grew up in a bilingual home. Then, I lost a lot of my heritage language and became the English crusader my friends know me as today. But I am determined not to lose my mother tongue forever. These days, I make a point of only using Taiwanese with my parents, and I ask them to correct me when I make a slip.

Last week I took a walk with my dad, and while we were talking, he suddenly laughed out loud at something I’d said. I was confused, because I’d simply said something like, “Who is Mom going to go with?” The word for ‘with’ that I used was kiāu. I know that there is another way to say this: kap. But I had always assumed that kiāu had the nuance of ‘accompanying’, whereas kap was just a common preposition. I meant to emphasize that somebody would be accompanying my mother.

My dad was extremely amused, because, as it turns out, kiāu is an uncommon dialectal variant of kap that folks in Taipei and northern Taiwan rarely use, if ever. But that’s not all: what made him laugh was that kiāu also happens to be a homophone for a word that means ‘to curse with dirty words’ (in Mandarin: 謾罵). I had essentially asked my dad whom my mother was about to cuss out! “Be careful if you use that word around your grandmother,” he cautioned me. “Maybe she will raise her eyebrow.”

So of course I tried it out on A-ma the next time I went to visit. When I asked her about the difference between kap and kiāu, she chuckled and said that the latter was the way my maternal grandparents would say it; they are from the western part of the island, while A-ma grew up in the very north. We continued talking about the different dialectal variations in Taiwan — you’ve got to be careful if you ask for a glass of water in Taipei, because someone might think you’re asking for a sock — among other things. I’m very glad that my Taiwanese is good enough now that I can chat casually about linguistics with my grandmother. I used to be able only to ask A-ma if I could watch TV or what she was cooking for dinner.

There are a lot of things about Taiwanese that I have a good intuition for, but these are mostly limited to its phonetics, or which sounds are correct and which are not. This is thanks to having grown up immersed in the sounds of the language as I grew up. Unfortunately, it’s also marred by my superior command of English. Once, when I met two Taiwanese exchange students in Korea and tried to chat with them, they found my American accent hilarious.

When linguists collect fieldwork data for their research, their consultants must always be native speakers of a language (unless they are specifically studying language learners or heritage speakers). The reason is that there are some things a native speaker knows about their language that no one else can know, even if they study it for decades. They may not even be aware of the knowledge they have. For example, native English speakers know that it sounds more correct to say, “She drives a small blue hybrid” than “She drives a blue small hybrid”, and they know intuitively where the freaking infix should go in exclamations like fan-freaking-tastic or de-freaking-licious (but not *dis-freaking-gusting?).

What is fascinating is that we just know these things, although they’re not necessarily taught in school. Even folks who have failed all their English classes still know how to follow these kinds of rules. It actually has nothing to do with grammar or education. It’s simply language intuition! The Germans have a neat word for this: Sprachgefühl, which literally means ‘language feeling’. (I have never studied German, but I think that’s pronounced [ˈʃpʀax.gɛ.fyːl].)

Every native speaker of every language has Sprachgefühl; it’s like our own special power! When you stop to think about it, everything we know about languages scientifically is thanks to native intuitions. All the grammar books in the world can’t compete with what our brains just know. We should all be grateful for our mother tongues and language intuition! And if you’re struggling to learn a foreign language, as I am, take some comfort in knowing that your basic knowledge of your first language is something you never had to study and never will forget.


Word of the Day: sprachbund, another one for your German linguistic vocabulary list, refers to a group of languages that are similar to one another due to geographic proximity and historical contact. One of many examples is a group of languages in Southeast Asia, including the Chinese languages, Vietnamese, and Mon-Khmer languages, that are not closely related but all happen to have similar tonal systems.

The Germans are good at coining fun words for linguists to say. Others I’ve found during research for this post include ausbausprache, sprechbund, dachsprache, wanderwort, and Dreimorengesetz. Whew, what a mouthful.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in what even is linguistics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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