Are foreign languages a threat to the host country culture and language?

by Glenn Soenvisen

In the mid-90’s a new term, “Kebab-Norwegian,” was coined in Norway; it meant the dialect of the Norwegian language which contained relatively many loanwords from non-western immigrants. This term was soon picked up and used vigorously by the media, where it sometimes was stated as a reason for the deterioration of the “real” Norwegian language. In some extreme cases it was even stated that the verb was put in the wrong place when speaking “Kebab-Norwegian” and female and neuter gender nouns became male. Some even said that it brought unwanted culture into the country, stating that degrading non-western words for “females” were used to refer to females in general. In short, some people perceived “Kebab-Norwegian” as a threat to the “real” Norwegian culture and language. Therefore, we needed assimilation of the users in order to retain our national identity and values.

What I find funny about this, though, is how little basis there are for these utterances. For one thing, “Kebab-Norwegian” is only used in the eastern parts of the Norwegian capital Oslo by immigrant youth and their possible native Norwegian friends; it’s an ethnolect rather than a dialect, and there has been no proof of it spreading to other parts of the country, as is only logical since ethnolects are associated with specific ethnic or cultural subgroups. You could say it is an in-group way of speaking.

And that brings me to another thing worth pointing out: the ethnolect in question is spoken, not written. Sure, users may write it when chatting online through facebook and the like, but those services are closed networks and not available to everyone. Furthermore, even Norwegians may write in their own dialects in such contexts, but it doesn’t seem to affect their ability to write correctly written Norwegian when needed.

Moreover, considering that “Kebab-Norwegian” is almost exclusively used by youths, the users of it are most likely bilingual, or even trilingual, having learned “real” Norwegian from a very young age, as well as English which are being taught from early elementary school level. Keeping this in mind we can take a look at what Alejandro Portes writes in his feature article “English-only triumphs, but the costs are high:” bilinguals outperform their monolingual counterparts in almost all cognitive tests.

In short, immigrants speaking “Kebab-Norwegian” should have no more difficulty in using suitable language to suitable situations on the same level as native Norwegians do. That learning two or more languages at the same time makes for underdeveloped ability in both/all is a thought for the 1930’s.

Besides, even Norwegians themselves mess with the genders of the nouns. I myself use all three genders (male, female, neuter), but in some parts of Norway the female one doesn’t exist. There’s also often the case that nouns can be used as both male and female. What’s more, the new rages in the language debate is that native Norwegian children are more and more using the sound sh [ ʃ ] where kj [ ç ] should be used and, to a lesser degree, using the word hvem (who) where hvilken (which) should be used.

Lastly, it’s not like degrading words for females in general is exclusive to non-western languages. I dare say that bitch is, unfortunately, used extensively in informal spoken English and Norwegian both.

Of course, foreign languages may have influence on the national language and culture, but only in minor ways, such as adding words which we don’t have any words for in our own language, replacing interjections, or introducing new foods. However, this cannot be considered a threat at all. Rather than threatening, the influences enrich and enhance, like an add-on to your browser. If “Kebab-Norwegian” really was a threat, one can wonder why the English influence, which is much bigger, hasn’t made us all speak “Norwish” yet. There is no need for complete assimilation.

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One thought on “Are foreign languages a threat to the host country culture and language?

  1. Pingback: Cultures | Internasjonal Blogg

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