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. 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.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Nativeness: The curse and blessings of genes, geography and cadence
=Guest post=


by Ng Wan Qing Jessie


I am of Chinese descent, with dark hair and eyes. I was born in Singapore, raised in a trilingual family. My parents spoke to each other in their respective ‘dialects’ – Teochew and Hokkien, and spoke to us in Mandarin. A large part of my childhood revolved around these three languages, and it was not until I started attending kindergarten that I had to learn English. Boy, was it a struggle! I distinctly remember how, at the age of 5, I could not even tell the teacher that I wanted to go to the bathroom. It took the aid of a Mandarin-speaking teacher to do the appropriate translation before I could avoid the embarrassment of wetting my underwear.

Fast forward to 2014. I am now working as an English language teacher in a local secondary school, having completed the Singapore-Cambridge GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations, a Bachelor degree, a postgraduate diploma in Education, and a Master degree, entirely in English. Admittedly, I have not had the need to sit for IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), so I cannot tell you about my language proficiency in those terms, but I would think that it is sufficiently high for you to be able to understand what I am rambling on about here. However, I am disgruntled that as a trained and experienced teacher of English, I regularly face the discrimination that I am not a competent one.

Competence in a language, for reasons unbeknownst to enlightened scholars, appears to be defined by DNA, accent or citizenship. My dark hair and eyes, as well as my Singaporean accent and, to some extent, the red passport I hold, seem to label me as a second-rate English language teacher. In my own country, the prejudice is not that bad, although once we had a Science teacher from mainland China joining our school and I overheard people gushing about how good she must be, because she has an ‘American accent’. Occasionally, I do hear random and, dare I say, ill-informed people on the streets making comments on how their child’s teacher is ‘better’ (presumably than typical, Asian-looking local teachers) because he is ‘ang moh’ – which literally translates to ‘red hair’ and is a popular local term used to describe Caucasians –, but that has, mercifully, decreased over the years. Ironically, this is probably aided in part by the rise of xenophobia among the young in recent years, which led to the sudden realisation that ‘non ang mohs’ could also be competent English teachers.

Or maybe I have just gone selectively deaf. In any case, when I started looking for opportunities to diversify my teaching experience overseas, I fell victim once again to the curse of my chromosomal makeup. I have read quite a few ESL/EFL (English as a Second/Foreign Language) teaching position descriptions with much enthusiasm, only to have my hopes shattered at the end when I realise that they were looking only for ‘native speakers’ or ‘native-sounding speakers’. In some instances, they would list the countries where the potential candidate’s academic certificates were obtained from as pre-requisites. So far, the only success I have had is in countries where schools offering the Singapore curriculum have been set up.

Recently, I have been harbouring suicidal thoughts. No, not of the literal sort, but the semi-literal kind. I have been feeling restless after completing my Master of Arts degree in June 2013, and slowly but surely, the fatal thought of enrolling in a PhD programme has been creeping up on me. Understanding the importance of casting my academic net far and wide, I pored over my options. It was to my dismay to discover that many institutions require me to submit either IELTS or TOEFL scores, even though I had completed both my undergraduate and graduate studies in English. It was even categorically stated by one particular institution, and I quote, 
All applicants whose native language is NOT English or who have NOT received their undergraduate education in a country where the native language is English MUST submit scores from one of two internationally recognised assessments of English language proficiency, IELTS or TOEFL. Receiving your bachelor’s degree in a country that lists English as an official language such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Nigeria, or Singapore does not exempt you from the English language proficiency requirement.

I guess many of the young Singaporeans who are raised in English-speaking homes, and hence would logically qualify as ‘native speakers’, would now be quite confused about their ‘native language’. I can hardly blame them, because I am confused too. Instead of being defined by the language spoken from birth, native language users seem to be defined by the country they took their first breath in.

All hope is not lost, however. Recently, I was invited to attend an interview for an English language teaching position in Japan. They were looking for Singapore-trained teachers. My interest was automatically piqued because this seemed to be in such contrast to what I have known all along. At the interview, I asked my interviewer why his company was specifically looking for English teachers in Singapore. After all, I probed, would it not be far ‘better’ to look for candidates from ‘native-speaking countries’? His response revived the dying flame in me that, with my profile, I could actually be considered as being on par with the traditional perception of a ‘native speaker’ as having certain skin pigments, accent or nationality. He spoke of his admiration for our education system, our working language as English, and our teachers having to go through rigorous training in a world-renowned teacher training institution. The parting line left a smile on my face: “I do think you are a native speaker, never mind if your accent is different!”


Ng Wan Qing Jessie is a Science-turned-English language teacher. She graduated from the National Institute of Education (Singapore) in 2013 with a Master of Arts (Applied Linguistics) degree, with a focus on multimodal discourse analysis. A copy of her dissertation may be requested from the NIE Digital Repository. She is currently working as an adjunct teacher in a secondary school in Singapore, while considering graduate school options.


© Ng Wan Qing Jessie 2014

Next post: The multilingual scapegoat. Saturday 13th December 2014.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Native multilinguals


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© MCF 2014 

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

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Sign-speech multilinguals


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© MCF 2014

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

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