Saturday, 5 April 2014

Learning to use languages


In my previous post, I wondered about the purposes for which language learning is currently being encouraged.

My understanding has always been that we actively strive to learn languages if the need to use them arises, and that this need is what triggers our will to learn. So when I found myself immersed in a new full-time job, Stay-At-Home Mum, on account of repeated blitz-like family moves across countries and continents, I leaped at the chance of documenting my children’s daily development of their (then) two languages, from Day One. My children were exposed to Portuguese and Swedish from birth, from mum and dad, respectively (English came into our family a bit later), and they were also the first multilingual children from both sides of our family, which added extra appeal to this task. I then reported my observations in my book Three is a Crowd?

My children taught me four things. First, that while it may be true that we learn in order to use, the converse is no less true: we use in order to learn. The children both practised their languages and demanded practice in them at every opportunity. Their eagerness to train themselves to do whatever they needed to do with their languages reminded me of Will Durant’s summary of Aristotle’s thought, in The Story of Philosophy: “[...] we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Second, that selective practice works best. It is well known among child language researchers that children’s babbling preferences change along time. In particular, at what is called the reduplicated (or “canonical”) babbling stage, babies appear to lose interest in their earlier exploration of a wide range of vowel and consonant articulations to settle for a limited repertoire of baba-dada-like syllables. We could be fooled into thinking that less varied child productions such as these signal a regression in our children’s articulatory abilities. But there’s less variety of vowel and consonant articulations only, and languages are much more than the inventories of sounds – or words, or grammar rules – that our textbooks insist on mistaking them for. My previous work had focused on the role of prosody, the rhythmical and melodic patterns which are necessarily present in any spoken utterance, in adult language learning, so I naturally turned my attention to my children’s use of prosody. 

My observations were that “monotonous” baba-dada babbling was anything but monotonous: these syllables served as baby-friendly carriers of extremely rich prosodic variation, encompassing parameters of rhythm, amplitude and pitch, which the children now explored extensively and often babbled one at a time. My report of their “singsongs” resulted in the first (and, I believe, so far the only) database featuring annotated prosodic transcription of infant vocalisations, from birth up to age 1.

Third, I learned that prosody rulz, as it were. Through prosody, the children were able to make their two languages as different as they managed to, engaging in differential babbled dialogues with Swedish and with Portuguese relatives, friends, paediatric clinicians (and with different toys), where typical cadences of each of the languages could be recognised – and responded to, in (adult) kind. Several months later, first words and first grammar constructions seamlessly emerged from their prosodic entry gates to each language, now firmly in place. Swedish and Portuguese words and grammar fitted their respective foundational chanted patterns like a glove. It made me wonder: how many of us parents go about boasting excitedly among relatives and friends that Baby has just produced her first falling-rising tone, rather than her first “word”? And why don’t we do this?

Practice, selective practice and differentiation characterised my children’s later language learning, too, including for words which sound very similar in Portuguese and Swedish (like banana, crocodile, or mum and dad) and for their own names. It became clear to me that learning to use languages means learning to facilitate engagement through those languages with the different people who use them. Useful engagement, for learning purposes, in turn meant favouring topics which made sense to everyone involved. This made sense to me, too, in the light of research showing that adult learners show better command of their new languages among relaxed company than in formal classroom settings, as Rod Gardner and Johannes Wagner reported in their book Second Language Conversations. More recently, Aria Razfar made similar findings in a study titled ‘Multilingual mathematics’.

Lastly, I learned that we adults might do well to seek inspiration from child learning strategies to facilitate our own language learning and teaching. There is an important sense, I believe, in which new languages are new to child and adult learners alike. Children get at their languages by learning to sing them first, so why not use singing to learn for us adults, too? The next post, a guest post, discusses the core role that music and prosody play in adult language learning, and offers practical suggestions to include songs in language classrooms.


© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Singing to learn pronunciation in a foreign language, by Karen M. Ludke. Saturday 3rd May 2014.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

Learning languages – what for?


It has somehow become politically incorrect to question the current upswing in the seesaw about multilingualism, to the effect that we should all dedicate ourselves to learning languages.

I personally think it’s great fun to learn languages just because they’re there, probably because I work with them as a linguist, but there’s one other reason why I learned the languages that I use, which is, simply, that I have to use them. I wouldn’t be able to function in my everyday environments with a single language. What I find intriguing is the blank encouragement to learn languages for apparently no other reason than everyone else saying that we should. Do we know why we’re joining the chorus? Or are we just doing our best to prove R. W. Emerson’s point that “Nothing is more rare, in any man, than an act of his own” – to which Oscar Wilde added that “Most people are other people”? It grieves me to find languages ranking among the new desirables, on the strength of decidedly consumerist hype: what matters is how many you have.

Multilinguals have “many” languages for the same reason that a lot of people have more than one of anything, from pair of shoes to smartphones, not out of endemic acquisitionitis but because they need them for everyday purposes. Saying this, however, is about as interesting as saying that monolinguals have one language for exactly the same reasons: we all acquire whatever number of languages we need to use in our daily business. Are multilinguals and monolinguals all that different, then? And is it worth spending time and resources on spot-the-difference activities? Nothing is easier, in fact, than finding differences: as the saying goes, we’re all unique just like everyone else. What grieves me even more is that the current drive to (apparently) eradicate monolingualism ends up pitting people against people for yet another reason which defies rational comprehension.

Multilingualism is not “modern”, despite the peddling of its conceptualisation as new. It is in fact so old that our historical records contain no special mention of it by name: it’s taken for granted. Using more than one language is, and has always been, natural. What’s new is not the number of languages that we’ve ever had as individuals, what is new is this idea that talking about linguistic arithmetic makes sense.

The idea grew, in all likelihood, out of current preoccupation with “global” languages, as if they were also new, which in turn highlights our apparently sudden realisation that many users of those languages are monolingual – and likely to have no problem remaining so. After all, they do have a good excuse for not bothering to walk all the way to the mountain, if the mountain keeps racing towards them. But this also makes them easy targets of the charge that there’s something wrong with them for being unwilling language learners. Unfairly, I think.

What should we learn languages for? Language courses routinely offer grammar courses instead. The conviction behind this choice is roughly equivalent to believing, say, that swimming courses should offer familiarisation with aquatic dynamics and the physics of flotation. Monolinguals don’t need to become multilingual in order to become acquainted with grammar, if learning grammar is their purpose. But if their purpose is to be able to use other languages because they’ve found a need to do so, then their awareness of that need is encouragement enough to learn those languages – just like multilinguals.

Multilingualism isn’t a purpose in itself, to be worn, as it were, for ornamental purposes, nor is it something to pitch against monolingualism, as Western-minded linguistic ideology has conditioned us to do. “Against”-ideologies are not, I don’t think, the best way of driving home the physical and mental well-being that multilingualism is said to promote among human beings. Such mindsets don’t help us understand multilingualism either, because they go on portraying it as “special”. Being different doesn’t mean being better or worse, and striving to be different from what we are doesn’t mean becoming better or worse. It just means becoming different. Default or “ideal” human linguistic states aren’t found in the number of languages that we have, they’re found in our ability to make sense and make use of the languages that we need, for our purposes.

I’ll have some more to say about language learning purposes next time. Meanwhile, let me leave you with a thought for the day, Shakespeare’s dejection about other kinds of compulsive gatherers:

© MCF 2014

Next post: Learning to use languages. Saturday 5th April 2014.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Accent, dialect, or disorder?


When is a feature of speech a feature of speech and when does it signal possible speech-language impairment? It may not always be easy to tell whether our linguistic habits reveal something worrying about us or just something about us.

The term accent(s) describes the way we sound (or the way we sign), as part of the dialect(s) that we use. The trouble begins right here, in that these two terms are often confused and/or misused. (In case you’re suspecting that I will, yet again, rant about one of my pet peeves, wholesale lay and professional use of obscure terminology, I’m afraid you’re right. I do suffer from a fixation with our fixation with labels whose relevance to what we’re using them for either doesn’t exist or we don’t understand.)

The trouble is compounded by the widespread use of accent and dialect as judgemental labels, not descriptive ones. Saying that someone speaks with an accent or that someone speaks dialect carries the assumption that there are ways of speaking with no accent or no dialectal features. We all speak dialect, because we all speak language varieties, not “languages”, and dialect is shorthand for ‘language variety’. Dialects come complete with characteristic vocabulary and grammar. Whole monographs have been dedicated to dialectal variation of what we call “languages”, one example being Benedikt Szmrecsanyi’s study of a restricted sample of what we call “English”, Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects. Dialects also come complete with accents, their characteristic patterns of vowels, consonants and prosody, which means that we all speak with an accent, too.

The issue is that the standard accents we’ve learned to associate with prestige varieties of language do not necessarily match the accent standards that we use in our everyday lives. Our accents reflect our social networks, because accents don’t exist without people, but also our bodies, because people don’t exist without bodies: we all speak through our own vocal tract, not somebody else’s – something I’ll come back to some other day.

So how do we tell idiosyncratic uses of language from disordered uses? Take lisping, for example. It is taken as a speech defect when it concerns replacement of other sounds, usually sibilants like /s/. But lisping in itself can’t be a “defect”, in that lisped articulations are part of standard dialects of, say, English (in words like think) and Spanish (in words like hacer), and are in fact recommended as a desirable goal in acquiring “good” accents in those languages. Or take saying [w] where /l/ might otherwise be expected, as when some of us enjoy owd friends, pick fwowers, and don’t wike to be iw. This is typical of child speech and is thus associated with “incomplete” learning. Incidentally, standard speech-language clinical terminology calls these child manipulations of speech sounds errors, a word commonly equated with ‘wrong’. Child pronunciations such as these aren’t wrong: they need no correction, because they’re developmental. In adult speech, saying [w] for /l/ may require specialist attention if it impairs intewigibiwity – or dents the user’s sewf-esteem. We can also use [w] for /l/ only in specific phonological contexts, that is, specific places within a word/phrase, in which case we enjoy owd friends, pick flowers, and don’t like to be iw. This is the rule in many Brazilian dialects of Portuguese, for example, one instance being the word Brasil itself.

There may, in sum, be nothing “wrong” with the way we pronounce our languages. One thing is an observed feature of speech, quite another is what we’ve been conditioned to think about it. There’s a world of difference between clinical and social evaluation of pronunciations. In addition, monolingual standards concerning specific dialects of a restricted number of languages have dominated the creation and implementation of speech-language assessment tools. Countless studies over countless years have insisted on “differences” between monolingual and multilingual uses of language, as if differences were unexpected, all the while portraying monolingualism as benchmark, as if multilingualism were exceptional. Against which “normal” are we assessing multilinguals, really? There’s a world of difference between typical multilingualism and disordered multilingualism.

Healthy speech does not mean standard speech and does not mean monolingual(-like) speech. If we keep using Cinderella’s slippers to serve everyone’s feet, no wonder we end up saying everyone else is an Ugly Sister.

© Anne Anderson (1874-1930) – Wikimedia Commons

Next time, I’ll try to explain why the sisters aren’t ugly at all.


© MCF 2014

Next post: Learning languages – what for? Saturday 8th March 2014.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Expats and immigrants


Have you ever wondered why those of us who move to work in a different country are sometimes called expats and sometimes immigrants? The labels can’t reflect distinct purposes behind the move, because both groups leave previous stomping grounds to seek (perceived) better conditions elsewhere. So I thought of trying to understand the reason for the choice of different labels.

We could start with standard dictionary definitions. Expat(riate): ‘one who lives outside their native country’. Immigrant: ‘one who comes to live permanently in a foreign country’. I wonder why these definitions can’t be swapped, in that neither expats nor immigrants live in their “native” country – or both are “foreigners” in their new country, if we prefer. The word “permanently” appears to hint at a difference, portraying immigrants as having moved for good, whether intentionally or not. I also wonder. Many immigrants leave their country not because they’ve ruled out returning to it, but because the only way to return to it and survive in it involves spending time elsewhere creating the means to do so. On the other hand, if expats count as temporary visitors, I go on wondering what to make of families like mine (we rank as expats, not immigrants), who’ve stayed put in the same country for decades as permanent residents. How permanent is “permanent”?

We could try integration into the host community. Maybe not a good differentiator, on second thought, in that my thesaurus gives ‘alien’ and ‘outsider’ as head synonyms of “foreigner”. Whether quartered in dedicated compounds or roughing it out there in the mainstream jungle, neither expats nor immigrants are renowned for assimilation skills. Perhaps because we all tend to build our home even, or perhaps especially, when away from home? I, for one, don’t see any difference between these two scenarios where I happened to play the role of confidante, the immigrant lady fussing about (substandard) standards of personal hygiene in her new country, and the expat lady who was devastated by her realisation that her favourite (home) brand of coffee wasn’t available where she had moved to.

Could a differential (or do I mean deferential?) guest status in a host nation be it? The word expat does carry nicer connotations than the word immigrant, but connotations have nothing to do with what we are: whatever the labels we go by when we’re working in a new country, we’re aliens. We represent a nation within someone else’s nation, a foreign body in someone else’s eye. Even when we are officially recognised as citizens of more than one country, like my Swedoguese children, that citizenship is always hyphenated and therefore always “special”. Vaidehi Ramanathan’s book Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship explains the art of using citizenship as a weapon and/or shield, as needed. It is as if the countries ruled over us, people. So no difference there, either.

And then it hit me. The difference must lie in our entitlement to the languages we brought along with us in the move. Expat children attend schools featuring their home language. More often than not, these “international” schools offer monolingual schooling, which means that it’s fine for little expats to stick to remaining monolingual, if they so are and they so wish. Immigrant children attend schools featuring the mainstream language. More often than not, these local schools also offer monolingual schooling, which means that little immigrants must, in principle, become multilingual. I say in principle, because what happens in practice, more often than not, is that little immigrants find themselves discouraged to stick to any other language than the mainstream one.

There might be a few blurry edges here, though. Like immigrant families, multilingual expat families may also need to actively assert their right to keep their languages in good working order, as I report in my book Three is a Crowd?. Matthias Hüning, Ulrike Vogl and Olivier Moliner put it this way, in their book Standard Languages and Multilingualism in European History: because of “the principle of ‘one language, one state, one people’ [...], multilingualism came to be viewed as an undesirable aberration.”

So how do our linguistic “aberrations” further impact the way we are treated, in more than one sense of this word? I’ll look at this next time.


© MCF 2014

Next post: Accent, dialect, or disorder? Saturday 8th February 2014.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Multilingual crosswords


I found out only the other day that 2013 marks the first centenary of crossword puzzles. I was rather surprised, actually, because I realised I had been under the impression that such marvellous entertainment must have been invented as soon as words themselves were. For some reason, my mind had dated crosswords all the way back to the invention of playing cards, which we (apparently) owe to Imperial China. In any case, I wouldn’t forgive myself for missing out on the celebration before the year is out.

Image © MCF

Quite a long time ago, I woke up in one of those multilingual moods which, as inexplicably, came associated with crosswords and with my children. The children were familiar with crosswords because of my addiction to them, and they also knew that crossword puzzling comes in many variants, like any other culture-bound entertainment. Swedish-style crosswords, for example, feature a picture, a mix of quick and cryptic clues which are included in the grid itself where other variants may have blocked cells, and strings of light-shaded cells for answers which have no explicit clue except some relationship to the given picture. Whatever their style, however, crossword puzzles all have one thing in common: they stimulate thinking about words in different ways, thereby engaging our linguistic little grey cells in different ways. Since I’ve spent most of my life enjoying linguistic fun and thinking about it, my odd mood on that day gave me the perfect excuse to try to spread the crossword virus to my little ones.

Swedish and English were the languages in which the children were literate at the time, so I created a grid containing Swedish-English orthographic twins with possible different meanings in each language (e.g. the word pass) and two sets of clues, one in each language. My clues were of the quick kind (I’m a coward, yes...), asking for names of people/characters, things, places, activities, synonyms, fill-in-the-blank and anything else I could think of which related to the children’s everyday interests. It was up to the children to decide whether they wanted to solve the crossword twice, separately in each language, or once, using both sets of clues at the same time. Needless to say, the grid had quite a lot of blocked cells, nothing in the way of symmetry, and was otherwise not very appealing to the eye. I used a typical Portuguese grid design, by the way, where rows and columns are numbered sequentially at the side/top of the grid, and individual clues for each of the answers in the same row or column are separated by a full stop. This was the least I could do to have some Portugueseness included in the puzzle.

Physical and mental activities spawned by this crossword puzzle had an unexpected side effect among the children. They all suffered a brief but all the more intense relapse of their (very) aggravating child humour bouts of years before, when they used to point at, say, dogs, then call them cats, then giggle their socks off at their joke, and then repeat the whole routine with (very) minor variations over and over again while prodding us parents to join in. They now spent time and energy inserting, say, Swedish crossword words in English utterances or vice versa, and likewise ROFLing at the results. Given that nurturing their awareness of words and word play in their languages was one of the purposes I had in mind when I set the puzzle, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about having kindled the associated silliness, too.

On the whole, then, I rate the effects of this word-venture quite positively. Crosswords develop our skills in thinking about a language in that language. They teach us new words and help us sort out old and new word spellings. In addition, many of us aren’t necessarily aware of lexical or other relationships among our different languages. Our languages are there to serve different purposes, so their everyday use seldom affords us opportunities to track any similarities they may share. But knowing about them can come in handy: two of my children had to study Latin in school (I know. Don’t ask: just have a look here), which they did in English, their school language. They had serious trouble memorising (ditto: here) all those “funny” words and their meanings until I pointed out to them that thinking about Latin words in Latin’s daughter Portuguese might assist otherwise puzzling homework tasks. This was a true epiphany for the children. Multilinguals do not develop this kind of cross-linguistic awareness spontaneously, by simply being multilingual, despite common assumptions to the contrary – an issue I’ll come back to some other day.

Not least, the multilingual crossword was sheer fun to set and solve. If you’re into language brain-teasers and language play, and would like to see how we can solve and appreciate them even in languages that we’ve never seen or heard before, you may enjoy my Lang101 Workbook. It includes puzzles in languages which use non-Roman scripts, though I have no idea whether or how multilingual print-based puzzles combining different scripts might work. I would be delighted to hear about this.

My next post has a couple of thoughts about what else we can do with our languages.


© MCF 2013

Next post: Expats and immigrants. Saturday 11th January 2014.

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