Wossamotta You

Wossamotta UI hope you’ll forgive the little nostalgic pun, there. But I find myself thinking of Bullwinkle’s alma mater while reading this book; wossamotta, You? I do appreciate the plight of the author, and the exchange students, at the beginning of the book. While I’ve never experienced anything quite that stark myself, I did spend a year in Costa Rica, as well as nearly 3 years in a program for native Spanish speakers, during which I struggled a great deal. And I use the term native speaker intentionally; I sincerely can’t figure out how that is reprehensible. It seems to actually communicate something about a person’s facility with a given language.

Even if I were hanging out with other non-native Spanish speakers (thus constituting a “language community”), us speaking broken Spanish together would make it genuinely difficult to communicate. Whereas someone who began speaking a language at an early age, or was immersed in the language from birth, would be better equipped to make herself understood. 

The quote from Confucius (which I very much appreciated) on page 6 is reminiscent of “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12, 49-50). 
I found it strange that You classifies migrant workers as cosmopolitan; while it is true that they have traversed national boundaries, they are typically relegated to ghettos of one kind or another, if such communities exist where they settle. And because their energies are generally spent trying to simply make a living wage, they do not often have the luxury to integrate into their newfound land. So I think there is a very real difference between the migrant worker and the jet-set world traveler. (There is also a very real difference between the migrant and the one who stays home, as well; I don’t mean to suggest that the journey effects no change. Simon Figes does a beautiful job, by way of example, of demonstrating the unique nationalism of Russian expatriates in the twentieth century.)
The Four Types of Social Action related to Cosmopolitanism (8-9): 
  1. Instrumental for achieving given ends. (Building transnational connections.)
  2. Value-relevant: could be philosophical worldview or simply openness to cultural differences
  3. It is expressive
  4. It is viewed as habitual; it takes openness as a given. 
Helpful point on 12 about African American students being told that their “dialect” is an interlanguage; John McWhorter did an excellent episode of “Lexicon Valley” on the short-sightedness of that very idea: http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2017/01/john_mcwhorter_on_his_book_talking_back_talking_black.html
To be honest, much of his description of English (cosmopolitan or otherwise) just feels like another prescriptivism, and therefore, another system for restricting language. By trying to describe something so fluid, and arguing about which system best captures the reality of spoken English, I feel like, by the time I’m done reading this book, some new slang or phrase may have sprung up that may or may not be acknowledged within Cosmopolitan English. I just don’t see how this book helps people who are being ostracized for talking “like a foreigner.” 
He quotes studies like an ancient Rabbi; he’s not explaining the studies or quoting them, just demonstrating that he could back up his points with research, if pressed. 
What I do appreciate is the attempt to legitimize regional variants. In this age of mass-commerce, American towns are fast becoming interchangeable as franchises and chain stores pop up. Local color ought to be savored, and there is a real danger among academics (and clerics) for a deadening standardization at the cost of the rich diversity offered by geographically or culturally distinct regions. 

2 thoughts on “Wossamotta You

  1. Hey John,

    Another great post! It really got me thinking about the value (and fear) associated with doing things “right”… at least in America. I’m not sure if this is as prominent a tendency in other countries/cultures across the globe, but I commend people like you and You (pun/strange joke intended) who so willingly step outside of their linguistic comfort zone. I wish that type of activity was more commonplace; but alas, we still shame speakers of our native English who speak differently from us. The whole point of grammar and “rules” of language is to understand one another, to communicate effectively. On these grounds, the practice of ostracizing individuals on a linguistic basis has to stop on a global scale. Moreover, “low intensity” interactions need to be the focus. A Japanese company certainly should not hire a Brazilian CEO for diversity’s sake when the Brazilian can’t speak a word of Japanese. No, what I’m advocating (and what I think you might be, too) is the day-to-day interactions between people who are distinctly different from one another–even if those differences exist on a linguistic level. This happens to me all the time in the Freshman Writing Lab in the LRC; ESL students often come in for help on their papers and shamefully ask for help with their grammar. In response, I always tell them that grammar is, in fact, the least important part of writing: a small-scale issue. But no wonder these students are maxed out with fear! Their “practice” in English is now inseparable from a make-or-break college-level English course.

    This is an extremely relevant issue!


    1. Patrick- thank you for your comment; I actually found your story about the LRC extremely helpful. I really struggled with the book as I can’t quite imagine how to put these ideas into practice. Your story actually gives a pretty helpful (and insightful) idea. I’m going to hang on to your idea and will let it inform how I approach teaching someday. Thanks!

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