Saturday, 18 October 2014

Native multilinguals


Some of my language teaching students sometimes express out loud their heartfelt desire to become native speakers. I was quite baffled the first time I heard this: we’re all native speakers, surely, and we can’t become natives, if we take the word “native” to mean what I supposed it is meant to mean, ‘from birth’. But does it? It turned out that my students’ previous teacher training had included the mantra that “native” means ‘flawless’ in this collocation, and flawless, whatever we take this word to mean, is certainly something that all of us can at least aspire to become.

This latter meaning of the word “native” has in fact been made quite explicit in the literature about “second” (or “foreign”) languages – with my profuse apologies for the scare quotes that will crop up all over this post: I’ve no idea what the scared words might mean, in this literature. This meaning explains, for example, why some of us think it a worthwhile endeavour to compare school language learners to “native speakers”, for purposes of language quality assessment. But there is a snag: if learning languages from birth entails flawless use of those languages, how come multilinguals across the board, including simultaneous multilinguals who learn more than one language from Day One, go on being compared to “native speakers”?

The thing is that “native speaker” has yet a third meaning, ‘monolingual’, this time a covert one, which nevertheless heeds the overt, systematic practice of comparing any multilinguals to monolinguals. This meaning explains, for example, the virtual absence of acknowledgement that multilinguals can be “native” users of their languages. If we accept that multilingual proficiency should be assessed through comparison with “native” proficiency, then we’re saying that multilinguals and natives are two distinct kinds of language users, since we can’t compare a thing to itself.

But there is another snag. If multilinguals aren’t native users of their languages, then they must be “non-native”, by the logic of the assumedly useful labels which populate research on language uses. However, they aren’t, because multilinguals get compared to non-natives, too. In addition, simultaneous multilinguals can’t be “non-native”, if their languages are there for them from Day One, which is one of the meanings of “native”. Multilinguals, in sum, appear to inhabit a Linguistic No Man’s Land.

“Day One”, unfortunately, may not be what clinches the issue either. If the language(s) in which we’re brought up from birth happen to be imported languages, then those languages aren’t “ours”. And if we learn a new language in early childhood, though not exactly from Day One, how many days should we count to count as a native user of it? Can I, for example, claim French as native language, having lived with it from just before age 3? Or was I then already way past my native learning prime, as I must have been when I learned my other languages several years later? If you’re interested in the mysteries of “critical periods” which snipe at “native” language learning abilities, Carmen Muñoz and David Singleton’s state of the art discussion, A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment, is a must-read.

Scare-quoted terminological acrobatics about multilingualism would be hilarious, of course, if it didn’t appear in “serious” research, thereby proving that we’ve no idea what we’re talking about. Have a look in my article First language acquisition and teaching, to see what I mean. The muddle got compounded when researchers developed a preference for labelling the languages of a multilingual by means of numbers, possibly on the belief that identifying things by numbers makes them look scientifically unquestionable. There’s always some “L1” lurking in there somewhere, which means that there must be rankings of L2, ... Ln, where the numbers apparently serve the purpose of showing that languages either politely follow one another or should do so.

But what do these numbers mean when, say, simultaneous multilinguals learn one or more new languages in school? Not much, it seems, because we prefer to stick to labels rather than acknowledge their undefinable uselessness. Since “L1” represents an inherently singular concept (in more than one sense of “singular”), the logic of cardinal and ordinal numbering requires that L1 = “first language”, whereby everyone must have a single “first” language, endowed with rights of primogeniture associated with other firstborns. If there’s no single chronological first language, no problem: we just assign one to children, for reasons of administrative expediency, and call it their “mother tongue”. Finally, by the logic that first = “best”, we end up talking about “dominant” and “balanced” languages, and about all the other hopeless labels which do no more than betray our hopeless beliefs that multilinguals are, in fact, funny monolinguals.

This state of affairs may well explain why multilingualism goes on being blamed for anything that deviates from monolingualism, to which I’ll return some other day. Meanwhile, the next post, a guest post, goes back to where this post started, to report vivid encounters with “nativeness” from a language teacher who’s also had plenty of reasons to wonder about the meaning of this word.

© MCF 2014 

Next post: =Guest post= Nativeness: The curse and blessings of genes, geography and cadence, by Ng Wan Qing Jessie. Saturday 15th November 2014.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Sign-speech multilinguals


Opinions and decisions about multilingualism involving sign languages suffer from the same resilient fantasies which have plagued multilingualism in general over the past 100 years or so. With sign languages, however, there’s the aggravating factor that fantasies about them join the chorus. Only the other week, for example, I had a couple of (speech-speech) multilingual friends wonder why all the fuss about sign languages among linguists like me, since these languages are but a set of universal gestural primitives, like rubbing your tummy to indicate you’re hungry, as they put it. Aren’t they?, they nevertheless asked at the end of their reasoning. No, I replied. This would be roughly equivalent to saying that spoken languages are but a set of universal groany primitives to indicate your mood, as I put it.

I took this chance to dispel their other illusion, that sign languages are straightforward fingerspelling systems, which draws on the interesting assumption that all signers must be literate. Many sign languages do include fingerspelling components, but the fact that, say, BSL (British Sign Language) and ASL (American Sign Language) use two-handed and one-handed spelling, respectively, for the same printed language, should help reassess the presumed straightforwardness of fingerspelling. In addition, BSL and ASL are as mutually unintelligible as other sign languages around the world.

My friends are well educated, cosmopolitan professionals. Their take reflects the overarching myth that sign languages really aren’t languages at all, which goes on shaping policies devised by other professionals, those who have been empowered to deal with language education and who therefore aren’t in the habit of asking questions at the end of their reasonings. In a book chapter discussing The British Sign Language community up to the early 1990s, Paddy Ladd gives a distressing review of the ignorance and associated prejudice which, among other rulings, sanctioned physical violence to ‘cure’ deaf children of their signing ‘compulsion’. Just like, as I reported elsewhere, multilingualism came to be beaten out of hearing schoolchildren, the hands of deaf schoolchildren were tied behind their backs in order to force them to use spoken language. Just like, as I also reported elsewhere, multilingualism came to be medicalised, the language of deaf people was “pathologised” (Ladd’s word). Small wonder, then, that sign-speech multilinguals came to be viewed as doubly ‘handicapped’.

When sign languages finally became legitimised, as it were, as objects of linguistic enquiry, sign multilingualism turned out, unsurprisingly, to match speech multilingualism. It comes complete with mixes, as David Quinto-Pozos reports for LSM (Lengua de Señas Mexicana) and ASL in Sign language contact and interference, for example, and with a lingua franca, International Sign, which Anja Hiddinga and Onno Crasborn discuss in Signed languages and globalization. But sign multilingualism remained the business of signers, so hearing communities needn’t bother with the eccentricities of deaf communities. Dealing with sign-speech multilingualism, however, appears to invite regression to hand-tied Fantasy Land: sign languages may be languages after all, but they are less so than spoken ones and should therefore not take priority in (so-called) multilingual education.

It may help to understand that we’re talking about difference here, not winner-takes-it-all competition of gradable merits. It is as useful to compare the contexts of use of distinct linguistic modes as it’s useful to compare multilinguals and monolinguals. Insisting on doing so fails to recognise one of the many paradoxes reflecting our perennial difficulty in defining what languages are: do we want to say that speech beats sign, hands down, because we’re persuaded that auditory resources rank higher than visual ones in linguistic sophistication? Or should we rank those resources the other way around, because we believe that spoken languages are subsidiary to spelt ones?

Language is as independent of the modes we’ve found to represent it – whether natural, sense-bound ones like sight, hearing, touch, or artificial ones like print – as music is independent of the instruments (our voice included) through which we produce it. What’s more, our senses seldom serve us to the exclusion of other senses. Manual gestures, for example, are intrinsic to spoken interaction, where attention to both visual and sound clues necessarily assists (de)coding. There’s even evidence that adequate gesturing enhances learning, as Martha W. Alibali and colleagues showed for a speech-based maths class in Students learn more when their teacher has learned to gesture effectively. In this sense, speakers and signers alike are multimodal users of language, and so are all of us, speakers or signers, who are literate.

There may be some overlap between gestural uses in spoken and signed interaction, as Trevor Johnston argued for pointing gestures in Towards a comparative semiotics of pointing actions in signed and spoken languages, but the fundamental issue is that signs and speech belong to two different linguistic modes, each with their rules, standards and practices. Precisely for this reason, sign-speech multilinguals can avail themselves of means of linguistic expression which monomodal interaction lacks, in that “distinct modalities allow for simultaneous production of two languages”, as Karen Emmorey and colleagues discuss in Bimodal bilingualism.

This means that sign-speech multilinguals, like any language users, must draw on the whole of their linguistic resources in order to be able to develop as human beings. The Position Statement on Early Cognitive and Language Development and Education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children, adopted by the NAD (National Association of the Deaf, USA) in June this year, makes for as engrossing reading as Paddy Ladd’s chapter – with many thanks to Beppie van den Bogaerde, who brought this publication to my attention on Twitter, @HU_DeafStudies. The document examines the relationship between sign, speech and print modes, debunking the usual myths about minority languages causing delayed development of mainstream languages (why never the other way around, one wonders?), about the primacy of spoken languages over signed ones, about reading abilities presupposing phonological awareness”, and about multilingualism itself. This is the specialist side of the sign-speech tandem. From a personal side, Jenny Froude’s book Making Sense in Sign. A Lifeline for a Deaf Child is a gripping account of her family’s journey as hearing caregivers of a deaf child.

Deaf children must be allowed to acquire a language which is meant for deaf people, because they are not hearing people in (temporary) disguise. Why should we deprive our children of their languages? Would hearing people wish to be raised in monomodal sign language? Evidence that sign is the mode that best serves deaf children from the outset lies in their spontaneous creation of languages such as the Nicaraguan Sign Language (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua), which made headlines in the 1970s. And evidence that we all resort to whatever language modes best serve our needs comes from adults, too.

Next time, I’ll have some more to say about depriving people of entitlement to their languages.


© MCF 2014

Next post: Native multilinguals. Saturday 18th October 2014.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The languages that matter


Regular messages that I get from parents who have decided to bring up their children multilingually often have “Which languages should I use with my child?” in the subject line. The body of the messages, as often, nevertheless ends up answering this question: the parents say things like “my wife speaks X and Y, I speak X and W, and my mother, who will babysit the child most of the time, speaks only W”. That’s three languages, and choosing at least two of them, in this case dad’s languages, seems straightforward: use X, mum and dad’s shared language, I write back, and W, for granny’s sake. And, I go on, if mum feels that Y matters, too, by all means go ahead and use it, too.

Most of these messages, however, do not stop here. Those parents who don’t write to me in English, or for whom this isn’t one of “their” languages, as they put it, hasten to clarify in the next sentences that they also speak English (let’s call it Z, and use this symbol to refer to any of the “big” languages currently looming above us), as if not being a Z user were somehow unnatural, or mortifying. The real question then comes towards the end of the message: “So which languages should I use with my baby in order to give her a good head start in life?”

Mentions of Z invariably carry a Z-must undertone, even (especially?) when parents explain that this is a very non-native and very non-family language to them, while at the same time asserting their belief that early home exposure to any Z, rather than to no Z, will trigger the desired lifelong edge. There’s no undertone when parents add that Z will have to replace one of the family languages that might otherwise have been a good candidate for home nurturing, because “I don’t want to burden my child with too many languages”.

Which gets me wondering: why don’t the subject lines ask about “Which languages should I not use with my child?” instead, since the questions are about discarding languages? If X, Y and W matter, not least monolingually, because they’re family languages, how do we decide which one of them will mean a waste of child time and cognitive potential, as some parents see it fit to argue, because Z matters no matter what? Which arguments, I also wonder, can ease parental consciences about the burdensome language(s) that must cease to matter?

I confess my mixed feelings about all this. The good news is that agonising over whether to bring up children multilingually is becoming old hat. I also get fewer and fewer questions from, for example, multilingual parents wishing to bring up their children monolingually in the foreign, global and mainstream language used where they’ll move to, and where, their reasoning goes, no other language can possibly matter. But the questions that bloom in their stead are no less disquieting. What matters now is being multilingual-with-Z, in the sense that if I’m multilingual in, say, Icelandic and Bhutanese, I certainly lack the edge of fellow multilinguals in, say, Mandarin and Spanish – or in one of the former languages with one of the latter.

What “edge” are we talking about, and when do we reckon it will deploy its effects? These questions about choice of home languages have two things in common. First, they ask, here and now, about how we can make or break our children’s adult welfare against the competition by talking to them in the right or wrong languages. Which leaves open (closed, actually) the question of what we should talk to our little ones until they’re big ones, including for granny’s sake, since she will share the children’s here and now for a while yet. Planning home language policies has started to look a lot like investing in futures, in other words. Do we know which languages will matter to our children where and how, when they’re no longer children? Or are we attempting to create their future ourselves, by opening certain doors for them and shutting down others as soon as they’re born?

Second, these questions reflect parents’ persuasion (or helplessness, or guilt) that their non-Z languages may be expendable because they’re non-Z. Ever since it became fashionable to talk about multilingualism as an investment, nobody dares follow their parental instincts any more (or plain commonsense) about deciding which languages actually matter to the family. We’re urged to follow the crowd, whether at home, in school or in clinic. Maybe this is why I feel strangely refreshed when I read about what matters to organisations like OLCA (Office pour la Langue et la Culture d’Alsace) or to people like Aaron Carapella.

Worrying about our children’s future is of course part and parcel of being a parent. But I find it exceedingly difficult to plan that future, not least linguistically and not least because the children will also have their say about what matters to them, often much earlier than we suspect. In my family, for example, we parents started off communicating with one another in English, then learned one another’s languages because English didn’t feel to us like a family language at all, to later have our children make English not only a family language but the one which they use among themselves, still today. Which made me realise that I should stick to worrying about investing in parenting instead, in whatever language.

The belief that some languages are more entitled to life than others is particularly insidious where sign languages, as opposed to spoken ones, enter the fray. The next post offers a few thoughts on this.

© MCF 2014

Next post: Sign-speech multilinguals. Saturday 20th September 2014.

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.

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