Besides the number of languages that they use, there is one major difference between monolinguals and multilinguals: we talk about multilinguals as such, whereas we don’t talk about monolinguals as monolinguals. I don’t think anyone ever wondered whether monolingualism can affect a child’s linguistic development, or worried that school monolingualism might impair reasoning abilities, for example.
Multilingualism comes labelled, and labelled things are worthy of attention. There are websites, associations, counsellors, self-help guides, research teams, project grants, academic journals, corporate businesses, books and blogs and whatnot dedicated to multilinguals by name – this blog included, just see its title –, but seldom are we explicitly reminded that virtually all that we know about language and languages draws on monolingual data (maybe someone will now consider starting a blog called Being Monolingual?). This means that we have a lot of information on monolingual norms of language use. These norms have routinely been extrapolated to account for multilingual uses too, on the assumption that I discussed in a previous post. That is, people have been talking about multilingualism through words and concepts that apply to monolingualism. The result is that we have virtually no information on multilingual norms.
Establishing norms of behaviour, including linguistic behaviour, is important for one very crucial reason: without knowing what is typical, we cannot tell what is deviant. This is because assessment, whether informal, academic or clinical, is basically a comparison. We suspect that our child may be running a fever today because she is behaving funny today, compared to her normal self. But how can we tell whether our multilingual child is showing signs of disorder or just being, well, multilingual?
A few pointers can help us decide whether or not it is time to seek professional advice. Barring conditions like impaired hearing, which is surprisingly common in very early childhood, my take is that the presumed health of each of the languages of a multilingual matters less than what healthy multilinguals do with their languages. Let me explain that. Say you’re raising your two-year-old in Mandarin and English. She speaks in single words, either Mandarin or English. Then she finds out that words can be put together, which allows her to say more things all in one go. And one day she produces something that you interpret as want nǎi, ‘want milk’. Your child is not confused, nor is she mangling Mandarin, or English, or both: your child is using Mandarin and English. In short, your child is being multilingual. Same thing if she later on starts using the words of one language with the grammar of another. Or even if she starts stuttering, around this time. Learning to speak fluently in more than single words takes years of sophisticated coordination of breathing with dozens of muscles, in any language, whatever the number of languages. Children also stumble and fall, while they are learning to walk. If you want another example of what tiny multilinguals will do, have a look here (Hi, David!).
My point is that your child (the language user) is doing new things with her languages (the tools), which are also new to her. Practising the use of new tools is a good thing. I, for one, had to figure out how to set up this first blog of mine, and how to post to it. It took me inordinate amounts of time and aggravation, but now I can do it – sort of, I’m still learning too. My point is that we need to focus on the user’s developing skills, not on predicaments of tools. We need to look at what we do with our languages, not at what we do not do. Like this:
- Multilinguals use their languages in different ways. One with mum, another one with dad, another one with siblings. In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the scenario in my own family. Or several languages at home, several others at work. Or one language to cook, another one to argue with the cat. Or any other way. The sky is the limit.
This amounts to saying that:
- The languages of a multilingual cannot be equivalent. If multilinguals could use all their languages in the same way, they wouldn’t need all their languages. One all-purpose language would be enough: we would all turn into monolinguals.
Which means that:
- Multilinguals draw on all of their linguistic resources, not on the resources afforded by single languages, in order to be able to function appropriately in their environment.
Which defines a multilingual, q.e.d.
... Hmm, some of you may be wondering. If all of this is so standard and so healthy and so fine, how come there is such hullabaloo about mixing? Mixes are uses of several languages in one utterance or, more generally, in a communicative exchange. They’re sometimes called codeswitches, codemixes, blends. “Mix” is a neater word, I find. I also wonder quite a lot about the mix fuss, so I propose to talk about it in my next post.
© MCF 2010
Next post: Languages come in flavours. Saturday 23rd October 2010.