Saturday, 30 April 2016

Multilinguals and creativity

Multilingualism is generally assumed to entail creativity. This raises the very interesting issue of whether becoming multilingual makes us become creative, and suggests the even more interesting conclusion that most of the world’s population, being multilingual, must also be creative.

At the same time, since I find it quite difficult to discern the effects of so much global creativity on the continued design and implementation of, say, our global economic, political or educational systems, a closer inspection of what we actually know (as opposed to believe) about this might be in order. A sample of studies from the past decade shows mixed (un)certainty about correlating multilingualism with creativity, let alone asserting that multilingualism causes (or enhances, favours, develops, etc.) creativity, as follows.

Olusola O. Adesope and colleagues assessed findings from previous research in A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism, and concluded for positive correlations between multilingualism and increased cognitive outcomes on, for example, memory, attention and abstract skills. Bernhard Hommel and colleagues, in Bilingualism and creativity: Benefits in convergent thinking come with losses in divergent thinking, compared the creative performance of low-proficient and high-proficient bilinguals, finding that “bilingualism should not be related to ‘creativity’ as a unitary concept but, rather, to the specific processes and mechanisms that underlie creativity”. Hangeun Lee and Kyung Hee Kim, in Can speaking more languages enhance your creativity? likewise examined the relationship between creativity and “degree of bilingualism”, taken to reflect “multicultural experiences”, to find that “degree of bilingualism and creativity are positively correlated”. Mark Leikin, in The effect of bilingualism on creativity, reported that “both early bilingualism and some form of bilingual education” appear to affect (non)mathematical creativity, concluding that there are “differences between two types of creative ability in the context of bilingual and monolingual development.” Anatoliy Kharkhurin and colleagues’ study, On the possible relationships between bilingualism, biculturalism, and creativity: A cognitive perspective, in turn, offered evidence to dampen any blanket statement that multilingualism necessarily implies creativity.

It becomes obvious from the research literature that there simply are too many variables at stake, whether linguistic, cognitive, cultural, educational, and so on, to allow clear-cut isolation of multilingualism as a factor of creativity. These variables, however, aren’t inherent to multilingualism: they have absolutely *nothing* to do with its purported ‘complexity’, and all to do with our choices to study them in relation to multilingualism. As much complexity, of the exact same kinds, would emerge if we ever decided to compare creativity among low-proficient vs. high-proficient monolinguals, for example, or among degrees of monolingualism

But we don’t do this. Why we don’t study monolingualism in the same way that we study multilingualism only proves our assumption that monolingualism is ‘simple’. It doesn’t prove that monolingualism is simple. This assumption is ideological, not empirical, as Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu observe in Polite Chinese children revisited: Creativity and the use of codeswitching in the Chinese complementary school classroom: “The ideology of monolingualism prevails throughout society, including within minority ethnic communities who are bilingual and multilingual.” My take is that if we wish to answer apparently straightforward questions about multilingualism and creativity in any useful way, we must first make sure that we understand what exactly we’re asking, and from within which premises.

Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu’s topic, codeswitching (sometimes also called code-mixing or simply, mixing), lays bare another very relevant take on multilingualism and creativity. This is the double standard in our theoretical stances about multilingualism, on the one hand, which nowadays is unquestionably ‘good’, against our practical management of being multilingual, on the other, which may not be so good after all, as I pointed out here. Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu’s statement that “There is still widespread fear of bilingual and multilingual practices such as codeswitching” remains as cogent. So why isn’t codeswitching ‘creative’ (and therefore ‘good’), since it is evidence of multilingualism?

The answer may have to do with what we mean by creativity. Does it have to do with how we use things and languages, or with how many things and languages we use? Quality or quantity? Learning to use what we need to use, for example languages, means learning how they work – their rules, in the descriptive, procedural sense of this word. These rules don’t exist in nature, they emerge from everyday behaviour. But learning rules entails learning how to break them, too, and not playing by the rules is as good a definition of being creative as any. ‘Creativity’, however, depends on who’s deciding which rules – or rather whose rules – can and cannot be broken. This is why we award literary and other prizes to certain rule-breakers: we praise them for doing things outside the box. And this is why multilinguals don’t get prizes for breaking rules when they mix languages: we don’t praise those who do things outside the language.

I’ve dealt before with this misconception that multilingualism is best approached by investigating the languages of multilinguals instead of the language users themselves, and I’ll return to it next time.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages? Saturday 28th May 2016.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Attitudes to multilingualism – or to multilinguals?

The human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that confirm it, and though the contrary instances may be more numerous and more weighty, it either does not notice them or else rejects them, in order that this opinion will remain unshaken.
            Francis Bacon (1620), Novum Organon 1: XLVI

Few of us might nowadays wish to voice out loud doubts about the ‘benefits’ of multilingualism, or about how and why this current choir of praise came to be. Not all that long ago, however, equally loud choirs were as adamant about the ‘disadvantages’ of multilingualism.

The pendular backlash that we witness today comes from realisation that research supporting multilingualism-is-bad vogues was in fact no research at all, in that it failed to control variables. For example, it compared multilingual children from lower socio-economic strata with monolingual children from higher ones. The turning point dates from 1962, and is credited to Elizabeth Peal and Wallace E. Lambert’s study The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. It also compared multilinguals to monolinguals, but it removed confounding variables to find that “bilinguals performed significantly better than their monolingual controls” on intelligence tests.

From then on, we seem to have decided that if multilingualism isn’t bad after all, then it must be good. Why? Because it doesn’t seem to cross our minds that multilingualism can simply be. Because we can’t but find deviation, which we then label as good or bad, when we randomly take one instance of natural behaviour as ‘the’ instance of natural behaviour: monolingualism has served as this benchmark for far too long. Because when we compare, we look for what’s not there. Multilingualism is bad when we look for what’s not there in multilinguals. Compared to monolinguals, they ‘lack’ vocabulary, for example. Human beings also lack four legs, compared to horses. In contrast, multilingualism is good when we look for what’s not there in monolinguals. Multilinguals ‘outperform’ monolinguals in social empathy, for example. Human beings also outperform horses in vertical locomotion. I find this habit of listing absences a bit like putting in our CV what we haven’t done: not very enlightening, and probably quite wordy.

The question then arises of whether this seesawing of opinions about multilingualism calls into question Francis Bacon’s insight about our understanding. I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, because we go on mistaking opinions for facts which, to me, is the core of Bacon’s observation: we seem to find it exceedingly difficult to look at things without judging them. And second, because the view that multilingualism is special, that is, not normal, and therefore in need of ‘special’ treatment, remains unshaken: we remain comforted that the current ‘findings’ nicely confirm our current expectations, and blissfully immune to whatever facts may shatter our convictions – in which connection I must hail the inclusion of faktaresistens in the list of new Swedish words for 2015, courtesy of Språkrådet.

The current consensual ‘goodness’ of multilingualism, however, doesn’t somehow seem to extend to multilinguals. If it did, why would so many of us keep advising multilinguals to become monolinguals, or treating them like disordered or failed (multi-)monolinguals, or all of the above? Multilingualism is good, but being multilingual apparently isn’t.

This intriguing paradox is rooted in an equally intriguing refusal to deal with multilingualism from a multilingual perspective. Evidence? Look for the sources of judgements about multilingualism and check whether and how they refer to real-life multilinguals. Look for the resonators of these judgements and check their familiarity with real-life multilinguals. Not least, look for the languages in which these sound bites originate and propagate, and check their relationship to real-life multilinguals. Does it show that research on multilingualism (as on virtually anything else) goes on being published and disseminated in a single preferential language? As Anthony J. Liddicoat argues in Multilingualism research in Anglophone contexts as a discursive construction of multilingual practice, this gives “the impression that research communicated in other languages is of marginal relevance for researching the multilingual world. [...] The monolingualism that exists within the research field is not only a linguistic phenomenon, but can also be understood as the development of a monoculture of knowledge [my emphasis].” Liddicoat concludes that “research into multilingualism largely constructs multilingualism as a subject to be studied from a perspective that lies outside the phenomenon of multilingualism itself”. That is, outside of what multilinguals do.

This is why we’re not being multilingual, we’re being rude, or showing off, or refusing to answer ‘simple’ questions like in which language do we think, dream, swear or count, or like which country (or better still, nationality) do we plead allegiance to. This is why schools favour curricular multilingualism in the (desirable) languages that matter to the school over actual multilingualism in the (real-life) languages that matter to the children, as Jasone Cenoz showed in a guest post to this blog, and I’ve also discussed here.

This is why having to ‘deal with’ multilinguals appears to raise adrenaline to such levels that intelligent, sensible people lose their linguistic bearings – and their commonsense. One example: my family’s friends, speakers of either Portuguese or Swedish, knew that our children, then aged 2 or 3, were being raised in both languages. The children naturally used Swedish or Portuguese according to interlocutor and, as naturally, used 2-3-year-old versions of each language. But, because the children were known to be ‘special’, being multilingual, some of these friends used to apologise to them for not being able to use “their language” (i.e., ‘the other one’), and they did this in English, a language that they also knew wasn’t part of the children’s repertoire at the time. The persuasion that multilinguals must have one and only one ‘good’ language, which never is the one that they are using at any given time, was shared by our relatives, and unsurprising to me. But I had to marvel at the additional assumption that English might well be a sort of innate language that everyone who acts linguistically less conventionally understands by default.

Such attitudes to multilinguals stem from judgemental discussions of multilingualism which pay lip service to the stylised -ism contraption that results from dysfunctional reverse engineering of bits and pieces of imaginary multilinguals. From there to assuming that real-life multilinguals must abide by idealised conceptions of multilingualism is but a small step indeed. We keep looking at what’s not there.

Which reminds me of another quote, this time from my fellow countryman and Nobel laureate José Saramago, in his novel about the death of one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis: “não somos o que dizemos, somos o crédito que nos dão” (‘we aren’t what we say, we are the credit we’re given’ [my translation]).

Paul Klee, O! die Gerüchte! 
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next time, I’ll deal with creativity. Are multilinguals also ‘specially’ creative?


© MCF 2016

Next post: Multilinguals and creativity. Saturday 30th April 2016.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Being multilingual in clinic

When we feel that we’re not feeling quite like ourselves, we may choose to consult a specialist in (un)well-being to find out what might be going on. Our decision will draw on what feeling well has felt like to us, which is our baseline for comparison. In order to decide that we’re unwell, in other words, we compare ourselves to ourselves.

Children can’t make decisions of this kind on their own, so we adults will have to step in on their behalf. But who are ‘we’? We parents may resort to the same kind of baseline that we use for ourselves and compare the child to itself, because no one knows our children better than we do. This is true of suspected language disorders, too: if a child who is less lively than usual may be running a fever, so a child who is using, say, fewer words than usual may be having language problems. We teachers, in contrast, are of necessity less likely to get to know the children in our care in as much detail. This is why teachers are also more likely to compare individual children to generally accepted norms which, also of necessity, were standardised through other children. Because such norms are standardised, that is, statistically validated, they claim an impartiality which cannot always be ascribed to parental norms.

Most referrals of multilingual children to special/remedial services come from school, typically following subpar ranking in language aptitude screening procedures in the school’s mainstream language. Tests in other languages that the children may use, where available, will show similar results, raising suspicion that the children lack a complete language or, as described in Jeff MacSwan’s report The “non-non” crisis and academic bias in native language assessment of linguistic minorities, that they are non-nons: nonverbal in all of their languages. Failure to perform up to test standards is in all good faith feared to reflect a linguistic disorder.

Enter the clinician who, to a significantly higher degree than a teacher, will also be a stranger to the child. Like the child’s teachers, the clinician will typically be unfamiliar with multilingual linguistic behaviour, a finding that my study Assessing multilingual children in multilingual clinics. Insights from Singapore was the first to report for clinicians who are themselves multilingual. Like the tell-tale school tests, the assessment instruments available to the clinician will as typically be monolingual, normed for (mainstream) monolinguals, and thereby likely to confirm a diagnosis of disorder. The child now has a clinical record, having been duly sanctioned as special by a specialist.

But there is a snag. Several, actually, which can be summarised like this: the languages of a multilingual cannot be monolingually ‘complete’, because multilinguals aren’t monolinguals. It is the persuasion that they should be that leads to mistaking their full linguistic repertoire for a null linguistic repertoire. The assumption that testing one of the languages of a multilingual – *any* of the languages of a multilingual – yields reliable insight about multilingual linguistic ability draws on three misconceptions. First, the belief that multilingualism is the addition of monolingualisms that I’ve termed multi-monolingualism. It’s not: if multilinguals could use all of their languages in the same way that monolinguals use their single one, they wouldn’t need all of their languages.

Second, the persistent confusion between the two meanings of the word ‘language’. Language disorders affect all the languages of a multilingual, and cannot therefore be diagnosed from proficiency, or test scores, in one particular language.

And third, the myth that monolingualism equals unquestionable linguistic health, whereby we misrepresent deviations from single-language tests as linguistic impairment. Since the tests are monolingual but the child is multilingual, multilingualism must be the cause of deviation, if not the deviation itself, and must therefore be eradicated. Treating the child for multilingualism will, no less, fail to identify and remedy disordered multilingualism, which research such as Kathryn Kohnert’s, and Elizabeth Peña’s and colleagues has shown must take into account the child’s full linguistic repertoire. Why? Simple fairness: that’s what we do for monolingual children.

Encouragingly, there is growing awareness among professionals that monolingual assessment tools should be used with great caution for multilingual populations. Brian A. Goldstein alerted to this in a guest post to this blog, Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!, and so did I, in a book chapter titled Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children

The question then arises of how to assess the language ability of children who use languages for which there are no norm-referenced tests, or who don’t share a language with the clinician. The tempting answer is that this is virtually impossible, because of the ‘complexity’ of multilingualism: there are just too many multilingualisms, given the number and type of languages involved in each individual’s case. But if this is true, then it is also true that there are too many monolingualisms as well: if multilinguals in languages A, B and C are fundamentally different from multilinguals in languages Y and Z, then monolinguals in C are as fundamentally different from monolinguals in Y – which is an additional reason why multilinguals shouldn’t be assessed by monolingual standards: monolingualism, like multilingualism, matters locally, so which monolingualism do we choose?

The factual answer is that dynamic assessment provides methods of evaluating language ability regardless of ability in specific languages, and that clinicians can avail themselves of practical assessment guidance where no shared language of intervention exists. This is the topic of an article currently under review, authored by the International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech of which I am a member, and titled Tutorial: Speech assessment for multilingual children who do not speak the same language(s) as the speech-language pathologist.

Multilingual children must be assessed as multilinguals, so we can tell whether their language development raises cause for concern. The reason why multilinguals outnumber monolinguals in special/remedial care is that we go on blaming multilingualism for deviations to our assessment standards, instead of querying the appropriateness of those standards. Multilinguals are special only in the special attention we keep paying to them, to which I turn next.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Attitudes to multilingualism or to multilinguals? Saturday 2nd April 2016.

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.


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