Saturday, 29 October 2011

The trick is in the input

Given that languages are there to be used, preferably not to oneself, using languages means that it takes (at least) two to talk. “It Takes Two to Talk” is in fact the trademark guideline of The Hanen Program, which targets parents of young children who have been diagnosed with language disorders. The guideline makes as much sense for typically developing children: to make children talk, talk to them.

Talking to children doesn’t mean the now tedious talk of “quality” talk, whereby you should strive to spend time with your children “teaching” them (a concept which I’ll address in a future post) the latest in string theory or the tenets of Confucianism. Small children cannot learn anything through languages for the simple reason that they haven’t learnt languages yet. For small children, any talk is good talk, because talking is what nurtures language learning. We don’t learn our languages from books or the internet, we learn them from someone who also uses those languages, and who uses them with us.

Photo: © Walter Siegmund (Wikimedia Commons)

Children won’t spontaneously sprout languages either, whatever we adults do, or do not do about it, contrary to popular misconceptions about child language learning. Annick De Houwer makes a forceful case for the core role that language input plays in language acquisition, in a newly-published article, Language input environments and language development in bilingual acquisition, where she shows that “differences between individual bilingual children’s use of their two languages can be attributed to differences in the language input environments for each of the languages”.

One further misconception is that child output matches the input, all the way. It does, eventually, but not from Day One of incipient child productions, and not for many years after that. Whether we’re being exposed to monolingual or multilingual input, learning languages is a protracted process involving active working out of patterns, our way, from what is made available to us. It’s not a read-only transmission of an adult linguistic system – assuming, that is, that we do have some idea of what adult linguistic systems look like. We do have models, but so did the people who modelled combustion on phlogiston.

Many parents who are raising their children multilingually report to me that their usual reaction to the least perceived sign of disruption in one of their children’s languages is first, to fall silent, for fear of further confusing the child, and then, to switch language. It could be that the children used a word from another language, or fell silent themselves instead of responding in expected ways, or that they suddenly appear to feel more comfortable using one language rather than another, thus showing evidence of “unbalanced” linguistic development – an issue to which I’ll come back soon. It could be anything, really. The questions I get usually end up wondering whether there might be something wrong with the children, or with multilingualism, or both. My usual comment is that if we want our children to develop a particular language, the way to go is to use that language with them. And give time its time, as we say in Portugal, dar tempo ao tempo: someone once said (can’t remember who, unfortunately!) that if you want to enjoy the butterfly, you have to be patient with the caterpillar.

Which is all very well. Suppose now, however, that you’ve been talkative and patient, and your butterflies are doing just fine, when the time comes for you to move country. You’ll move your language(s) too, of course, and many different scenarios come to mind about what may happen to those languages. The next post, a guest post, reports on one of these scenarios, giving voice to the parents: how do immigrant parents assess their family’s new linguistic situation?

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= “Invisible” but actively present: Immigrant parents’ views concerning their children’s bilingualism, by Anastasia Gkaintartzi (Αναστασία Γκαϊνταρτζ​ή, in actual spelling). Saturday 5th November 2011.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Learning to be multilingual

Multilingual children learn their languages in the same way that all children learn their languages, which is by practising their use. Small children don’t know that they are learning “languages”, as little as they know that they are being nurtured into other cultural behaviours that happen to be practised around them. They learn to use handy ways of getting things done for them, by eventually realising that piercing cries result in immediate attention, or that saying the word(s) for ‘water’ is an effective way of getting a drink of water.

When children start making sense of their surroundings as surroundings, that is, as something independent of themselves, they also start making sense of their languages. Whether we’re big or small, we don’t need sophisticated vocabulary to express ourselves about our surroundings and our positioning within them. Children may yawn or giggle, they may mimic the characteristic body language or voice inflections of someone they want to refer to, or they may use someone’s language to refer to them, including in exchanges taking place in a different language – which is yet another typical instance of multilingual mixes.

The dawning of the age of awareness, also known as The Terrible Twos And Threes, is marked by tiny tots’ attempts at imposing (their) order on what they progressively come to understand as a whole wide world which isn’t, after all, populated by personal slaves at their beck and call. For multilingual children, one sign of budding awareness of the linguistic landscape into which they were born is their classification of the people around them according to the language(s) that they use, siblings included. Observations like “He speaks like mummy”, or “Can she speak like in my school?” reflect common child concerns at this time, and guide multilingual children’s choices of appropriate use of language(s) when, where and with whom.

Awareness of multilingual etiquette grows too, one example being that you follow suit on the language that someone addresses you in. There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this rule. One relates to an episode which took place among my family. Our children were by then users of Portuguese, mostly from mum, and Swedish, mostly from dad, and had duly classified users of these languages accordingly. One of our relatives, a speaks-like-daddy one, happened to have spent quite a long time in Portugal, and spoke Portuguese, though never to our children. But one day, he decided to do so, to our then three-year-old. Her reaction surprised not only him, but us parents too: she first froze in place, and then rushed to me to hide her face tight against me, refusing to address him, in any language, for the length of his visit.

Something was clearly wrong, to the child. We can only speculate about what. She was used to being addressed in different languages by the same people, so that was not the problem. Was it foiled expectations about that particular person, a breach of the rules she thought she had worked out to organise her world? Things like A speaks only X, and B speaks X and Y, though only X to me? Things like horsies don’t meow, to me or to anyone else? Child reactions help us shed light into intriguing matters like these, and may prompt us to rethink what being multilingual is all about. Our girl reacted in one way which she had available to express her bafflement, which was to remain silent. It made me wonder whether so-called selective mutism, for example, on the assumption that silence is the absence of something instead of the presence of something else, might not be due to similar causes.

And yes, there are other reasons for not following suit on the language that someone uses to you, as I suggested above. They range from developmental immaturity, where words of one language may contain sounds which are too difficult for small children to articulate, to quite mature realisation that switching language is, in itself, meaningful behaviour. I’ll come back to both issues in future posts, but meanwhile, I thought of switching too, from looking at what children do in order to learn to be multilingual to what the adults around them do to assist them.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The trick is in the input. Saturday 29th October 2011.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Children, toys, and languages

When it became clear that the internet and its associated paraphernalia had come to stay, my family decided to invest in a brand new (and expensive) desktop, complete with all the latest hard and soft gadgetry that, to our minds, also had come to stay. To us, parents, deciphering the workings of the cyber-friendly software by means of actions performed on the not so friendly hardware was a whole new language, which we duly set out to learn the way we had learnt our other new languages: instruction leaflet in hand, we typed and clicked the rules that someone else had worked out for us, with kid gloves and bated breath.

What we forgot, however, was that our children were by then big enough to sit unaided in front of a computer, and to tackle it, also unaided. One morning, we found all three of them huddled around the precious contraption, that we thought we had left safely turned off and off-puttingly covered the night before, taking more or less orderly turns at hammering away at mouse and keyboard, exclaiming at findings and commenting on procedure. Never mind about exercising parental authority right there and then, the facts were that the children turned to us to actually inform us about computer management tricks that we had timidly glimpsed on the Advanced Uses pages of the leaflet. This was as much a first for them as it had been for us but, well, the kids didn’t know about gloves, and their breathing was profoundly relaxed.

Small wonder that they treated our languages with the exact same lightheartedness. To the children, languages were yet other intriguing things to play around with, for the same purposes – to find out how they work. Neither the bulky desktop nor the languages had come to stay, as it turned out. Our (parental) problem, there too, was that we thought of our languages as, literally, our languages. We kept forgetting that the languages were theirs too and that, like the computer, the children could use them unaided.

Like all children, they created their own words, or new meanings for adult words and, like all multilingual children, they mixed their languages and the body language that they had learnt to associate with each one – more on which in a later post. Just like they used tea towels as turbans, or disassembled a toy car to check out the effects of an alternative assembling. These things are not part of user’s manuals for tea towels and toy cars, but they are part of the possible uses of tea towels and toy car parts.

Exploring possibilities, to my mind, is what learning is all about. Playing is often defined as engaging in some (idle) activity for pleasurable purposes rather than serious ones. That is, playing for serious purposes seems to be a contradiction in terms – though one wonders what to make of the “playing” in golf and bridge tournaments, or of playing video games for a living. Add to that the idea that learning is a serious endeavour, which should be seriously managed by serious policy-makers, and we end up with the conviction that learning must be achieved through boring activities, because achievement takes 99 parts transpiration to one part inspiration, and where there’s no pain there’s no gain, that sort of thing. Children’s spontaneous learning tells us a different story: it is precisely because learning is such a serious activity that play plays such an important role in it.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Child play may even strike some of us as aimless waste of time, because we believe that learning as much as possible as soon as possible is what children are there for, and that learning aims at goals which are well-defined, through equally well-defined learning routes. If you’re learning languages, for example, you should be learning words and ways of putting them together to form sentences. I’ve said a few things about this before. But small children have no idea that they are learning languages, or that they are learning at all. In their article The development of embodied cognition: six lessons from babies, Linda Smith and Michael Gasser put it this way: “How can a learner who does not know what there is to learn manage to learn anyway?” Their answer: “babies can discover both the tasks to be learned and the solution to those tasks through exploration, or non-goal-directed action”. In babies, they add, “spontaneous movement creates both tasks and opportunities for learning”.

So how come we adults forgot all about non-goal-directed action, spontaneous whole-body engagement with learning, and creating opportunities for learning? Sir Ken Robinson, in a 2006 TED talk, explains how traditional, “serious” learning practices have put child creativity, and so human creativity, to waste (obrigada pela dica no seu blog, Cláudia!). Perhaps not knowing what there is to learn, and not knowing that one is learning, is what makes learning effective. And why we learn best through play. My next post will have a few examples of how multilingual children learn to be multilingual, their way.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Learning to be multilingual. Saturday 22nd October 2011.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Multilingual beginnings

One of the striking impressions I get from my dealings with language learning, language use and multilingualism is our tendency to look at what is not there. I don’t mean the commendable mindset that urges us to keep doing more and better because we know that we haven’t done our most and best yet, I mean the way we tend to disregard what is there.

I plead guilty too. When I took my firstborn to one of her routine check-ups, another 11-month-old, also a girl, was in the waiting room with her mum. This other girl was crawling all over the place at breathtaking speed, and grabbing at anything and anyone in sight to lift herself up and try to walk, whereas my girl, who had rehearsed a few half-hearted attempts at rolling and dragging herself on her tummy a few months earlier and soon given up, was doing what she did best at the time, which was sitting there on the floor and enjoying the show. My eyes glued to the little acrobat and I became instantly unsettled. What was wrong with my baby? Why wasn’t she moving at this late age?

I then noticed that the other mum was, in turn, staring at my girl, which added to my discomfort. She must be wondering about my motionless child too, so I decided to praise her child before she could condole with me about mine. “Sorry I’m staring”, I said, “but I couldn’t help noticing how active your girl is, compared to mine”. “Oh”, she replied, “thanks for telling me that! I was staring myself, at the impressive amount of teeth your girl has. Mine has none”. We had to laugh, both of us.

Informal observations like these are one thing. Quite another concerns official verdicts about our children’s development falling short of standard milestones, and this is no laughing matter. Take vocabulary, for example, the traditional tell-tale indicator of early linguistic health. If we assume that words reflect the first signs of linguistic development, then lack of words, or of a specific amount or type of words, means lack of expressive abilities. So much so that children who have yet to acquire words are said to be at the “pre-linguistic stage”. That is, these children don’t have language.

We’ve nevertheless known for quite a while that, prior to the appearance of words, babbling and babbling patterns provide reliable indicators of typical development. But descriptions of babbling often concern what analysts can recognise as syllables, vowels and consonants, that is, “word-like” baby utterances. Should we then look for words and word-like productions as evidence of the earliest linguistic resources that children have available? We might be looking in the wrong places, actually. Perhaps what wordless babies are said to lack, according to popular benchmarks, is instead what popular benchmarks themselves lack.

Take prosody, for example. For ages 5 and upwards, Sue Peppé and colleagues are currently developing an instrument for assessment of child prosody, PEPS-C (Profiling Elements of Prosodic Systems – Children), but our understanding of how very young children use the prosody of their languages has been most lacking. Yet we’ve also known for many years that children begin making sense of their languages by making sense of prosody, and I was thrilled to be able to confirm this in a study of my own children’s language development.

Before they had any recognisable words in any of their two home languages, Portuguese and Swedish, the children started using any sounds that they were able to produce as fillers, that is, as handy carriers of salient prosodic patterns of each of their languages. They also babbled things like blh-blh-blh (to be read in Portuguese, [bʎˈbʎbʎ], where ˈ indicates a stressed syllable) and hadda-hadda-hadda (ditto in Swedish, [hadahada ̏ hada], where  ̏  represents the so-called ‘double-accent’ of the language).

The children switched between these uses of their resources when addressing people whom they associated with each language, or when looking at pictures of them – as well as when talking to toys which they got from Portuguese or Swedish speakers and which, therefore, also “spoke” each of these languages. The baby-dialogues that they fashioned in this way sounded Portuguese or Swedish, because the prosody was Portuguese or Swedish. When the first words appeared, the children accommodated them to the linguistic melodies that they had by then mastered, and went on using their old prosodic strategies as replacement for words which they hadn’t yet learnt in one of their languages, or which for some reason failed them at some time or other. Just like all of us use fillers like thingamabob or what’s-its-name, for the same reasons.

These earliest linguistic resources were not “words” of either language, but the children were nevertheless using their two languages. I’ll have some more to say about multilingual child strategies for learning language in the next couple of posts. 

© MCF 2011

Next post: Children, toys, and languages. Saturday 15th October 2011.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Vocal gestures

If someone calls you a brick, and you have no idea whether to swell with pride or burn with anger (it happened to me), you ask what being a brick means to whoever called you that. But in order to be able to ask, you need to be able to understand that you didn’t understand.

Asking about the meaning of gestures is rather more difficult. We communicate with our whole bodies, whatever the languages that we use in face-to-face interaction, but we appear to assume that our bodies behave in ways that belong to human bodies and not, like word meanings, to cultures. Body language is as much a language as Swahili or Italian, as Desmond Morris showed in his book Bodytalk. A world guide to gestures. Pointing at something with your foot or shrugging your shoulders in response to a question are symbolic behaviours whose meanings are as arbitrary as calling someone a chicken (I think I know what that means, at least in English) or yelling Ai!! instead of &*☁#☠!! when you stub your toe.

Our interlocutors may take the gestures that we use, like the words that we use, to represent what we are and, by extension, to represent the culture (region, country, level of education, habits of politeness, etc., etc.) which they perceive as ours. For better or for worse – an issue to which I’ll come back some other day. First-time visitors to Portugal, for example, regularly ask me why the Portuguese are always angry when they talk to each other. We’re not. Vociferous voices, faces and gestures are just part and parcel of fluent Portuguese-ness.

The meaning of vocal gestures tops the list of difficult things to ask about. We may not understand that we didn’t understand what someone else intended by their tone of voice, including where we may understand it in a way that makes sense to us – which thus becomes the “intended” meaning. This is the domain of prosody, our ways of modulating our vocal resources. I believe we’re doubly lost here, because we’re using spoken language, and we take spoken language to be translatable into print, but we can’t ask our usual glitch-fixer How d’ya spell that?, because prosody is not contemplated in the printed forms of any language. Boring symbols like ?, !, commas, ..., possibly ?!, and so on, tell us as much about speech prosody as the letter ‘s’ about its pronunciation – which is why, by the way, the current flurry of *-*, ;-p, =[, ROFL, and company is doing such a nice job of providing us with printed clues to body language. Plus you can’t ask about spellings with small children, who can’t spell at all, who have no idea at all that grown-ups like asking questions about language uses, and whose multilingual acrobatics, gestural or otherwise, are therefore known to cause much chagrin. How do you spell your voice, indeed?

Has-no-spelling, ergo does-not-matter is probably the reason why prosody passes under silence in standard school language teaching. Those language courses that do include pronunciation regularly feature it after everything else that needs to be “covered” in the syllabus, as if the sound of spoken languages complemented their vocabulary and their syntax. But, as regularly, “pronunciation” means vowels and consonants (and semi-such), which do have some printed representation. I once wrote, in a paper titled Prosodic mixes, that if pronunciation has been said to be the Cinderella of language matters, then prosody must be Cinderella’s broomstick.

Prosody is not the cherry on the cake of our uses of a language. It is a necessary component of speech, in the sense that you can’t say anything, in any language, without colouring it with rhythm, pitch, stress. Prosody is also the signature of a language or a language variety, in the sense that if you speak French, say, with French vowels and consonants, and English prosody, you sound like you’re speaking English, not French. And if you’re actually speaking English when you think you’re speaking French, then you’re meaning English meanings with your voice, not French ones.

The issue is not just that your uses of your new language may be unintelligible to your interlocutors because your prosody doesn’t make sense: the issue is also that you may be intelligible in ways which you don’t suspect you are, because your prosody does make sense, though not the sense that it makes to you. For better or for worse, here too. If the use of the word brick had meant something to me, I would have assigned to it the meaning that was familiar to me. Likewise, if someone uses a tone of voice which, to me, means huffiness, then I’ll assume that the speaker is (being) huffy, rather than wonder about that person’s awareness of the uses of prosody in whatever language they’re using at the moment.

Vocal gestures are at the core of language uses, and this is why prosody is the first thing that we master, as we learn our languages. With multilingual children, prosody can also tell us quite a few interesting things about being multilingual. I’ll give a few examples next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual beginnings. Saturday 8th October 2011.


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