In 1987, Michael Clyne published a study titled “Don’t you get bored speaking only English?” Expressions of metalinguistic awareness in a bilingual child. I was by then quite engaged in collecting data from my children, from birth, for a study on child trilingualism, Three is a Crowd?. So I made a mental note not to forget to document the children’s many comments on many different multilingual matters, throughout the broad age range that the book spans. They are featured, in particular, in Chapters 5 and 9 to 11.
Multilingual children have good reason to talk and ask about different languages, since different languages make up their linguistic resources. We are of course free to interpret this ability as evidence of those multilingual “advantages” that tend to crop up in current news. To me, it simply means that multilingual children are being multilingual. It’s all about exposure: children who use both chopsticks and fork and knife will show motor advantages over chopstick-only or fork-and-knife-only peers, children not nurtured around books won’t talk about books. My point is that children will develop awareness of what strikes them as worthy of attention in their surroundings, and the related willingness to talk about it.
Clyne’s study confirmed my hunch that what children express about their own and others’ use of more than one language offers a rich source of insight into multilingualism. A refreshing one, too: research about language acquisition offers mostly adult takes, and mostly from monolingual environments. This post and the next one discuss a sample of my children’s own takes on being multilingual, starting with the languages themselves: how the children used them, expressed themselves about them, and assessed their usefulness.
The first expressions of my children’s awareness of their (then) two languages came from their uses of prosody, the melody of speech that is necessarily present in any spoken utterance. Adults assume that very young children have limited ways of expressing themselves, because we also assume that linguistic expression follows adult standards. We don’t know, in other words, whether the limitations that adults talk about reflect infant abilities or adult interpretive skills. A common assumption is, for example, that we need words to express ourselves, and so that infants are at a “pre-linguistic” stage before they produce words. But languages aren’t just words, of course, and words don’t even come to us first: we’ve known for quite a while that the acquisition of prosody precedes the acquisition of words, and that prosody is as linguistic as words (and grammar). My children’s earliest attempts at verbal communication showed distinct uses of prosody in their babble to users of Portuguese or Swedish. In lone play, they directed the same kind of utterances to toys and other objects that they associated with each of the languages. The children soon found that such productions made linguistic sense because adult listeners reacted with full attention to what sounded like fluent use of language. This taught me that looking for what multilingual children do with their languages is rather more enlightening than looking for what they do not do.
When words finally appeared in the children’s repertoire, the first mixes did so, too. Little multilinguals mix their languages not because they’re ‘confused’ or suffer from vocabulary ‘deficiency’, but because of vocal tract immaturity: some words may happen to be more baby-friendly in one language than in another. One example is the Swedish word titta (‘look’), compared to its Portuguese equivalent olha, so titta became my children’s choice to call both parents’ attention to something interesting. That the children weren’t confused at all shows in another strategy, at around the same one-word stage, whereby they would pronounce similarly-sounding and similarly baby-friendly words in both languages in a maximally different way, for example the words for banana or crocodile – or their own names.
The way they identified languages then took other turns. In order to talk about language, we may need to develop a specialised metalanguage (another name for linguistics), but we can certainly make do with what we’ve got available to us, something at which children excel. At the stage when multilingual children start associating different people with different languages, and even when not knowing the name of the language – or that languages have names –, the children would seek confirmation of whether a new acquaintance spoke Swedish by asking me Fala jaha? (Portuguese ‘s/he speaks’, Swedish ‘jaha’), jaha being a very common and very conspicuous conversational device in Swedish, and the whole utterance being, technically, another mix. At the same age, they made profuse use of mamma säger (‘mum says’) to dad and papá diz (‘dad says’) to me in both statements and questions about each language, and they used the same utterances to excuse their mixes: a Portuguese word in a Swedish utterance, say, would invariably be followed by mamma säger.
These and other successful strategies that multilingual children devise to manage their languages might predict equal success in learning more languages, regardless of where and how. As the saying goes, children, and only children, are very good language learners because they’re young. At least for my children, the outcomes of their learning of further languages were dismal from day one: their attitude towards this new school subject was dismal, their marks were even more dismal. And they explained why: their first language subject was French, and they had no idea how to find motivation to learn a language that they had absolutely no need for in Singapore, where they then lived. My podcast ‘Addressing common misconceptions about multilinguals’ discusses the age myth about language learning, among others, @bilingualavenue. For sensible takes on young learners of further languages see Sandie Mourão and Mónica Lourenço’s book Early Years Second Language Education: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, to which I wrote a Foreword.
My children’s own languages, in contrast, first the two home ones and later English, their school language, proved indeed useful to them, in more than an everyday sense. The children understood that different languages also mean different ways of behaving, in them and through them, so they became rather skilled at using their multicultural background as both a shield and a valuable bartering asset. In Portugal, say, when reprimanded about unacceptable child behaviour across the board, they asserted that that’s OK in Sweden and that they were being Swedish that day. And in school, when teased by peers about, say, subpar maths skills, they countered with But I speak Portuguese and Swedish and you don’t.
The next post turns to multilingual children’s thoughts on the users of their languages.
© MCF 2015
Next post: Child musings on being multilingual – The language users. Saturday 21st March 2015.