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 ©:

“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.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Multilingual neuromyths

Neuromyths are misconceptions about how the brain works. They are the topic of the Nature Neuroscience editorial The mythical brain, which highlights that they are as false as they are appealing, and that their appeal is what explains their resilience.

Appealing seems to be the key word here, in its sense of ‘engaging’ with little or no rational engagement. Deena Skolnick Weisberg and colleagues showed this in The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations: when asked to choose between alternative nonsensical explanations of the same brain function, their informants systematically preferred the ones containing “logically irrelevant neuroscience information”. The mere mention of intimidating concepts like brain or neurology appears to lend credibility to any statement where they appear, in other words.

Statements about the so-called ‘bilingual/multilingual brain’ are no exception, in the wake of the current exponential growth of academic and media news about brains and neuro-prefixed things. This growth reflects a shift in our ways of thinking about our brain along the past couple of decades. Late last century’s trends modelled the brain on the most sophisticated information gathering and processing device of the time, the computer. Since models naturally constrain our ways of thinking about what we’re modelling, our views of the brain came complete with computer-bound characteristics: brain space got allocated once and for all, and brains developed one way, towards decay. Related neuromyths had it that more than one language takes up brain space, or that aged brains lose language learning abilities.

Early 21st century findings then spelled the death of brain death myths: ageing, which is what the brain and the rest of our bodies do from the moment we’re born, doesn’t entail brain decay. Brains were all but static, degenerative, limited-capacity CPUs: neural structures and functions evolve and regenerate themselves after all, in response to our experiences and needs, and both young and old brains retain the agility to do so. Brain plasticity duly became the new mantra and, not least, we could capture brains in action through imaging, our latest model. Related neuromyths have it that we now know what’s going on because we can see it, as Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil argue in The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. They show first, that we are experts at fooling ourselves that we “understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth” than we actually do, and second, that “The illusion for explanatory knowledge is most robust where the environment supports real-time explanations with visible mechanisms.”

Image © Thomas Schultz (Wikimedia Commons)

Likewise, in What can functional neuroimaging tell the experimental psychologist?, Richard Henson warns us of the “real danger that pictures of blobs on brains seduce one into thinking that we can now directly observe psychological processes”. Blob-based evidence nevertheless continues to flourish, all the way from forensics, as Richard K. Sherwin observes in Visual jurisprudence, to education, as Sanne Dekker and colleagues show in Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers or Paul A. Howard-Jones shows in Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. The seductive appeal of visual animations is irresistible, in sum, and it naturally sells very well, which is the topic of Diane M. Beck’s study The appeal of the brain in the popular press.

But there are two problems. One is that the seduction is selective. Is it true, for example, that there is a bilingual/multilingual ‘advantage’, which may include inhibition of brain deterioration? Ellen Bialystok and colleagues say yes in Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon Task, Shanna Kousaie and Natalie A. Phillips say no in Ageing and bilingualism: Absence of a “bilingual advantage” in Stroop interference in a nonimmigrant sample, and J. Bruce Morton and Sarah N. Harper, in What did Simon say? Revisiting the bilingual advantage, reserve judgement about whether multilingualism relates to brain performance at all until we understand what is really causing what. A recent issue of the Applied Psycholinguistics journal, dedicated to Bilingualism and neuroplasticity, reviews what (little) we know about this topic, but the myth that multilingualism is ‘good for your brain’ goes on making headlines: it’s simply too appealing to not be true. Apparently, it doesn’t sell to popularise research finding that multilingual brains may be as exciting as monolingual ones – which I, for one, find extremely appealing.

The other problem is that academic and media reports don’t speak the same language. Media headlines stating that multilingualism “keeps the brain young” or that you should learn a new language in order to “boost your brain power”, though claiming to draw on scientific research on languages and brains, in fact misrepresent actual findings to go on feeding current neuromyths. In my academic courses, in one of the assignments that became most popular among students, I had them search for wow! media headlines about multilingualism, retrieve the original studies quoted in those pieces, and assess matches between headline and content of the piece, on the one hand, and content of the piece and the studies, on the other. Expectedly, very few matches were found. And unfortunately, given that academic publications aren’t regularly made available outside of academia, very few of us are able to judge for ourselves spin cycles and hype of this kind. Simple repetition of appealing myths doesn’t turn them into facts.

Keeping (somewhat) to the topic of what we like to believe, my next post departs from the adult world to check out how children look at their own multilingualism.

© MCF 2015

Next post: Child musings on being multilingual – The languages. Saturday 21st February 2015.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The multilingual scapegoat

Scapegoating has historically been instrumental in alleviating consciences. The fact that scapegoating, as historically, has had no effect whatsoever on what caused those consciences to become burdened in the first place doesn’t seem to deter its continued practice.

Multilingualism has served as a handy goat candidate for a good while now. In typically recurrent scenarios, if a child presents with a (suspected) language-related disorder, and that child is multilingual, then the child’s multilingualism is to blame for the disorder. It happened in my family, too. A few weeks into one of my children’s first preschool experience, her teachers reported to me their concern about her behavioural issues. Among other things, she preferred to entertain herself on her own rather than seeking group play, she grabbed at the faces of both children and adults who addressed her, and she was disruptive at story time, when everyone sat on the floor around the reader. The teachers completed their report by sternly advising me that the burden, as they put it, of dealing with two languages from birth might well have started taking its toll on her.

You may have guessed what was really going on: the specialist test that I requested at the next paediatric check-up showed that my girl had 40% deafness. If you can’t hear in an environment meant for typical hearing, if you need to have other people face you when they talk to you in order to lip-read and, likewise, if you can’t see their lowered faces when they’re reading to you, my child’s behaviour becomes no issue after all.

Throughout my children’s early schooling years, other rounds of this Blame Multilingualism game only served to confirm that the multilingual scapegoat, like its predecessors, didn’t arise out of inherent goat properties but out of our propensity to explain what we don’t understand by means of what we understand even less. In the words of David L. Rosenhan’s report On being sane in insane places: “Whenever the ratio of what is known to what needs to be known approaches zero, we tend to invent ‘knowledge’ and assume that we understand more than we actually do. We seem unable to acknowledge that we simply don’t know.”

The reason we don’t understand multilingualism is that we refuse to deal with it as multilingualism: we prefer to check it out as an indicator of (in)conformity to other linguistic behaviours, as is evident from the profuse academic and lay literature reporting findings about multilingualism through the bias of monolingual lenses. Taking other-than-multilingual as a norm expectedly results in assessments of multilingualism as ‘special’, whether special-bad or special-good. Special things demand explanations which depart from the ‘ordinary’ explanatory norms which made them special, and thus self-fulfil their special status. Add to this our readiness to explain things by means of causality, and we’re ready to conclude that some of us are special because we’re multilinguals.

Blaming multilingualism for a (suspected) problem is equivalent in practice to diagnosing people with multilingualism. Multilingualism is a problem and must therefore be banished: that’s why so many of us, parents, educators, clinicians, advise monolingualism as a cure. Proclaiming that we’ve found an answer to a problem has an immediate effect, which is to stop asking questions, our own and especially others’: our quest is ended and we may sleep with a clear conscience. Anything, in other words, feels and looks better than simply acknowledging our ignorance. This is why typically developing multilingual children continue to be over-referred to specialist care, wasting precious time as well as human and financial resources. Not to speak of the stigma attached to those diagnosed as ‘special’, of course. As Rosenhan’s unsettling study crucially found, simply entering the special care circle is enough to confirm that special care was needed in the first place, and so that the special diagnosis was warranted: once a special label sticks to you, whatever you do will serve as proof that you deserved to be labelled.

Mythologies typically generate their own evidence in this way. This is why scapegoating goes on saving both our faces and our prejudices. Is it so that we care more for upholding our ingrained beliefs than for the people who come to us for help? What seems to matter is to make the stray sheep return to the normality fold of our collective imaginary: what matters is conformity to an illusionary norm. As Thomas Szasz compellingly shows in The Manufacture of Madness, “Safety lies in similarity”.

Believing that multilingualism is the problem further prevents us from accepting it as a norm in itself, blinding us to disordered multilingualism. As Annick De Houwer, Marc H. Bornstein and Diane L. Putnick argue in A bilingual-monolingual comparison of young children’s vocabulary size, if there are any concerns about bi-/multilingual children’s language development, “reasons other than their bilingualism should be investigated.”

Next time, I’ll keep to matters of gathering knowledge about multilingualism.

© MCF 2014

Next post: Multilingual neuromyths. Saturday 24th January 2015.


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