Wednesday 23 September 2020

Language mythologies: variation is the norm

Wouldn't it be easier if we all spoke the same language?

No need for expensive translators or interpreters. No need to waste money and time on crossing linguistic barriers. After all, with a single, unique language, we would understand each other better. 

Maybe there was a time in history when everyone spoke the same language.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
— Genesis 11:1
Who knows, maybe our efforts to learn languages aim to reconstruct precisely this blissed state of the past. A time period when everyone was understood by everyone without the need of an intermediary. 


Variation is part of the human condition. In fact, being human means to be variant, self-contradictory and complex to understand. It easier for scientists to idealise and speak about an universal grammar, ideal native speakers, pure linguistic communities and native speaker intuition. 

We need to focus on the fact that such idealisation is practical for theoretical linguists in order to break up the linguistic system and study it more effectively. However, bear in mind that this has nothing to do with the individual linguistic performances of specific individuals that belong to a certain linguistic community.

After all, even if there was a single language from which all other languages stemmed from, each speaker used it in their own, individual way. This is the complex linguistic reality of being human.


The moment we accept the complex linguistic realities of everyday life, it's easier to make decisions. We can see that there is no ideal native speaker. No ideal grammar book. 

Besides, we see clearly that no native person can be an ideal language teacher or translator. 

Indeed, there has to be a formal education to become either a language teacher or a translator. Sometimes, even a native person can use grammar in an incorrect way while it's possible for a trained non-native individual to speak and write in a grammatically coherent way.


Again, we must accept that variation is the norm. 

Even in the same person, there can be times when their linguistic performance is low or high, according to certain circumstances. 

Besides, there is always room for improvement, when one has a growth mindset. Even a native speaker can improve their linguistic skills, even their accent. There is no clear-cut line that separates native speakers from non-native speakers.

So, if you work with language, make sure that:

  • You maintain a high level of knowledge regarding language
  • You check everything, even if it sounds okay to you as a native speaker
  • You are aware of the variations within the same linguistic system

Variety is part of human nature. Once we embrace this notion, everything starts to make sense.

Thanks for reading!