Saturday, 13 June 2015

The perfect multilingual


In case you’re wondering, let me reassure you straight away that yes, the title of this post is meant to be sarcastic. Perfect multilinguals do exist, of course, though only in the minds of those of us who mistake ideals of perfection for reality.

Multilingual perfection awardees must satisfy a number of criteria. If you are, or were, a language learner as an adult, forget it: not having acquired all of your languages as a young child automatically makes you a non-multilingual. Either your accent, or your choice of words, your delivery, proficiency, fluency, grammar, conversational skills, in one or more of your languages, or your physical appearance, or all of the above, won’t pass the perfection litmus test, which is a match to native(-like) standards. This is an intriguing criterion, because it assumes that we know what native users are, look like, and do with their languages. I recently came across a very entertaining report in Nature, about the woes of having articles submitted to journals anonymously peer reviewed in order to assess their scholarly quality, where I found this gem: “Another reviewer suggested that the [article] authors should find ‘someone who speaks English as a first language to proofread the paper’, even though all four authors – including two tenured professors – were native English speakers.”

If, on the other hand, you’re a child acquiring your languages from birth, you may stand slightly higher up the qualifying ladder. But only slightly, because even though you might technically qualify as a native multilingual, there have been studies on such children reporting on their foreign accent in one or more of their languages, numbering their languages L1, L2, Ln to suggest sequential language learning, or arguing that one of their languages is dominant across an often unspecified board. As a young child, you are also bound to fail the LSRW condition, stipulating that being multilingual means proficiency in Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing all of your languages. This acronymic criterion does two things: first, it disregards all of us for whom language use involves neither listening nor speaking; and second, it adds the ‘RW’ twist, drawing on the well-attested confusion between languages and their printed counterparts. If I read and write Latin, but don’t speak it, am I multilingual with Latin? If I’m a native user of Singlish, but never wrote anything in it, am I multilingual with Singlish? Fascinating questions, and fascinating criterion, because it means that young multilinguals, as well as multilinguals who are illiterate, or happen to use one or more of the vast majority of the world’s languages which lack printed versions, aren’t perfect multilinguals either.

So who is? The issue is not so much that defining multilinguals looks pretty much like an exercise in shooting at a moving target: every time you think you’ve answered a question, about yourself or others (Am I multilingual? Are you?), you find that the question has changed. The issue is that the perfect multilingual matches the mythical being that I’ve called multi-monolingual and that can be represented like this:

Cover of Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?
Image © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena

Perfect multi-monolinguals, in short, have complete, unmixed, and parallel command of all of their languages. If taken seriously, this means, for example, that they must be dominant in all their languages which, if taken seriously, makes one wonder about the seriousness of the paradoxical claim that multilinguals must develop a single dominant language.

Instead of taking seriously claims about multilingualism which make no sense at all, let’s leave the sarcastic mood and take a serious look at what these criteria imply: they say that there are perfect, and therefore imperfect, uses of language, which means that those uses are best judged rather than observed. They say that living up to language standards is what steers our language uses, which means that languages exist independently of their users. And they compound the myth that being multilingual means being lesser lingual. There is one good reason why questions about the perfect (real, proper, true, etc.) monolingual aren’t ever asked: they would just make us laugh. Which monolingual has perfect command of their single language, according to the criteria that should define a perfect multilingual?

Real-life multilinguals are as linguistically perfect as their monolingual counterparts. All of us draw on all of the linguistic resources at our disposal in space and time, whether we label these resources mono- or multi-. And all of us are fair game for judgement and deprecation according to someone else’s and, not least, our own ideals of perfection.

The questions that make sense aren’t about linguistic perfection, they’re about why claims of linguistic perfection go on being made. Asking these questions is important also because the mix of ingredients in funny criteria purporting to define multilingualism carries over to funny methods that we go on using to teach and assess those who are (becoming) multilingual in school. I turn to this next.


© MCF 2015

Next post: Textbook languages. Saturday 11th July 2015.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Multilingual novelties


Research on multilingualism has mushroomed over the past 50 years or so, which must be a good thing. Although some publications do take multilingual norms as multilingual norms, most research has proceeded through the bias of monolingual standards, which is not so good for the obvious reason that multilinguals aren’t monolinguals. Equally biased is the academic and media hype spawned by the flurry of interest in current multilingualism, which risks spawning, in turn, the belief that multilingualism is newsworthy not because this interest is new, but because multilingualism itself is new.

Multilingualism may indeed strike as novel those of us who go through life lacking everyday access to, and need for, other languages than the single one we were born and bred into, or for whom learning a new language has become more or less synonymous with learning ‘our’ language. Research such as Herbert Schendl’s, specifically on English in the Middle Ages, tells quite a different story.

English is a relevant example because, in addition to its current favoured status both as object and medium of discussions of multilingualism, it has paradoxically been marketed as a desirable, single common denominator to users of any other languages, complete with a misleading aura of stable uniformity across space and time. The word English features in time-honoured acronyms like EFL, ESL, ESOL (and a whole host of others), which all appear to refer to ‘the same’ English regardless of where it’s used, and to suggest that multilingualism with English dates from this E-acronyms era. And a label like ‘Old English’, which refers to the mix of languages used in Britain from the Anglo-Saxon settlement to the Norman invasion, seems to imply that this same language is only somewhat younger nowadays.

The facts are that English was, and continues to be, a product of multilingualism: it emerged as a creole through language contact, and has thrived by means of thriving multilingualism to keep itself in good working order, wherever and whenever it has been used. The history of Latin, the lingua franca of its time, confirms that barring language contact, no language can aspire to cater to a ‘global’ clientele: two of my favourite examples are the collection of manuscripts known as Carmina Burana, part of which Carl Orff immortalised in a musical piece of the same name, and the Finland-based news service Nuntii Latini.

No language is an island, in other words, as John Donne might have put it. Against the myth that (some) languages, whatever name we choose to call them by, sail monolingually unscathed through space and time, a look at historical records documenting our linguistic uses offers excellent evidence that multilingualism through language contact has been the rule, rather than exceptional. In their book Code-Switching in Early English, Herbert Schendl and Laura Wright report that language mixes abound in poems, letters, sermons, charters, as well as in medical, science and everyday texts, and that this is so for the good reason that language switches signal one way of reaching out to the people who matter to us. This, incidentally, is something that children who are raised multilingually learn to do from the outset, as I’ve noted before. Early multilingualism in Britain was also the topic of a conference, promoted by the Magdalene Society of Medievalists, addressing “the mainstream trilingual culture of England”. Doesn’t the collocation of these three words, mainstream, trilingual and England look exciting, nowadays?

Multilingualism has ruled elsewhere, too, of course. We may not know about those who don’t make it to historical records, but they couldn’t have gone on pilgrimages, say, or taken part in conquest and marketing sprees which, still today, keep so many of us so busy, without linguistic ways of feeding and transporting themselves beyond the humdrum ones back home. In The Tragedy of the Templars, for example, Michael Haag quotes The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres, where the author marvels:
But who ever heard such a mixture of languages in one army? There were Franks, Flemish, Frisians, Gauls, Allobroges, Lotharingians, Alemanni, Bavarians, Normans, Angles, Scots, Aquitanians, Italians, Dacians, Apulians, Iberians, Bretons, Greeks and Armenians. If a Breton or Teuton questioned me, I would not know how to answer either. But though we spoke diverse languages, we [...] seemed to be nearest kin.

Fulcher hadn’t perhaps been familiar with the military forces of earlier multilinguals such as the Polyglots in Roman Antiquity, as studied by Christian Laes, but he might as well be describing, mutatis mutandis, the linguistic composition of modern armies and the multilingual strategies required to coordinate them.

So what else is new? Not the terminological mess pervading research on multilingualism, which Schendl and Wright also note in their book. My own academic publications, this blog included, show how (un)intentional imprecision blinds us to what multilinguals do and have done with their languages. Calling past instances of multilingual productions ‘macaronic’ or current ones ‘mixed’, for example, makes it look like we’re talking about two different things. Attitudes from users of empowered languages aren’t new, either. Michael Haag further reports Fulcher’s observation that “the Franks learned the local languages, which meant Greek, Armenian, Syriac and Arabic; this stood in contrast to the Arabs and the Turks, for whom there is very little evidence that they could speak the others’ language or troubled to learn the languages of the people they had conquered and oppressed.”

We have, in short, been there and done that, as far as multilingualism is concerned: so much for our ‘increasingly’ multilingual world. History matters, so we don’t waste time and resources mistaking things for our newfound awareness of them. Multilingualism needs no attention as a ‘novelty’, whereas the misconceptions which keep blurring our understanding of it certainly do. The next post has more on this.


© MCF 2015

Next post: The perfect multilingual. Saturday 13th June 2015.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The aliens in our midst


Those of us who were brought up in monolingual homes may feel rather unsettled about how to deal with little multilinguals in the family. This is the case even if we are multilinguals ourselves, because the key words here are bring up and home: it’s one thing to be multilingual, and quite another to nurture multilingual children.

One common reason driving parents to raise their children multilingually relates to the languages used by each parent, and so to the languages that are relevant to each side of the family. Parents are likely to want their children to be able to talk to grandparents, little cousins, and other big and small relatives and friends in those relatives and friends’ own language(s), which may well be a single one, thereby adding the benefit of engaging relatives and friends in the process of making the children theirs, too.

This means nurturing children to feel at home in distinct linguistic and cultural environments. Although there is no fundamental difference between doing this and raising children to become linguistically and culturally appropriate in distinct monolingual environments, as all parents do, many of us remain persuaded that we’re navigating uncharted waters as soon as we start using multi- (or bi-) prefixed words to refer to behaviours and uses of language, on the belief that only such words refer to ‘diversity’. On the related belief that multilingual/bilingual children must therefore remain forever partial strangers to each ‘mono-’ side of a mixed family, well-meaning relatives and friends will scrutinise the children’s linguistic and cultural behaviour for evidence supporting this belief – and will, naturally, find it.

Words that “all other children know” are missing, whereas the words that these children do know are used and pronounced in funny ways. The multilingual nature of the children’s linguistic creativity, language play, child-speak, or plain, typical, nonsensical child gibberish, turns to evidence of fluency in “other” languages, which “our” language conspicuously lacks. Whatever the children do, or do not do, in short, fails to match standard behaviour associated with the monolinguals in the family. And, of course, any perceived deviation in the children’s ways of expressing themselves is immediately attributed to their ‘multi-’ status: the children’s desired well-being (read: conformity to familiar mono-prefixed standards) is being threatened by their parents’ bizarre (read: multi-) linguistic choices.

The colourful variety of opinions on raising children in any family, pitting mums against dads, parents against grandparents, and so on, finds itself compounded in multilingual families, particularly where the languages and customs of each side are mutually unintelligible. Sharing a grandchild (or cousin, or friend) with ‘foreigners’ and their Foreign-Speak may feel like an intrusion on our territorial rights to people, spawning anything from bewilderment to mild conspiracy theories. In my family, for example, we had Swedish relatives gape in awe at their realisation that our toddlers could inflect Portuguese verbs (see Chapter 7 of my book Three is a Crowd? for more on this): “They must be so gifted for languages, everyone knows how difficult Portuguese inflections are!”, with no mention of the equally ‘difficult’ Swedish inflections that the children were also producing at the same ages. And we had Portuguese relatives frown at me when I failed to react to the children’s addressing, in English, a slice of bolo inglês (which translates properly as ‘fruit cake’, though literally as ‘English cake’) on their plate: “Why don’t you tell them to speak Portuguese in Portugal?”

Both sides of the family winced, in other words, at the suspicion that their own flesh and blood might well belong to alien hordes instead.

Image ©: clipartheaven.com

“Do you really mean to force the poor things to speak so many languages?” or “Shouldn’t you have a doctor check out their gobbledygook?” became standard questions to us parents. They were asked with unmistakable signs of distress, often in the presence of the gobbledygook-speakers themselves, and apparently with no thought of how adult uneasiness might reflect on the children’s behaviour, thus self-fulfilling the expectation of ‘strangeness’.

Concerns such as these appear to me to draw on subtractive conceptions of multilingualism, where different languages compete in a zero-sum game, and where, therefore, more than one language doesn’t mean ‘more than one language’ but ‘many partial languages’. Multilingual children naturally mix both their languages and their cultures, but mixes are taken are evidence of gaps in particular languages, rather than the token of healthy multilingualism that they are.

Parents must of course use some language to rear their children. If we stop to think for a while that multilingualism is as typical as monolingualism, rather than a manifestation of linguistic ‘otherness’, we’re likely to conclude that, really, what could be more natural than using with our children the languages that matter to our respective families? There are no aliens descending on any of us after all: raising multilingual children in traditionally monolingual environments is simply a different way of being different in those environments. Differences of this kind may sometimes feel overwhelming, because so many of us have been persuaded that being multilingual is a headline-deserving novelty. But is it? That’s what I ask next time.


© MCF 2015

Next post: Multilingual novelties. Saturday 16th May 2015.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Child musings on being multilingual – The language users


Popular lore has it that children who are raised multilingually confuse their languages. One piece of presumed evidence for this belief comes from the fact that such children mix their languages.

Mixing languages is indeed typical of multilinguals, of all ages: if using words (or grammar) of one language in another were a sign of linguistic or mental disarray, probably in need of therapeutic correction, we would need to conclude that users of at least all major world languages are potential clinical cases. Those languages are historically mixed, made up and being made up of bits and pieces from other languages which, in turn, borrowed and keep borrowing bits and pieces from them. Just like their users, languages need to adapt in order to survive, because they’re there to serve those users.

The myth that linguistic mixes ‘mean’ language confusion confuses facts with interpretations – besides indulging in common causality fallacies. Child mixes can just as well provide evidence of early awareness of distinct languages, as shown in a study that I carried out on my own children’s trilingual language development, Three is a Crowd?. One of their differentiation strategies involved slotting together languages and language users, for example by asking who speaks what (including newborn babies), on the sensible assumption that languages are there for people, and because of them. Another favourite strategy, which I called Turn-to-stare, assisted them whenever words in one of their languages for some reason failed them: they mixed words of another language, turning to face ‘rightful’ users of that language as they switched to it, so as to engage them in the exchange. It’s of course up to us analysts to then choose to account for similar behaviours in terms of linguistic confusion or of linguistic appropriateness.

Propriety appeared in fact to rank quite high among the children’s expectations, once the users’ linguistic property rights, as it were, became clear to them. Establishing who has the right to say what is an important sociolinguistic skill that must be acquired: all of us, monolinguals or multilinguals, learn that different uses of language(s) fit different situations, as different people do, too. Assigning distinct territories to languages in this way also matches nicely small children’s keen sense of property. Just like my children knew very well which toy belonged to which sibling, they became quite intolerant of what they must have perceived as breach of language ‘copyright’. This could happen within each of their languages, when they would, say, tell me off for using Portuguese words and expressions which they strongly associated with other Portuguese speakers: they would frown and fall silent or, later, respond with something to the effect that “Mummy doesn’t say so, uncle does”. This could also happen across their languages, when parental word choice or accent in another language deviated from the standard they associated with other users of that language.

Telling parents off for linguistic shortcomings was in fact a favourite child pursuit in our home, particularly when one parent used the language of the other. It came complete with explicit apologies to the presumedly offended receivers, ranging from asserting that “Mum can’t speak Swedish” when I was speaking Swedish, to nodding a patronising “He’s Swedish” towards shop assistants in Portugal, upon dad’s completion of a transaction in Portuguese. They, the children, were the ‘proper’ users of each of their languages, and were therefore entitled to judge because they knew best. Perhaps we can witness here the (?spontaneous) emergence of linguistic bigotry among fellow human beings?

Responses such as these to perceived ‘wrong’ uses of language may well follow from a broader sense of wrongness. One of the children’s most profound disenchantments related to their realisation that their beloved cartoon videos, in Swedish or in Portuguese, were actually dubbed from English-language originals. They felt duped: they had been enjoying something in a language which isn’t its, and they then wondered whether that wasn’t the case, too, for everything else that they had ever watched, or read, or listened to, or been told. Another interesting episode relating to those videos is here. (An immediate consequence of all this was heavy on the family finances, by the way: we had to invest in a brand new collection of the same videos, in English.) Simply hearing the ‘wrong’ language from any speaker could in fact trigger quite strong adverse reactions at a very early age, as well as later on: when we parents found it necessary to switch from one of the home languages to a school language in order to assist with homework, it took quite a lot of cajoling to make the children stop cringing and wailing “Don’t speak that to me!”.

The children were well aware that different languages serve different topics (skiing, for example, was consistently discussed among themselves in Swedish) but, to them, language-topic bonds were apparently weaker than language-people bonds – the extreme form of which is found in ‘one person-one language’ prescriptivism, as I discuss in a podcast, Addressing common misconceptions about multilinguals. Their own bond to their languages shows from their early linguistic practices, in interactions involving, say, me and Swedish relatives or friends: they would use Portuguese to me, as usual, but they would translate the gist of our exchanges for those whom they knew didn’t understand Portuguese.

Translating and switching languages as needed, for the sake of fellow participants in linguistic exchanges, are part and parcel of being multilingual, though often misconstrued as ‘special’ skills. Next time, I’ll have a look at other feelings of ‘strangeness’ that little multilinguals tend to arouse.


© MCF 2015

Next post: The aliens in our midst. Saturday 18th April 2015.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Child musings on being multilingual – The languages


In 1987, Michael Clyne published a study titled “Don’t you get bored speaking only English?” Expressions of metalinguistic awareness in a bilingual child. I was by then quite engaged in collecting data from my children, from birth, for a study on child trilingualism, Three is a Crowd?. So I made a mental note not to forget to document the children’s many comments on many different multilingual matters, throughout the broad age range that the book spans. They are featured, in particular, in Chapters 5 and 9 to 11.

Multilingual children have good reason to talk and ask about different languages, since different languages make up their linguistic resources. We are of course free to interpret this ability as evidence of those multilingual “advantages” that tend to crop up in current news. To me, it simply means that multilingual children are being multilingual. It’s all about exposure: children who use both chopsticks and fork and knife will show motor advantages over chopstick-only or fork-and-knife-only peers, children not nurtured around books won’t talk about books. My point is that children will develop awareness of what strikes them as worthy of attention in their surroundings, and the related willingness to talk about it.

Clyne’s study confirmed my hunch that what children express about their own and others’ use of more than one language offers a rich source of insight into multilingualism. A refreshing one, too: research about language acquisition offers mostly adult takes, and mostly from monolingual environments. This post and the next one discuss a sample of my children’s own takes on being multilingual, starting with the languages themselves: how the children used them, expressed themselves about them, and assessed their usefulness.

The first expressions of my children’s awareness of their (then) two languages came from their uses of prosody, the melody of speech that is necessarily present in any spoken utterance. Adults assume that very young children have limited ways of expressing themselves, because we also assume that linguistic expression follows adult standards. We don’t know, in other words, whether the limitations that adults talk about reflect infant abilities or adult interpretive skills. A common assumption is, for example, that we need words to express ourselves, and so that infants are at a “pre-linguistic” stage before they produce words. But languages aren’t just words, of course, and words don’t even come to us first: we’ve known for quite a while that the acquisition of prosody precedes the acquisition of words, and that prosody is as linguistic as words (and grammar). My children’s earliest attempts at verbal communication showed distinct uses of prosody in their babble to users of Portuguese or Swedish. In lone play, they directed the same kind of utterances to toys and other objects that they associated with each of the languages. The children soon found that such productions made linguistic sense because adult listeners reacted with full attention to what sounded like fluent use of language. This taught me that looking for what multilingual children do with their languages is rather more enlightening than looking for what they do not do.

When words finally appeared in the children’s repertoire, the first mixes did so, too. Little multilinguals mix their languages not because they’re ‘confused’ or suffer from vocabulary ‘deficiency’, but because of vocal tract immaturity: some words may happen to be more baby-friendly in one language than in another. One example is the Swedish word titta (‘look’), compared to its Portuguese equivalent olha, so titta became my children’s choice to call both parents’ attention to something interesting. That the children weren’t confused at all shows in another strategy, at around the same one-word stage, whereby they would pronounce similarly-sounding and similarly baby-friendly words in both languages in a maximally different way, for example the words for banana or crocodile – or their own names.

The way they identified languages then took other turns. In order to talk about language, we may need to develop a specialised metalanguage (another name for linguistics), but we can certainly make do with what we’ve got available to us, something at which children excel. At the stage when multilingual children start associating different people with different languages, and even when not knowing the name of the language – or that languages have names –, the children would seek confirmation of whether a new acquaintance spoke Swedish by asking me Fala jaha? (Portuguese ‘s/he speaks’, Swedish ‘jaha’), jaha being a very common and very conspicuous conversational device in Swedish, and the whole utterance being, technically, another mix. At the same age, they made profuse use of mamma säger (‘mum says’) to dad and papá diz (‘dad says’) to me in both statements and questions about each language, and they used the same utterances to excuse their mixes: a Portuguese word in a Swedish utterance, say, would invariably be followed by mamma säger.

These and other successful strategies that multilingual children devise to manage their languages might predict equal success in learning more languages, regardless of where and how. As the saying goes, children, and only children, are very good language learners because they’re young. At least for my children, the outcomes of their learning of further languages were dismal from day one: their attitude towards this new school subject was dismal, their marks were even more dismal. And they explained why: their first language subject was French, and they had no idea how to find motivation to learn a language that they had absolutely no need for in Singapore, where they then lived. My podcast ‘Addressing common misconceptions about multilinguals’ discusses the age myth about language learning, among others, @bilingualavenue. For sensible takes on young learners of further languages see Sandie Mourão and Mónica Lourenço’s book Early Years Second Language Education: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, to which I wrote a Foreword.

My children’s own languages, in contrast, first the two home ones and later English, their school language, proved indeed useful to them, in more than an everyday sense. The children understood that different languages also mean different ways of behaving, in them and through them, so they became rather skilled at using their multicultural background as both a shield and a valuable bartering asset. In Portugal, say, when reprimanded about unacceptable child behaviour across the board, they asserted that that’s OK in Sweden and that they were being Swedish that day. And in school, when teased by peers about, say, subpar maths skills, they countered with But I speak Portuguese and Swedish and you don’t.

The next post turns to multilingual children’s thoughts on the users of their languages.


© MCF 2015

Next post: Child musings on being multilingual – The language users. Saturday 21st March 2015.


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