Saturday, 26 July 2014

Some languages are more languages than others

Our ways of speaking and signing naturally evolved to serve our needs. This means first, that such ways must be bound in time and space, because so are we. This is why we use different languages and why we use the same languages differently. And second, that there must be agreement about how we speak and sign, because random sounds and gestures don’t make sense. In other words, there must be standard ways of sounding and gesturing, shared among those who share our times and spaces.

But there is a problem. Two, actually: what do we mean by “standard” and what do we mean by “same/different language”? Let’s see.

A standard, loosely defined, is a set of rules. Rules, in turn, are of two kinds: descriptive rules, which emerge from our observations, for example the rule that water boils at 100 degrees C given constant pressure; and prescriptive rules, which impose a specific conduct, for example the rule that you should stop your vehicle when a traffic light shows red. Descriptive standards, those mentioned in the first paragraph, tell us what goes on, whereas prescriptive standards tell us what (someone thinks) should go on. ‘What goes on’, however, does not readily associate with the word standard, as far as linguistic uses are concerned, because this word’s own everyday use has come to evoke mostly what someone has decided is meritorious and/or worth adopting: the word standard signals prescription rather than description. Would you say that colloquialisms, or slang, or dialect, or similar instances of actual language use are “standards”? Linguists would, because the job of linguists is to observe and describe how we use our languages. If you’re curious about how linguists go about doing this, by the way, have a look at Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff’s book, Linguistic Fieldwork, which gathers together a set of the most lucid (and entertaining!) reports I’ve read on this topic.

A language, in contrast, doesn’t have a definition, loose or tight. When we talk about languages, we’re likely to have no idea that we’re talking about figments of a collective imagination. Attempting to define “a language” is about as straightforward as attempting to define “a nation” – which, incidentally, might explain why these two labels keep each other such good company. But this hasn’t deterred some of us from claiming that certain uses of speech and sign *are* languages, which is equivalent to claiming that other uses are not.

Bestowing (non-)language status to linguistic uses results in identifying “languages” with specific varieties of them, those that (someone thinks) should be used. The process consists of two steps. Step 1 puts together the word standard and the names we give to languages, to get things like, say, Standard English – capitalised and all, for added effect. A Standard Language is a set of prescriptions of “good” use, where the word good can mean whatever we wish it to mean, including prestigious, respectable, correct, desirable, or even pretty, as Kellie Rolstad notes in Rethinking Academic Language in Second Language Instruction: we’re heirs to “centuries of an approach to language study which has been largely of an esthetic nature.”

Step 2 then omits the qualifier as redundant, to get things like, say, English. This is why those of us who enrol in, say, English learning courses aren’t told which English we’re going to be taught, or whether that English will serve the purposes for which we enrolled. This bit of information is deemed irrelevant, because only the Standard Language *is* a language. So much so that we have different names, in all of our languages, to refer to those languages which (someone thinks) should not be called languages, like patois, Mundart, gíria, argot, vernacular, calão, dialect, all disparaging in various degrees: just look up the meanings and synonyms of these words in any standard dictionary. Disparaging to their users, of course: I’ve argued before, for example here and here, that labels about language uses are labels about people. As if only “good” (or pretty) people deserved to be called people?

Since we know that there is a difference between the rules of physics and traffic rules, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be told that the same difference applies to the rules of our languages. We could then start seeking answers to a number of very interesting questions. For example, which criteria select a linguistic use as a language, when and where? Such criteria can’t be linguistic, because linguistics has no say in winnowing practices of this kind. So what are they, and how are they evaluated? Why are these criteria used for selection and why should there be a selection in the first place? And, not least, who mandates language spokespeople to champion language causes?

Understanding why there are standards and standards, and why all linguistic uses have standards would also allay disquiet about language policies, at home and in school. Our language choices matter, don’t they? That’s the next question I ask.

© MCF 2014

Next post: The languages that matter. Saturday 23rd August 2014.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?
=Guest post=

by Jean-Jacques Weber

Mother tongue education is often advocated as the ideal system of education for all children in our late-modern, globalized world. However, in this blog post I provide a critique of mother tongue education, arguing that it is not always the panacea it is frequently made out to be. This is also the theme of my new book, Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First, where I criticize mother tongue education programmes for being too rigidly fixed upon a particular language (the ‘mother tongue’), and explore more flexible and more child-focused forms of multilingual education.

A first problem with mother tongue education is what could be referred to as ‘the challenge of superdiverse classrooms’. Indeed, in many classrooms of today’s globalized world, there may be students with a wide range of different home languages, which makes mother tongue education increasingly difficult to implement. This allows governments to opt out of their responsibilities, by means of the commonsensical argument that in any case it would be impossible to organize mother tongue education for each individual child.

A second problem with the call for mother tongue education is that it can involve a kind of arrogance on the part of the (frequently white, Western European or US American) ‘expert’ who tells people what is good for them – e.g. that they should keep up their minority language. It has been too easy for researchers to take an attitude of superiority and to look upon (e.g.) South African parents who prefer their children to be educated through English rather than an indigenous African language as ‘victims of false consciousness’ or as ‘afflicted by an attitudinal malaise or syndrome’.

A third problem is that mother tongue education tends to lead to rather fixed multilingual education systems, because politicians, policy-makers and teachers often rely on a discourse of ethnolinguistic essentialism in attributing a ‘mother tongue’ to the schoolchildren. In many cases, however, attribution of a single mother tongue involves at least a simplification of an increasingly complex multilingual reality. The problem is that ‘mother tongue’ is a politicized concept, and hence not the best one for a pedagogical approach to be based upon.

There is therefore a need to move from rather fixed mother tongue education programmes to more flexible multilingual education. While mother tongue education tends to be focused on the standard variety (the ‘mother tongue’) ascribed on the basis of children’s perceived ethnicity, flexible multilingual education builds upon children’s actual home linguistic varieties, upon the whole of their multilingual repertoires including non-standard varieties, urban vernaculars, etc. Moreover, while mother tongue education tends to provide delayed access to a global language such as English, flexible multilingual education prefers very gradual shifts between local and global languages from an early stage (at least for children with multilingual repertoires).

Furthermore, there is a key difference in the primary aims of flexible multilingual education, as opposed to mother tongue education. The latter is often concerned with the revitalization of a particular local language, which is to be achieved through a struggle against the hegemonic encroachment of (usually) English. In the process, it sometimes overlooks the needs of particular groups of students such as migrant students. On the other hand, the primary concern of flexible multilingual education is to include all schoolchildren and to provide them with high-quality access to the languages that they need for educational and professional success. Take, for example, the mother tongue education systems in francophone Canada or Catalonia. The fact that the system may impede migrant students’ access to a global language such as English is ignored by the mother tongue education advocates, in whose eyes the maintenance of French or the revitalization of Catalan is the overarching goal, in front of which everything else pales in significance.

Finally, with its focus on the standard variety of the assumed ‘mother tongue’, mother tongue education frequently erases non-standard varieties or ‘dialects’, which as a result are not seen as worth preserving. This has happened in Singapore, where the focus on the ‘official’ mother tongue – Mandarin in the case of the Chinese community – involves the deliberate eradication of all other varieties of Chinese. Somewhat surprisingly, even academics tend to look upon this as a highly successful language policy to the extent that it has managed to supplant the different varieties – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, etc. – with the standard variety, Mandarin. The same is happening in China, where nation-building efforts involve the imposition of standard Chinese – here referred to as Putonghua – and the marginalization of the other varieties of Chinese. In light of the political nature of the distinction between language and dialect, these are very disturbing policies and attitudes that seem to be encouraged by mother tongue education: only the standard variety is perceived as being in need of protection and preservation, whereas non-standard varieties are largely erased and considered to be worthless. Another example of this can be found in parts of South Africa, where some mother tongue advocates object to the use of mixed Xhosa-English varieties in the classroom – though these correspond to many urban children’s actual home linguistic resources – and aim to enforce instead the use of a ‘pure’, standard variety of Xhosa, even though this may seem like a foreign language to many students.

In my book, I explore these and numerous other case studies from around the world and show that flexible and child-centred multilingual education programmes would be preferable to mother tongue education, in that they would allow a full acknowledgement of the hybrid and transnational linguistic repertoires that people actually deploy in our late-modern, superdiverse societies.

Jean-Jacques Weber is Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg. He has published widely in the areas of discourse analysis, multilingualism and education, including Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First (2014), Multilingualism and Mobility in Europe (2014), Multilingualism and Multimodality (2013) and Introducing Multilingualism: A Social Approach (2012).

© Jean-Jacques Weber 2014

Next post: Some languages are more languages than others. Saturday 26th July 2014.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Translators and multilinguals

You speak so many languages! You should be a translator.” 
What do you mean you can’t translate this memo into English? You speak both languages, don’t you?”

I don’t speak your other language, I’m afraid. Can you translate what your child is saying, so I can assess her language development?”

Sounds familiar?

There seems to be this deeply ingrained conviction that the words multilingual and translator are synonymous. This is like assuming that those of us who intone ‘La donna è mobile’ while scrubbing our backs in the shower are professional singers, which is quite funny. Translators are indeed professionals, but being multilingual is not a job description.

The reasoning that multilinguals are translators because translators are multilinguals would be just laughable, too, but for the common practices which derive from it. Some of these may be rather harmless, like encouraging multilinguals to choose jobs because they are multilinguals, as in my first example above. Do monolinguals choose their careers because they use one language? The reasoning draws on two misconceptions, one about translators and one about multilinguals.

Translators aren’t people who can say the same things in different languages, and multilinguals aren’t multi-monolinguals who use their languages in order to be able to repeat themselves in them. Languages, whatever they may be, aren’t different containers into which the “same things” can be poured. If they were, we wouldn’t need borrowings, for example, and translators wouldn’t need dedicated training to do their job. Assuming that they don’t explains my second example. Chapters 1, 2 and 12 of my book The Language of Language have some more about why such misconceptions about multilingualism and translation came to be.

Multilinguals use different languages because those languages serve different purposes, but translations make one language serve the purposes of another. This is also why I don’t think that translation is a useful method of learning a new language.

Image © Tsunajima Kamekichi (Wikimedia Commons)

My objections relate to my persuasion that learning languages must mean learning to think in them (or we wouldn’t need to learn them), whereas translation teaches you to manage one language through another. I made this point in an online discussion on this topic, at the academic site ResearchGate. What I didn’t say there was that I’ve never forgotten the pleasure I felt when I first dared to buy monolingual dictionaries of the languages I was learning in school, and found that just reading those dictionaries as you might read a novel taught me more about how to use the languages than I had ever learned before.

Ability to translate demands a degree of awareness of each of the languages involved that multilinguals simply do not posses, as multilinguals. This applies to interpreters too, of course. The main differences between the two concern mode and timing: translators usually deal with printed texts and may be lucky enough to take time to enjoy a nice cuppa once in a while when inspiration lags, whereas interpreters, sometimes called simultaneous translators, usually translate speech or sign on the spot. I happen to have worked as both but, when off-duty, I’m quite like my fellow multilinguals in often having no idea even which language(s) I’m using at any one time.

My third example above illustrates an unfortunate practice in school and in clinic. Relatives (or friends, or neighbours) are co-opted to assist in assessment processes for which they obviously lack qualification, just because they know the language of the child under assessment. It’s like asking common mortals to take screwdrivers and soldering irons to the innards of their laptop, just because they use it every day. My example is actually mild, because children are also asked to translate for the sake of their elders. These two blog posts, authored by speech-language experts, say it all, concerning the effects of translation on assessment procedures and instruments: Brian A. Goldstein’s ‘Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That! and Elizabeth D. Peña’s aptly titled ‘Stupid translation’. It is true that little and big multilinguals do translate spontaneously, when they suspect that misunderstandings may arise among users of their languages. But this is much like 7-year-old big sister explaining to baby brother that mum came home in a rotten mood today and it is therefore advisable to tone down the usual level of mum-is-home mischief: we want people to understand what’s going on. Big sister is not a cognitive scientist for that.

Sisterly efforts to generate intelligibility by means of assorted translations must be a good thing: human beings have spent quite a lot of their time as human beings translating their languages for the benefit of fellow human beings. Sometimes, however, it’s not entirely clear whether the purported ability of multilinguals to translate makes them good guys or bad guys. If you can make sense of unfamiliar (linguistic) behaviour, then you must be privy to someone else’s secrets, which makes you not-really-one-of-us. Multilinguals who confess their inability (or unwillingness) to translate may, in addition, seem reluctant to share those secrets with “us”, as my second example illustrates. This may well be why multilinguals appear to have the status of permanent guests in all of their linguistic communities: I often get the uncanny impression that the Traduttore, tradittore quip, which is meant to apply to “disloyalty” to languages, keeps clinging to the multilingual users of those languages and applying to people.

How “disloyal” to whom, then, are those of us who insist that being multilingual means precisely that, being multilingual? The next post, by a guest with whom I’ve had the privilege of working before, argues that a lucid understanding of multilingualism has yet to impact decisions about language education policies.

© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?, by Jean-Jacques Weber. Saturday 28th June 2014.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Singing to learn pronunciation in a foreign language
=Guest post=

by Karen M. Ludke

When I started volunteering to teach English as a Second Language and literacy skills at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library in 2004, I soon began using songs in my lessons. In part, I wanted to enable my students to practice with authentic English language materials outside of class in an enjoyable way. But I also thought songs might help them better hear the pronunciation, rhythm and stress patterns of English, which they often struggled with when speaking. Based on my observations over time, singing English songs did seem to help. This experience inspired me to pursue this question further and in 2005 I went to the University of Edinburgh to conduct research on the effects of listening to songs and singing in foreign language learning.

Of course, many teachers believe that listening to songs in a new language can support a range of linguistic skills, but at present there isn’t a great deal of strong research evidence to support the many claims that have been put forward. A few reasons to include songs in the foreign language classroom include cognitive effects, such as improved long-term recognition and recall, which has been shown for verbal memory in the native language (Tillmann and Dowling, 2007; Calvert and Tart, 1993), as well as positive effects on mood (Schön et al., 2008) and potential overlaps in the neural processing of music and language (Patel, 2011).

What do we know about whether singing songs can improve pronunciation in a new language? Research has shown that musical training leads to better imitation of phrases in a new language (Christiner and Reiterer, 2013; Pastuszek-Lipinska, 2008) and that people who have stronger musical skills also tend to have more native-like pronunciation abilities in their non-native languages, as shown by Slevc and Miyake (2006) for learners of English.

Moving beyond studies showing correlations between musical skills and foreign language skills, how does hearing new words and phrases through songs affect the language learning process? One interesting conference paper (Fomina, 2000) reported the finding that adult English learners who were taught songs over a period of several weeks tended to transfer the melody of the song lyrics they had heard to their spoken intonation of the same phrases. My own recent paper with Fernanda Ferreira and Katie Overy showed that a “listen-and-repeat” singing method to learn Hungarian phrases was more effective than a “listen-and-repeat” speaking or rhythmic speaking method, particularly for performance on tasks that required learners to say entire phrases in the new language. Another study (Milovanov et al., 2010) investigated Finnish adults’ English pronunciation skills and found that those with musical training (choir members) had improved English phoneme production compared to a non-musical and an English specialist group, but perceptual discrimination abilities were similar for all three groups.

Although imitation is an important aspect of learning a new language, it can be difficult to directly transfer the sounds you hear in a listening comprehension task to your speaking skills. If you try to learn a spoken dialogue through a listen-and-repeat method and read the words at the same time as attempting to say them, it may change the way in which you listen to the pronunciation and imitate it. The reason is that, when reading, there’s a natural tendency to pronounce new sounds in a way similar to your native pronunciation, or to use an intermediate vowel or consonant sound that falls in between your native and non-native languages, which can lead to having a noticeable “accent” in the new language. For example, for the Spanish word le – even if you’re hearing /le/ spoken at the same time, reading the spelling of that word might result in an English speaker approximating the sound more like [leɪ] or [lε].

For this reason, some music teachers and choir directors will teach a foreign language song using a call-and-response technique, rather than hand out the written words, until the group is able to sing it through with correct pronunciation. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the written words will be encoded into memory more like the group’s native language sounds, rather than as they should be sung in that language.

In the language classroom, songs can provide an excellent opportunity to practice pronunciation, intonation, and fluent, connected speech. Song lyrics generally present words at half the pace of spoken material (Murphey, 1990). Combining this slower pace with the fact that many song melodies follow the natural intonation pattern of the language, well chosen songs can teach foreign language prosody and pronunciation without any “repeat after me” drills.

For the purposes of pronunciation practice, I believe it’s important to choose songs which do not have a very difficult melody or rhythm and in which the lyrics aren’t presented too quickly. While it can be a fun challenge to sing a more complex or linguistically advanced song with certain groups of students, it’s important not to choose songs that are so difficult they cause frustration. Start with easy songs and build up to more challenging materials if the group is enthusiastic. Some students (especially younger learners) may enjoy moving and dancing to the song, and some teachers have found it helpful to coordinate movements and gestures with the words of a song or story. If learners are particularly keen, small groups can be asked to create a simple song-and-dance routine for homework, which they can present to the class or even teach to the rest of the students. In addition, Wendy Maxwell has created a method called AIM Language Learning, after she found that coordinating gestures with words in a song or story dramatically improved her students’ memory for the words and their ability to express themselves in the new language.

If you’re curious about this topic, these online resources and books have more information.

Online resources:


Karen M. Ludke is currently working at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, as a Postdoctoral Fellow on the Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing collaboration led by Annabel J. Cohen. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenMLudke, to hear about other upcoming articles about singing and language learning, or visit her website for educational resources that are available for download.

© Karen M. Ludke 2014

Next post: Translators and multilinguals. Saturday 31st May 2014.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Learning to use languages

In my previous post, I wondered about the purposes for which language learning is currently being encouraged.

My understanding has always been that we actively strive to learn languages if the need to use them arises, and that this need is what triggers our will to learn. So when I found myself immersed in a new full-time job, Stay-At-Home Mum, on account of repeated blitz-like family moves across countries and continents, I leaped at the chance of documenting my children’s daily development of their (then) two languages, from Day One. My children were exposed to Portuguese and Swedish from birth, from mum and dad, respectively (English came into our family a bit later), and they were also the first multilingual children from both sides of our family, which added extra appeal to this task. I then reported my observations in my book Three is a Crowd?

My children taught me four things. First, that while it may be true that we learn in order to use, the converse is no less true: we use in order to learn. The children both practised their languages and demanded practice in them at every opportunity. Their eagerness to train themselves to do whatever they needed to do with their languages reminded me of Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s thought, in The Story of Philosophy: “[...] we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Second, that selective practice works best. It is well known among child language researchers that children’s babbling preferences change along time. In particular, at what is called the reduplicated (or “canonical”) babbling stage, babies appear to lose interest in their earlier exploration of a wide range of vowel and consonant articulations to settle for a limited repertoire of baba-dada-like syllables. We could be fooled into thinking that less varied child productions such as these signal a regression in our children’s articulatory abilities. But there’s less variety of vowel and consonant articulations only, and languages are much more than the inventories of sounds – or words, or grammar rules – that our textbooks insist on mistaking them for. My previous work had focused on the role of prosody, the rhythmical and melodic patterns which are necessarily present in any spoken utterance, in adult language learning, so I naturally turned my attention to my children’s use of prosody. 

My observations were that “monotonous” baba-dada babbling was anything but monotonous: these syllables served as baby-friendly carriers of extremely rich prosodic variation, encompassing parameters of rhythm, amplitude and pitch, which the children now explored extensively and often babbled one at a time. My report of their “singsongs” resulted in the first (and, I believe, so far the only) database featuring annotated prosodic transcription of infant vocalisations, from birth up to age 1.

Third, I learned that prosody rulz, as it were. Through prosody, the children were able to make their two languages as different as they managed to, engaging in differential babbled dialogues with Swedish and with Portuguese relatives, friends, paediatric clinicians (and with different toys), where typical cadences of each of the languages could be recognised – and responded to, in (adult) kind. Several months later, first words and first grammar constructions seamlessly emerged from their prosodic entry gates to each language, now firmly in place. Swedish and Portuguese words and grammar fitted their respective foundational chanted patterns like a glove. It made me wonder: how many of us parents go about boasting excitedly among relatives and friends that Baby has just produced her first falling-rising tone, rather than her first “word”? And why don’t we do this?

Practice, selective practice and differentiation characterised my children’s later language learning, too, including for words which sound very similar in Portuguese and Swedish (like banana, crocodile, or mum and dad) and for their own names. It became clear to me that learning to use languages means learning to facilitate engagement through those languages with the different people who use them. Useful engagement, for learning purposes, in turn meant favouring topics which made sense to everyone involved. This made sense to me, too, in the light of research showing that adult learners show better command of their new languages among relaxed company than in formal classroom settings, as Rod Gardner and Johannes Wagner reported in their book Second Language Conversations. More recently, Aria Razfar made similar findings in a study titled ‘Multilingual mathematics’.

Lastly, I learned that we adults might do well to seek inspiration from child learning strategies to facilitate our own language learning and teaching. There is an important sense, I believe, in which new languages are new to child and adult learners alike. Children get at their languages by learning to sing them first, so why not use singing to learn for us adults, too? The next post, a guest post, discusses the core role that music and prosody play in adult language learning, and offers practical suggestions to include songs in language classrooms.

© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Singing to learn pronunciation in a foreign language, by Karen M. Ludke. Saturday 3rd May 2014.


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