The language game

A language is very much like a computer game; let’s take Farmville on Facebook, which is a very popular game.

First of all, it’s got rules. You have to grow vegetables, fruits or flowers if you want to develop your farm, but you are allowed to grow carrots only when you reach 42,000 points experience, and you’re not allowed to help a neighbour more than once a day. In English, you have to say ‘she is growing tulips on her farm’, but you’re also allowed to say ‘she grows tulips on her farm’, and you’re certainly not allowed to say ‘she grow tulips on her farm’.

Then, a language has got resources and limits, just like a game: there are things you can do, and things you can’t. In Farmville, you can gather more experience by helping neighbours, but if your neighbour is not growing anything on their farm, you have no option of helping them – you may click a thousand times, it’s not going to work. In the same way, in English you can predict something that has already started happening, when you are saying ‘my tulips are going to be ready to pick tomorrow morning, and they will make lovely bunches’; but you have no means of making it clear if by ‘they’ you mean many women, or men, or objects, or any combination of them.

A language, like a game, also has an interface with the user. The game has a graphic one, and in Farmville it looks very nice and life-like (it’s just that flowers look half as tall as the cottage I bought the other day, but I can live with that). A language can have different interfaces with its speakers. It can be visual, a picture in your mind, for example the fjords for Norwegian. The interface could be a particular melody the user recognizes and sticks to, like the rising tones of French, or the swinging ones of Italian. Most often such interfaces mingle into a more complex emotional one, like the Spanish guy you met last summer, the perfect luxury holiday you savoured five years ago on the French Riviera, or the deep, no-nonsense manner of George Clooney’s last act.

But most interestingly, languages, like games, have got levels – and whole universes attached to them. In Farmville your whole farm can change completely when you get to a certain level, because a level brings along its new – or additional – rules, options, resources etc: you can expand, or grow lavender, buy tractors, or send rare trees as gifts to your neighbours. A new level means that you have achieved a certain ‘mastery’, it gives you confidence, stability and scale of operations, and not least of all, status. It also means that the next level targeted is harder to get than those you have reached so far.

It’s very much the same in a language. With the elementary level you can count to 100 and you can ask for a cup of coffee; you operate with the rules for ‘am’ / ‘is’ / ‘are’ and have just enough resources to to say where you live. The world of intermediate language already has a view to the past and one to the future, gives you resources to describe what exactly you do in Farmville and presses you to say ‘What did you do with your chickens?’ instead of ‘What you did with  your chickens?’ The leap to the upper-intermediate universe will take longer than it has taken you to get here from the elementary one. And of course, it does look better in your CV to say you’re intermediate than elementary.

Some people move on the same level all their lives. Others are always anxious to get somewhere else.

Where are you in the language of your choice? What does the world look like where you are? What can you do with your language there? Is there somewhere else you would like to get?