Saturday, 6 February 2016

Being multilingual in school


Schooling nurtures development of academic ways of talking about things. This has come to be called ‘education’, in the sense that an ‘educated’ person is able to use language in this way. Schooling teaches us how, why and with whom our languages can be used to acquire knowledge formally, about history, chemistry, or geography, things that not all of us will have encountered at home, by these or any other names. It also teaches us that knowledge, of these and other things, can come to us from strangers, not just from people whom we’ve been familiar with from birth.

Since all of us must be schooled in some language, those strangers will use their language(s) to us. This means that we’ll be facing new ways of using our old languages, or new ways of using new ones. For some children, the ability to switch use of their language(s) appropriately, according to purpose, topic or interlocutor, won’t be new at school start. Preschoolers know how to deal with linguistic register (the technical term for this) both passively, as Laura Wagner and Maia Greene-Havas report in Development in children’s comprehension of linguistic register, and actively, as Melissa Redford and Christina Gildersleeve-Neumann show in The development of distinct speaking styles in preschool children.

For all children, however, using languages in school-bound ways will be new, because school will be a new environment to them. For multilingual and monolingual children alike, home and school uses of language won’t match. Tradition has it that we label such monolingual uses ‘language varieties’ (or dialects, or registers) and multilingual ones ‘languages’, although what the children will need to learn is exactly the same: to sort out their linguistic resources appropriately.

All of us, young and old, learn to manage register switches on the job and because of different jobs. Children will acquire school uses of language by being exposed to those uses and practising them in a school environment, just like they acquired home uses of language through exposure and practice at home. Exposure and practice is what teaches us linguistic skills, and what generates awareness that our languages offer differentially appropriate choices to what we wish to say. We’re not born knowing how to use our languages before we start using them.

Home and school uses of language are, indeed, differentially appropriate, each befitting its environment qualitatively. They do not represent the gradable quantities of linguistic competence that popular and very unfortunate labels such as ‘basic’ (for home uses) and ‘academic’ (for school uses) appear to imply, whether applied to languages or language varieties. In the case of multilinguals, reliance on judgemental labels such as these has meant repression of all their languages except the ‘good’, ‘rich’, worth-developing school language.

Forbidding the use of the home language not just in class but in school premises may no longer involve the physical violence it once did, for both spoken and sign languages, but advice to parents to switch to the school language at home, in order to “enhance” their children’s academic performance still abounds. Such advice may include threatening assertions of dire consequences, for the children, of continued use of “too many languages at home”. Parents in multilingual families keep writing to me agonising over what to do about this, given their inability to use the school language in school-bound ways, or to use it at all, or their unwillingness to comply, objecting to what they deem an intrusion: just like school language practices are decided in school, not at home, home language practices are decided at home, not in school.

School recommendations of this kind reflect an intriguing view that multilingual schoolchildren must strive to become monolingual both in school and at home. They come not only from local schools in places traditionally associated with monolingualism, but also from international schools, whose designation itself traditionally associates with multilingualism. Why should multilingualism be undesirable for academic achievement? The answer might lie in simple ignorance of what multilingualism is.

There is, first, the myth that multilingualism is subtractive by definition, whereby learning a new language means losing other languages. Second, the myth that only one language can promote ‘higher’ academic goals. And third, the myth that only school languages and school environments support intellectual sophistication. What’s ‘basic’, I wonder, about cooking dinner with our children, say? This is likely to take place at home rather than in school, through home languages rather than school ones, and this is doing science, besides being an excellent (and fun) way of honing cultural, gastronomic and maths skills.

Other reasons to promote mainstream monolingualism, equally rooted in zero-sum ideologies, relate instead to power relations within communities. Entitlement to one’s languages (and to calling them languages rather than, say, dialects) carries entitlement to what those languages represent, and therefore threatens the entitlement of the powers that be to decide who is entitled to use which languages. Do we want to pursue the scenario described in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? On first suspicion of Guy Montag’s deviation from standard book burning rituals, Captain Beatty lectures him: “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, [...] but everyone made equal.” And he adds: “[T]he home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.”

Or do we want to make it clear to ourselves and the children in our care that there is no conflict between home and school uses of language because they serve distinct environments? To my mind, school would be an ideal environment to teach children both that using language(s) at home and in school is a matter of appropriate choices, and why these choices matter. Where else, in fact, can we be educated about this? Simply suppressing inappropriate home uses of language in school won’t work, because we can’t make choices if we don’t know that there are choices to make.

School-bound linguistic resources are not synonymous with ‘linguistic resources’, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. We can talk about anything in any language, if we so wish, because the languages aren’t in charge: we are. If using the same language at home and in school were the key to enhanced academic accomplishment, children growing up in monolingual environments would outperform their multilingual peers academically. I’m sure that the parents who worry about these school recommendations would be very interested to know about research supporting this. So would I.

In contrast to mythical beliefs in redemption through ‘higher’ monolingualism, what research does show is that nurturing the learners’ full linguistic repertoire in school favours academic achievement. Virginia Scott and María José de la Fuente show this in their paper What’s the Problem?, and so does Joana Duarte in Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools.

Nurturing schoolchildren’s multilingualism, by the way, doesn’t mean the other mythical absurdity that everyone in school must become fluent in everyone else’s languages. It means nurturing schoolchildren’s multilingualism. See, for example, Maurice Carder’s book, Bilingualism in International Schools. A Model for Enriching Language Education; or Jean-Jacques Weber’s Flexible Multilingual Education. Putting Children’s Needs First, on which the author contributed a guest blogpost to this forum; or Sandie Mourão and Mónica Lourenço’s collection Early Years Second Language Education, to which I wrote a Foreword.

Being multilingual in school is a norm, not an affliction to excise. I mean the word norm quite literally: multilinguals are special only when misconstrued through monolingual lenses. This is why most referrals of multilingual schoolchildren to ‘special/remedial’ intervention come from schools where monolingualism still reigns as unquestionable benchmark of linguistic skills. The next post has some more on this.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Being multilingual in clinic. Saturday 5th March 2016.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Being multilingual at home


Apportioning of linguistic space to the languages of a multilingual family is best viewed as a process rather than a final product, in that what once seemed like a sensible, natural choice may prove irrelevant or unnecessary later on. My family, for example, started off with two home languages and ended up with three, when the children realised that they, too, were entitled to decide who speaks what to whom. A transcript of a dinner table conversation involving all five family members documents this transition, in Chapter 10, section ‘Language dominance?’, of my book Three is a Crowd?, available online.

Multilingual home language policies, in other words, must serve all involved, and must evolve with them, independently from the linguistic landscape outside the home. This is also true of monolingual home language policies in same-language monolingual settings – whether we choose to call them by this or any other name. The point is that home uses of any language do not match the broader community’s, including school uses, because home is not the broader community: we don’t talk about the same things in the same way with the same people, at home and outside.

The fact that home and community environments are different, and therefore demand different linguistic expression, needs to be made very clear: a common misconception has it that ‘knowing a language’ means being able to use it in all possible ways. Nothing could be further from the truth, whether for native languages or for languages learned in school. Children nurtured in home Portuguese, say, won’t automatically develop ability to use school Portuguese, just like educated, literate adults may have no idea how to use their language(s) for academic publication or business purposes, for example. In The Ecology of Language, Einar Haugen further observed that linguistic knowledge is individual: “the competence [each child] acquires is different from that of every other child”.

Our children acquire the uses of language to which they are exposed, in those environments where their language(s) come to make sense. It follows that home uses of language serve home linguistic needs, developing their own norms out of daily interaction. Each home language will in addition serve those needs in different ways, say, mum’s language for playground outings or baking cakes, dad’s for story time or cooking pasta.

Language-related playground and pasta activities are probably as common in multilingual homes as in monolingual ones, but using stern-sounding words like ‘policy’ or ‘management’ to single out what goes on, linguistically, in multilingual homes, might explain why so many parents in multilingual families raise concerns about which languages to use at home with their children, and how. Policy and management discourses suggest that there are one-way roads, no-nos, accepted conventions, fatal errors, and best procedures that we parents ought to research in depth before we even think of opening our multilingual mouths at home. But are there, really? And who’s saying so?

I think that having to learn parenting, on the job, is enough to keep us quite busy, without the need to overburden ourselves structuring language plans to fit breastfeeding timetables, potty-training management and tantrum-dealing policies. Parents don’t write to me agonising over whether to wear a sari, or a cheongsam, or jeans, in front of their children, so why should the languages that go together with clothing, or food, or songs, or celebrations, or anything we do at home create a fuss? We just introduce our children to our (and their) languages in the same way that we introduce any other tenets of our (and their) cultural background.

Introducing languages to our children doesn’t mean ‘teaching’ them in any formal sense of this word: it means using our languages to serve our daily routines. In this way, we teach our children what matters to us and to them, our languages included. The children will learn much more from what we do and what we have them do with our languages, naturally, spontaneously, every day, than from what we think we can teach them about those languages in dedicated ‘language-learning’ sessions. Effective language lessons don’t target the languages themselves, because we learn best by using what we’re learning.

The number of home languages comes a close second among parents’ concerns, expressed in fears that there may be too few or too many languages around a child. On the too-few side, parents worry that their children may not become multilingual enough, soon enough, to corner the job market once they grow up, as I discussed before. Since we can’t predict job markets 20 or so years from now, I usually reassure parents that their babies aren’t likely to miss out on anything by not learning an extra language before they can walk.

On the too-many side, especially in connection with a move abroad, parents ask me about replacing one or more of their languages with the host country’s (usually) single language at home – sometimes monolingually –, on the grounds that what matters is their children’s swift integration in the new environment. This certainly resonates with globe-trotting parents, but I remain doubtful that this strategy may nurture a home away from home, for three main reasons. First, as said above, using a language at home won’t facilitate its use in a different environment. Second, children’s linguistic integration in a new community pretty much takes care of itself pretty quickly, as parents who have chosen to retain their languages at home find out, for better or for worse. And third, many of these parents (and sometimes their now grown-up children, too) later report to me regretting this decision: instead of ‘giving’ their children a language, as was their best intention, they’ve deprived them of another/others, and thereby of fluent bonding with the people and the culture using them.

I don’t think there can be too few or too many home languages around a child. There can only be the exact number of languages that matter for the family’s daily business. But homes aren’t isolated bubbles within a larger community, they’re functional parts of it. Two other environments, schools and clinics, are likely to claim entitlement to a say in multilingual home language policies, to which I turn in the next couple of posts.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Being multilingual in school. Saturday 6th February 2016.


Saturday, 31 October 2015

Multilingualism is about multilinguals


Multilinguals are quite ordinary people. Not only do they outnumber monolinguals, worldwide, they’ve also been around for quite a while and they’re all over the place. Why is it, then, that specialist and lay outlooks alike continue to associate multilingualism with loaded words such as ‘challenge’, ‘complexity’, ‘(super)diversity’, ‘cost’, ‘benefit’, and to collocate the word with vocabulary evoking deviation, like ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’?

I can think of one reason: we’ve somehow lost track of the meaning of the word multilingualism to designate the status of being multilingual, as in the title of this blog, although there is no multilingualism without multilinguals. The result has been that multilingualism, like other -isms before it, acquired a life of its own, whereby we feel free to talk about it without needing to refer to the people that it supposedly describes. Simply using the word, for example, is nowadays a must, in ways that sometimes remind of the reverential tributes we feel we ought to pay to things that we do not really understand, -isms included. The abstract of Hervé Adami and Virginie André’s recent book, De l’idéologie monolingue à la doxa plurilingue: regards pluridisciplinaires, precisely captures the current awed stance about multilingualism, of which this excerpt is worth quoting in full:
Le vent ayant tourné en faveur de la “pluralité”, sous toutes ses formes, le plurilinguisme est devenu une notion à la mode puisqu’il s’inscrit dans le sacro-saint “respect de la diversité” qui constitue le socle idéologique de la bien-pensance d’aujourd’hui. Dans cette communion collective autour des bienfaits et des avantages du plurilinguisme, on a oublié qu’il devait constituer un objet d’étude plutôt qu’un objet de culte.

Cult objects tend to develop (evil? benevolent? mysterious?) strangleholds on us common mortals, making us do things and be things that we’re powerless to control. Multilingualism does or doesn’t do this and that to us, ought to be something but mustn’t be the other, we should and should not, can and cannot do so much or so little about it – is this what being multilingual is all about? Do we really want to go on stockpiling opinions about multilingualism until this -ism fad inevitably burns itself out and the next one enters the stage?

Or do we want to start dealing with multilingualism for what it factually is, the natural linguistic state of over half of humankind, across time and space? This means start dealing with people, not words, because multilingualism is about multilinguals. It means start looking at what multilinguals do, how they do it and why, to find out what’s going on, not what we’ve been told must be going on. It means focusing away from two myths which have compounded the purported intractability of multilingualism.

First, the myth that monolingualism is an unquestionable norm of linguistic behaviour, as Liz Ellis was among the first to question in a collection titled Monolingualism. Monolinguals use their single language for all purposes, with all people, at all times. This is not what multilinguals do, whether with all their languages or just one of them. The only similarity between multilinguals and monolinguals is that all of us go about our daily business making use of our full linguistic repertoires.

Second, the myth that observing the languages of multilinguals means observing multilingualism. What we call ‘languages’ exist only in our collective imagination. What we call ‘features of languages’ exist only in linguistic theories – all of which are monolingual-based, by the way. In a collection of essays edited by Anwar S. Dil and titled The Ecology of Language, Einar Haugen reminded us that “[t]he concept of a language as a rigid, monolithic structure is false, even if it has proved to be a useful fiction in the development of linguistics” and that “[a language] has no life of its own apart from those who use it”.

Languages are tools that we create, develop and mould to serve us. They’re not straitjackets to which users must accommodate, a misconception which isn’t exclusive to research on multilingualism but which continues to shape this research. Languages aren’t there to be reproduced and respected as-is, because language users aren’t language curators.

Language users interact with their environment, their linguistic environment included. They are the real-life people that we parents, teachers, clinicians, encounter in our everyday lives, whose real-life language needs we feed, and whose real-life language uses feed back into our own. Language users are, in short, what we need to address. I’ll do that in the next couple of posts, dealing with home, school and clinical environments.


© MCF 2015

Next post: Being multilingual at home. Saturday 9th January 2016.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

What does ‘multilingual’ mean?


What, exactly, do we mean by the label ‘multilingual’? I don’t mean dictionary-sanctioned definitions of the word, nor what the word should mean according to more or less entitled opinions, I mean what linguists mean when we talk about word meanings: what does the observation of uses of the word ‘multilingual’ tell us about its meaning? In order to find out, we can do what linguists do, which is to collate a sample of contexts where we find the words that interest us.

We observe, first, that ‘multilingual’ appears in contexts such as “... bilingual and/or multilingual ...”, implying a core distinction between two and more than two languages. The dichotomy, however, seems exclusive to bi- vs. multi-, in that we don’t find contexts such as “trilingual and/or multilingual”, “quadrilingual and/or multilingual”, and so on. The reason might well be that two languages were long thought to be the crowning achievement of human linguistic ability. Evidence of this belief lingers on in our current terminology, where we still talk about SLA (Second Language Acquisition) to refer to any number of languages learned beyond our native ones, or about L1 to refer to a (single) language learned from birth, the assumption here being that there must be some L2 politely waiting in line to become part of one’s linguistic repertoire. Habitual use of cardinal/ordinal 2-related words in these contexts, lacking relationship to the meaning of ‘2’, explains why the word bilingual has come to mean ‘more than one language’ or ‘two or more languages’. Which is rather confusing, to say the least: just imagine using words like bifocal or bilateral to refer to ‘two or more’ focal lengths or sides, respectively. This is why I prefer multi-words to refer to ‘more than one’.

We observe, second, that the word ‘multilingual’ collocates with family, school, clinic, on the one hand, and with child, teacher, clinician, on the other. This sample shows that the word is used as a qualifier (we could call it an adjective) of another word (a noun). The same goes for contexts like The family/child/ ... is multilingual. More uncommon are collocations such as A multilingual is ..., multilinguals are ..., or a/the multilingual., where a final stop follows the word: I am / They are multilingual is sanctioned by use, but I am a multilingual / They are multilinguals apparently isn’t. Not all that long ago I had to add the plural form multilinguals to the dictionary in my word processor, which kept marking it with a no-no wavy red line. We’re not comfortable using this word as a noun – yet: it could well be only a matter of time for multilingual/multilinguals to become as noun-worthy as bilingual/bilinguals, given that our attention to non-monolinguals dates from quite recently.

A third observation is that when we’re talking about, say, multilingual schools and multilingual teachers, we’re talking about two different multilingualisms – and yes, my word processor also had issues with this plural. A multilingual T, including families, schools, clinics, countries, environments, is a T(hing) where more than one language is used, whereas a multilingual P, including children, parents, teachers, clinicians, individuals, is a P(erson) who uses more than one language. This is not splitting hairs: the verbal form “is used” indicates a passive construction, probably familiar from school textbooks in interesting sentences like The bone is eaten by the dog. In language textbooks, the by-phrase is always there, because the purpose of textbook passives is to teach that they must match an active counterpart, in this case The dog eats the bone. Language students apparently need not be taught that we use passives precisely to be able to ignore the by-phrase, either because we have no idea who is actively doing the action represented by the verb, or because we prefer not to say. Exactly as when we define, say, a multilingual school as a school where more than one language is used. By whom? We don’t know.

What we do know is that families or schools, being institutional abstractions, can’t ‘use’ languages: people can. We also know that when we say that a school or a country ‘has’ more than one language, we’re using metaphor. Schools and countries can’t own anything, except metaphorically: people can. Which means that talking about, say, multilingual environments is not the same as talking about multilinguals: a multilingual environment is one where different languages are involved, but not necessarily multilingual people. Multilingual environments can feature monolinguals, as in multilingual schools or clinics where the students or clients are multilingual whereas the staff are not, and that’s why multilingual signs exist for the benefit of those who use only one of the languages in them.

In Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?, Chapter 11
Image © MCF

Failure to realise that multilingualism has to do with *multilinguals* explains the obsession with the languages of a multilingual that has characterised specialist and lay quests into multilingualism. We select multilinguals’ vocabulary sizes, accents, grammar, pragmatic proficiency, for comparison with monolinguals’, to ascertain the presumed state of health, or integrity, or wholeness, of multilinguals’ languages, apparently expecting to find the key to multilingualism in the languages themselves. A bit like saying that the key to Maria João Pires’ performance lies in her pianos. We’ve even started comparing trilinguals to bilinguals, those not-so-exciting-any-more language geniuses of yore, and I’m sure the day will come when we’ll compare octalinguals to heptalinguals, to find out... What, exactly? I wonder, too. This way of looking at multilingualism takes it as a property of languages, which is clearly nonsensical. Languages can’t be multilingual: people can.

If we want to understand what being ‘multilingual’ means, we need to shift our focus from the languages to the language users. Only then can we stop asking useless questions about what different languages do to people and start asking relevant questions about what people do with different languages. Next time, I’ll try to work out what this means.


© MCF 2015

Next post: Multilingualism is about multilinguals. Saturday 31st October 2015.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Multilingualism and disorders


Norms of conduct, including linguistic norms, are social constructs. They vary in space and time, and they can be of two types. Descriptive norms draw on observation and tell us what people do, for example that interrupting your conversation partners is common in parts of southern Europe (which can be a sign of polite engagement in the exchange), or that fermented herring is a delicacy in parts of northern Europe (which can be a sign of Nordic stoicism). Prescriptive norms draw on judgement and tell us what people should do, for example that we must respect our elders’ conversational turns, or abstain from consuming fermented food in the presence of sensitive noses.

Norms are useful constructs because they help us regulate our behaviour among fellow human beings – although it remains entirely up to us to choose, say, to be a Roman in Rome, or to insist that only Romans should be heard in Rome. Norms are useful also because they underpin comparative analyses which can help us decide what isn’t normal, and act upon that decision. On one condition: that we know what we’re talking about, when we’re talking about norms.

Taking descriptive norms to apply to populations beyond those which supplied the norming standard is a telling sign that we have no idea what we’re talking about: for example, assuming that all Europeans enjoy fermented fish meals. Another is confusing descriptive and prescriptive norms: for example, insisting that we should never interrupt people. Unfortunately, both signs are richly documented in our ways of dealing with multilingualism.

Descriptions of linguistic behaviour that apply to monolinguals because they were normed for monolinguals have arbitrarily, though routinely, been generalised to multilingual behaviour. They provide the benchmarks through which we assess multilinguals, on grounds that would make us cringe if our reasoning hadn’t become so dulled by their familiarity.

When we select multilinguals for comparison with (experimental) populations containing no multilinguals, while never giving a thought to performing comparisons the other way around, we’re doing two things. One, we’re saying that monolingualism is a useful and unquestionable linguistic norm from which to draw useful and unquestionable conclusions about non-monolingual behaviour; and two, we’re singling out multilingualism as the reason for the comparison, thereby self-fulfilling the prophecy that multilingualism is a deviation from those norms. What else could we expect to find from these comparisons, really?? Such practices turn multilinguals into the platypuses of lingualism: they’re funny not because they are funny, but because the norms guiding our taxonomies are. Interrupting people and basking in fermented herring are also deviations from some norm.

Respectable academic publications have indeed taught us that multilingualism is deviant. Only in the last two decades, they have featured, say, the linguistic development of multilingual children alongside linguistic development in clinical conditions such as deafness, blindness, autism, prematurity, specific language impairment and genetic disorders, or socioeconomic conditions such as extreme poverty, under headings titled varieties of development, or development in exceptional circumstances. The thinly veiled political correctness of the italicised words in fact sanctions multilingual development as atypically other. My articles ‘First language acquisition and teaching’ and ‘Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children’ give an overview of these matters.

Conclusions sanctioned by authoritative reports such as these expectedly lead parents and educators to take multilingualism as a disorder, best addressed by specialists.

In Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?, Chapter 1
Image © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena

Mistaking observed norms for prescriptions, in turn, is the natural consequence of our ignorance that descriptive norms, in the plural, must be established for every normal population. A norm describing us, here and now, cannot apply to them, elsewhere and evermore. The dearth of descriptions of multilingual normality explains that discussions about multilinguals concern not what they do, but what they should do, according to monolingual standards. This is why recommended behaviour for multilinguals invariably targets the elimination of multilingualism itself, in the same way that we’d do well to eradicate other pathogenic agents.

To me, the issue is that laypeople and specialists alike seem to have great difficulty understanding that difference is not synonymous with deviation, and this is why we go on maltreating differences. Add to this the misconception that multilingualism has more to do with languages than with the people who use them, and we have the perfect recipe counting multilingualism as an ingredient of clinical conditions: we remain persuaded that multilingualism is about what languages can do to people, instead of what people can do with languages.

Multilingualism is *not* a disorder. Neither does it cause, avoid, worsen, or repair disorders, because it doesn’t even correlate with disorders of any kind. One of the reasons for the widespread belief that it is and it does relates, no doubt, to our additional difficulty in providing precise definitions for the terms that we use. What, exactly, do we mean by the label ‘multilingual’? I turn to this next.


© MCF 2015

Next post: What does ‘multilingual’ mean? Saturday 3rd October 2015.

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