Saturday, 23 August 2014

The languages that matter


Regular messages that I get from parents who have decided to bring up their children multilingually often have “Which languages should I use with my child?” in the subject line. The body of the messages, as often, nevertheless ends up answering this question: the parents say things like “my wife speaks X and Y, I speak X and W, and my mother, who will babysit the child most of the time, speaks only W”. That’s three languages, and choosing at least two of them, in this case dad’s languages, seems straightforward: use X, mum and dad’s shared language, I write back, and W, for granny’s sake. And, I go on, if mum feels that Y matters, too, by all means go ahead and use it, too.

Most of these messages, however, do not stop here. Those parents who don’t write to me in English, or for whom this isn’t one of “their” languages, as they put it, hasten to clarify in the next sentences that they also speak English (let’s call it Z, and use this symbol to refer to any of the “big” languages currently looming above us), as if not being a Z user were somehow unnatural, or mortifying. The real question then comes towards the end of the message: “So which languages should I use with my baby in order to give her a good head start in life?”

Mentions of Z invariably carry a Z-must undertone, even (especially?) when parents explain that this is a very non-native and very non-family language to them, while at the same time asserting their belief that early home exposure to any Z, rather than to no Z, will trigger the desired lifelong edge. There’s no undertone when parents add that Z will have to replace one of the family languages that might otherwise have been a good candidate for home nurturing, because “I don’t want to burden my child with too many languages”.

Which gets me wondering: why don’t the subject lines ask about “Which languages should I not use with my child?” instead, since the questions are about discarding languages? If X, Y and W matter, not least monolingually, because they’re family languages, how do we decide which one of them will mean a waste of child time and cognitive potential, as some parents see it fit to argue, because Z matters no matter what? Which arguments, I also wonder, can ease parental consciences about the burdensome language(s) that must cease to matter?

I confess my mixed feelings about all this. The good news is that agonising over whether to bring up children multilingually is becoming old hat. I also get fewer and fewer questions from, for example, multilingual parents wishing to bring up their children monolingually in the foreign, global and mainstream language used where they’ll move to, and where, their reasoning goes, no other language can possibly matter. But the questions that bloom in their stead are no less disquieting. What matters now is being multilingual-with-Z, in the sense that if I’m multilingual in, say, Icelandic and Bhutanese, I certainly lack the edge of fellow multilinguals in, say, Mandarin and Spanish – or in one of the former languages with one of the latter.

What “edge” are we talking about, and when do we reckon it will deploy its effects? These questions about choice of home languages have two things in common. First, they ask, here and now, about how we can make or break our children’s adult welfare against the competition by talking to them in the right or wrong languages. Which leaves open (closed, actually) the question of what we should talk to our little ones until they’re big ones, including for granny’s sake, since she will share the children’s here and now for a while yet. Planning home language policies has started to look a lot like investing in futures, in other words. Do we know which languages will matter to our children where and how, when they’re no longer children? Or are we attempting to create their future ourselves, by opening certain doors for them and shutting down others as soon as they’re born?

Second, these questions reflect parents’ persuasion (or helplessness, or guilt) that their non-Z languages may be expendable because they’re non-Z. Ever since it became fashionable to talk about multilingualism as an investment, nobody dares follow their parental instincts any more (or plain commonsense) about deciding which languages actually matter to the family. We’re urged to follow the crowd, whether at home, in school or in clinic. Maybe this is why I feel strangely refreshed when I read about what matters to organisations like OLCA (Office pour la Langue et la Culture d’Alsace) or to people like Aaron Carapella.

Worrying about our children’s future is of course part and parcel of being a parent. But I find it exceedingly difficult to plan that future, not least linguistically and not least because the children will also have their say about what matters to them, often much earlier than we suspect. In my family, for example, we parents started off communicating with one another in English, then learned one another’s languages because English didn’t feel to us like a family language at all, to later have our children make English not only a family language but the one which they use among themselves, still today. Which made me realise that I should stick to worrying about investing in parenting instead, in whatever language.

The belief that some languages are more entitled to life than others is particularly insidious where sign languages, as opposed to spoken ones, enter the fray. The next post offers a few thoughts on this.

© MCF 2014

Next post: Sign-speech multilinguals. Saturday 20th September 2014.

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