Saturday, 17 September 2016

Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness

Learning new languages can be a source of unexpected pleasure. I don’t just mean the perhaps more familiar prospects that making sense of the languages will make sense of people and cultures that up to then had struck us as ‘odd’, or allow us to acquire, first-hand, knowledge and wisdom that we had no idea existed because we had no idea how to access the code that gives them voice. I also mean making sense of the languages as objects of discovery themselves, which goes well beyond the utilitarian purposes we’re commonly told we should learn languages for.

I mean the fun of cracking, bit by bit, on our own, the puzzles that languages are, as when we start asking ourselves questions like Can we say things this way? or How come there are words for this? Eventually, such ‘this’ questions lead to their ‘that’ counterparts – How about that way? Can there be words for that, too? Asking ‘that’ questions means that we’re ready to take ownership of our new languages, prompting us to attempt to answer these questions ourselves.

Exploring possibilities in this way is what learning is all about. Children do it – which may well explain why they are said to be expert language learners. Encouraging similar exploration among older learners, including of the mistakes that inevitably follow and that provide evidence of learning, would thus appear to assist language learning. H. G. Widdowson thought so, when he argued that “proficiency only comes with nonconformity” in The ownership of English, and so did Guy Cook in Language Play, Language Learning.

Yet learners’ attempts at putting their linguistic resourcefulness to good use in their learning are deemed inappropriate, as Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa discuss in Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Curtailing learner inventiveness in judgemental terms draws on two paradoxes. First, the framing of learners’ “linguistic practices as deficient regardless of how closely they follow supposed rules of appropriateness”, in Flores and Rosa’s words, that is, of how closely they follow ‘native speaker’ standards. And second, the predication of creativity on multilingualism while condemning multilingual creativity for not being monolingual.

We seem to want to find fault with features of language because finding fault with features of language users is not politically correct, as a previous post makes clear. Or not traditionally correct: a recent discussion at ResearchGate, on How advanced must L2 speakers be before native speakers accept their neologisms as acceptable rather than inaccurate?, highlights the focus of traditional language teaching on the languages and their mythical homogeneity, rather than on the learners. We keep confusing languages with textbook samples of them, on the conviction that what matters for language teaching and learning isn’t what matters to the learners, here and now, but what mattered to textbook creators, there and then.

Wanting to be taught language that matters to us, wondering about ‘this’ and ‘that’ questions in our new languages, and wanting to be allowed to find answers to them are signs of linguistic competence. Nancy Bell and Anne Pomerantz have researched these issues for the past two decades, pointing out the fictional nature of traditional language learning materials and encouraging the expansion of learner repertoires through active engagement with the languages. In their new book, Humor in the Classroom. A Guide for Language Teachers and Educational Researchers, they argue that understanding and producing language play is a good indicator of proficiency, too. They reject the contention that “humor and play have no place in the serious business of scholarship, let alone language education”, by revisiting misconceptions about “unconventional talk, particularly as they relate to how we understand language use, language learning, and language teaching in educational spaces.”

Addressing language learners’ linguistic resourcefulness in teaching materials, teaching methods and classroom practices might mean unlearning the modes and contents of what we’ve come to expect of traditional language teaching, for both instructors and learners. But I suspect there may well be unexpected sources of teaching and learning pleasure in starting to ask ‘that’ questions about our current language teaching philosophies, and looking for answers to them.

ResearchBlogging.org






Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85 (2), 149-171. DOI: 10.17763/0017-8055.85.2.149

Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 28 (2). DOI: 10.2307/3587438


© MCF 2016


This will be my last regular post on this blog.
There are 160 posts for you to enjoy, on the blog’s core topics of
myths and misconceptions about being multilingual in the home, in school and in clinic.
Thank you for your reader support so far!


Saturday, 23 July 2016

Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness

I met a Scandinavian couple the other day, who had visited Portugal countless times. They waxed lyrical about the country, its beauty, its history, its food, its people (I can, by the way, impartially confirm that their comments were spot on), and told me they would be moving there soon. Paperwork, housing and banking matters were all good to go, and they were delighted to have found a native who could answer their less bureaucratic questions.

“So when will you start learning Portuguese?”, I asked in turn. “Oh, no need for that!”, they waved me aside, “Everyone speaks English there”. They do?, I thought, wondering what everyone and English might mean, whenever anyone says what they’d just said. Okay, I went on thinking, so they’re aiming to make a home of Portugal’s beauty, history, food, and people in a language that is neither theirs nor the country’s. How will that work itself out?, I wanted to ask next but, before I could, they added: “Besides, we’re not good at languages.”

I must have mumbled something in response, and we probably went on talking about the marvels, the enrichment, etc. etc., afforded by travelling the world. I can’t remember. I’ve learned to switch to sociable autopilot after that line, one that I’ve heard countless times and as infinitely tried to counter, to null effect. The cumulative facts that I use more than the magical number of just two languages in my daily life and that I ‘work with languages’ apparently make me unsuitable to speak for the learning of new ones. “You’re gifted for languages”, people nod knowledgeably at me and, as far as they’re concerned, this compliment ends the argument.

Gift-wrapped language skills?
Image © Clipart Panda

The issue is, of course, that this is no compliment at all. It makes light of the tremendous amount of time, will, engagement, openness to input, readiness for practice that goes into learning any language, any time, whether we’re big or small. It tells me and other language learners that we’ve learned our languages because we were, literally, given something that we didn’t need to have merited to earn. It tells me and other believers in hard work that we should believe instead in easy handouts that we can’t help being awarded – or not awarded: the corollary of gift theories of learning is that some of us “are not good” at learning certain things, and can’t help it either. 

The issue is also that the gifted-for-languages reasoning is flawed. It says that in order to be able to learn languages we must be good at languages. So are we all gifted, since all of us are good at learning at least one language, or does linguistic giftedness apply only to multilinguals? In that case, the gift can only reveal itself after we’ve learned a couple of languages, since nobody is born using them. So was there a gift to start off with, or did we acquire language learning skills on the job? Are we talking nature or nurture?

Understand me right: I’m not denying giftedness. I’m saying that arguing that you can only learn to use new languages if you’re gifted for languages makes as much sense as arguing that you can only learn to use new smartphones if you’re gifted for smartphones. I can’t deny giftedness because the single most important thing I’ve learned from my 40+ years as a teacher is that we’re all gifted. The trick is to find where that gift lies, which is not necessarily where entitled education policy-makers keep telling us where to look. In order to be good at what we do, what we need to be given is the chance to develop what we’ve got. Francis Bacon dixit, in Novum Organon, 1: CXXI: “So again the seeds of things are of much latent virtue, and yet of no use except in their development”. Or, as Edward M. Hundert puts it in the last paragraph of his book Lessons from an Optical Illusion. On Nature and Nurture, Knowledge and Values, we must strive to “nurture that nature that has nurtured us”.

Let me leave you with two other nuggets of wisdom about learners and learning: Aristotle’s “Consuetudo est altera natura” (‘Habit is second nature’) and Quintilian’s “Consuetudo certissima est loquendi magistra” (‘Usage is the best language teacher’). Consuetudo is where we find the gift.

I’m sure that my new friends will enjoy living in Portugal – their way, with expat English among English-speaking Portuguese. They won’t notice, and I won’t tell them, what they’ll miss about Portugal’s consuetudines. Or about exploring unsuspected language learning skills, more on which next time.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness. Saturday 17th September 2016.


Saturday, 9 July 2016

Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter
=Guest post=

Photo credit: Matt Thorsen
by Tim Brookes


Before I started the Endangered Alphabets project, I thought of myself as being multilingual: good French, decent German, solid Latin, tourist Spanish and Italian, toasts in Russian and obscenities in half a dozen languages.

Now, after seven years of carving the world’s most obscure and endangered writing systems, it’s clear what a novice I am. I just received a Facebook birthday card from a colleague who wrote in a dozen languages, most of them endangered. And my ethnocentricity has been challenged head-on by the fact that in doing more than 100 carvings in more than 30 different minority scripts I can now read precisely one word in a non-Latin script: the Balinese word suksma, meaning ‘thank you’.

The Balinese word “suksma” (‘thank you’).
Carved in cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Yet oddly enough my insular limitations have also been a strength in this ongoing project, or at least have offered me perspectives that might otherwise be hard to come by. My first exhibition of carvings, all of which featured Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in endangered writing systems, grew out of my stumbling upon Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. It was a revelation. I thought of myself as fairly well-traveled and widely-read, yet I’d never heard of probably 85% of the languages on Omniglot. And the texts themselves were all Greek to me – well, more than Greek, given that in many cases I couldn’t pronounce a single glyph or understand a single word-cluster.

In a way, that was an advantage. I saw those languages not in terms of the communication of meaning but as a series of symbols that had evolved (or in some instances been created) for a reason, or a series of reasons. My ignorance led me to ask questions that might never occur to someone versed in that language. Why was the Inuktitut script so mathematical? Why was Baybayin so damn thin it was hard to carve and even harder to paint?

The phrase “mother tongue” in Baybayin, the pre-colonial script of the Philippines,
based on calligraphy/graffiti by Kristian Kabuay.
Carved in flame cherry
Photo credit: Tom Way

Why were the letters of Samaritan off balance? Why did Cherokee have serifs on curves – and come to think of it, why did it have serifs at all?

And the more I looked at these unfamiliar scripts, the more I realized we English-speakers never stop and ask ourselves basic questions about our own language and alphabet. Why were we so smitten with the Latin alphabet – to such an extent that the default academic font was called Times New Roman? Why were we so keen on parallels, right angels, circles, the Euclidean forms that are in fact impossible to write freehand? What does English have against diacritics, when other languages embrace them to such an extent that some scripts look like a large wet black dog shaking itself?

But the really interesting questions were about language itself, and the way people instinctively think about it. For example: it has been fascinating to me how often people look at my Alphabet carvings and say, “That one looks like an alien script”. I even though so myself when I first started. I’ve come to think of this as the Stonehenge phenomenon: when people look at Stonehenge they see pattern and therefore intent but they can’t see meaning. That’s a powerful, magnetic phenomenon. They can’t look away or stop wondering what it means and why it was created.

I think an “alien” alphabet has the same qualities: we can see it has shape and purpose and therefore intent, but it’s so utterly unfamiliar we can’t understand it, and we can’t even imagine understanding it. So we assume it must not be of this Earth. More and more, I find myself thinking in such galactic terms and seeing and hearing language as a series of variations on the concept of pattern.  

“Happy New Year” in Mongolian calligraphy,
based on the work of Sukhbaatar.
Carved in pau amarillo
Photo credit: Tom Way

Let me explain. When I’ve finished carving and painting one of my scripts into, say, a piece of curly maple and then I add the first coat of tung oil, an extraordinary three-dimensional change takes place. The wood acquires both luster and depth, as if rising and sinking at the same time. Faint shadows become deep currents. Knots become cyclones. The grain ripens one way, but in the same instant a different set of ripples will often appear running perpendicular to it. The wood becomes anatomical, muscular. And the black text seems to float both in and above it, as if it is both part and not part of the wood.

The first time I really looked at this transformation, it struck me that something fascinating was taking place in terms of pattern. The grain in the wood and the ripples running more or less perpendicular to it, looking like patterns in wet sand, are expressions of the rhythms running through everything.

The verb “la” (‘to be’) in Nom, the pre-colonial script of Vietnam.
Carved in quilted maple
Photo credit: Tom Way

Trees have been on this planet for some 370 million years, and the patterns in the grain – well, they illustrate forces that have been acting on matter since the dawn of the universe.

Part of the human condition, though, is to try to see the shape and drift of those forces. We’re pattern-seeking creatures, after all. And what struck me about languages, especially when carved in wood, is that they show our own efforts to understand the world by creating patterns – patterns that others can recognize and convert into speech, into ideas – overlaid on the deeper, older, more complex patterns that have made us what we are.

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets project, whose carvings have been exhibited all over North America including at Harvard, Yale, and the Smithsonian Institution. He is also the author of 16 books, details of which can be found at his homepage.


© Tim Brookes 2016

Next post: Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness. Saturday 23rd July 2016.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages?

Many years ago, I went, as usual, to fetch my children from Swedish Supply School, which met once a week after regular (English-medium) school in Singapore, where our family lived. On that particular occasion, one of the children was especially eager to start telling me all about her day. She spoke Portuguese, this being the language that the children and I have always shared, and she speckled it with so much English and Swedish that I felt compelled to interrupt her. “Querida!”, I giggled, “Que língua é que estás a falar?!” (‘Sweetheart! Which language are you speaking?!’). She stared at me briefly as if I were a clueless alien and then snapped, in squeaky clean Portuguese: “Uma qualquer, para dizer o que eu quero!” (‘Whichever, to say what I want to say!’).

What was I doing, here? I was giving evidence that being multilingual, as I am, hadn’t immunised me against the persuasion that languages are objects of reverence: they are there to be respected. Which meant that I was paying attention to my girl’s languages, not to her.

What was she doing? She was giving evidence that being multilingual, as she is, had made it clear to her that languages are tools: they are there to serve our needs. She had last used Portuguese in the early morning, a long time before the end of her working day, which had taken place first in English and then in Swedish. So why not use, in “whichever” language, the bits and pieces of the other language(s) in which those bits and pieces first became meaningful to her? All of my children did this, as I discuss in Chapter 10 of my book Three is a Crowd?. I found it particularly revealing that later, when they and I talked about these episodes, it was their turn to giggle when reporting their unawareness that they had been ‘mixing languages’, as this behaviour is usually called. Besides, as my girl then added about this episode, she knew that I knew all three languages in question, so “there was no problem there, right?”

Again, she left me without arguments. It may be true that only multilinguals in my children’s three languages might understand what they were saying when they used their languages in this way, but any multilingual in any languages would understand what they were doing: they were being typical multilinguals. The question then arises of why we came to talk about a feature of typical multilingualism as ‘mixing’, a word with rather negative undertones. Conversely, we might also ask what it means to not mix, or switch, languages or codes. Multilingual mixes usually raise judgemental or worried eyebrows as providing evidence of bad or impaired use of language, respectively. But “bad/impaired use of language” in fact means ‘bad/impaired use of a language’, and there is a world of difference between language and a language. So why don’t monolingual mixes cause generalised unease, and where do we draw the line?

The issue is precisely one of lines. Like country boundaries, language boundaries are figments of our collective imagination. Not even linguists have any idea what or where they might be. So why do we go on interpreting multilingual mixes as offending language boundaries? Ofelia García, in an interview conducted by François Grosjean on his blog Life as a Bilingual and titled What is Translanguaging?, answers this question pithily:
Linguists often refer to the behavior of bilinguals when they go across these named language categories as code-switching. It is an external view of language. But translanguaging takes the internal perspective of speakers whose own mental grammar has been developed in social interaction with others. […] Translanguaging is more than going across languages; it is going beyond named languages and taking the internal view of the speaker’s language use.

The book that Ofelia García edited with Li Wei, Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education, has more on how translanguaging characterises everyday multilingual practices.

Languages are there to be used as the tools that they are, not replicated as straitjacketed instruction manuals. Different languages make sense to us precisely because they allow us to engage with what matters to us in different ways, and to give the right flavour to what we wish to say. To use one of my favourite analogies, how we deal with our languages is no different from how we deal with our food. There are (standard) recipes, that we haven’t been called upon to put together because they were devised and tried by other people; there are ingredients, and tips about method and seasonings. But then we do it our way, because we are the ones doing the cooking. Favouring observation of each of the languages of multilinguals over what the multilinguals themselves do with them is like analysing recipes to find out how they taste. Multilinguals only transgress those rules that never took multilinguals themselves into account.

The next post, a guest post, keeps to the topic of creativity, this time about how and why we find ways of preserving our languages in printed form.


© MCF 2016

Next post: =Guest post= Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter, by Tim Brookes. Saturday 9th July 2016.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Teaching languages through drama/theatre positively impacts oral fluency
=Guest post=


by Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson


Do you speak another language? Many people who have heard this question don’t necessarily speak a second language (L2) fluently. Learning to speak a new language is challenging, but fluency in the L2 is a goal many people share. Contrary to what most people believe, opportunities to interact in the L2 do not necessarily guarantee a learner will come to speak it fluently (Derwing, Munro, and Thomson, 2008; Ranta and Meckelborg, 2013), so finding ways to improve fluency in the classroom is important. From our recent research, it seems that drama and theatre can help.

If you have ever taken a drama or theatre class, you will probably agree that it is a lot of fun. But drama is not all about the entertainment; it can also help language learners develop speaking abilities (Kao and O’Neill, 1998; Stern, 1980; Stinson and Freebody, 2006) and can impact oral fluency and pronunciation in particular (Galante and Thomson, 2016). We have both taught English as a foreign/second language for many years in Canada, Brazil, Korea, Oman, and Pakistan. In our constant pursuit of new ways to help our students develop fluency and pronunciation we thought we’d give drama/theatre a try.

Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, Greece
Photo credit: Dan Cavanagh

With my (Angelica’s) background in theatre, I began using drama techniques to teach my own English language classes in the late 1990s. I immediately noticed this was very helpful for learners’ oral development, especially among those learners who were somewhat shy or reluctant to speak in class. I also observed that during drama activities, students would practice aspects of the language not typically offered in traditional language classes: intonation, rhythm, intention, meaning-making, improvisation, among others. Because my drama classes were very well received, I was invited to develop a language program for a prominent English language institute in São Paulo, Brazil, which focused on teaching English through drama and theatre. The program was later distributed among 17 other schools in the country.

At first, teachers were hesitant to apply drama techniques because they felt they had to be actors to do so. However, after some initial short training sessions, teachers implemented drama in their classroom and were quite satisfied with the positive results. Despite teachers’ accounts of the success of drama in their classes, I wondered what particular aspects of oral communication actually improved. To find out, I proposed carrying out a study during my Master’s program at Brock University, in Canada, where Ron Thomson became my thesis supervisor. His extensive background in second language oral fluency and pronunciation research was a perfect match.

In drama/theatre classes, there is quite a lot of speaking practice and both of us knew it was likely that learners could develop speaking abilities anyway. But we were interested in finding out whether drama classes could improve learners’ speaking abilities compared to classes that also focused on oral communication. We tracked the oral development of 24 Brazilian learners of English in four different classes over the course of four months: two English drama classes and two English communicative classes. We collected samples of their L2 speech in five different tasks (monologue, dialogue, etc.) before and after the program, all audio-recorded. We then recruited 30 Canadians to listen to the learners’ speech samples and provide their perceptions on three specific aspects of their oral performance: fluency, comprehensibility and accent. After running several statistical analyses, we found that learners in the drama group experienced significantly greater improvement in their oral speaking skills compared to learners in the traditional communicative language classes.

Photo credit: João Urbilio

In particular, we found that learners in the drama group experienced significant improvements in fluency and comprehensibility compared to learners in a communicative language class. Some of the strategies used in the drama classes had a particular focus on improving fluency: learners practiced performance in front of a group, speech with emphasis on meaning-making, and speaking without inappropriate pauses and hesitations. This result supports the idea that teaching aspects of oral language explicitly can result in larger gains in oral fluency compared to using simple communicative tasks.

Another important finding was that although all the English learners were perceived as having a first language (L1) accent (Brazilian Portuguese), this was not an issue when understanding their speech. This is also important because it tells us that having L1 accent is not a problem when communicating in the L2. This can be surprising to some who falsely believe they need to lose their L1 accent in order to be fluent in the L2. We have always believed that “accent reduction” courses do not really have a place in language learning, and our study provides evidence to support this belief.

If you’re interested in learning more about how drama/theatre can improve speaking skills in a second language, you can watch the video abstract of our study or read the article we have recently published in TESOL Quarterly. There, you will find more details about the study and its methodology. We also provide samples of the classroom activities we used.


Angelica Galante is a doctoral candidate in Language and Literacies Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and a sessional lecturer at York University. Her research interests include innovative pedagogical applications in language classrooms, drama in language learning, and plurilingual education. You can follow her on Twitter @GalanteAngelica and visit her website Breaking the Invisible Wall for samples of digital projects with language learners.

Ron I. Thomson is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics/TESL at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. His research spans L2 oral fluency and pronunciation development, computer-assisted pronunciation teaching, and ethics in pronunciation teaching. Ron is also the creator of English Accent Coach, a free evidence-based online tool that helps learners improve their pronunciation of English vowels and consonants.


© Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson 2016

Next post: Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages? Saturday 25th June 2016.  

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Multilinguals and creativity

Multilingualism is generally assumed to entail creativity. This raises the very interesting issue of whether becoming multilingual makes us become creative, and suggests the even more interesting conclusion that most of the world’s population, being multilingual, must also be creative.

At the same time, since I find it quite difficult to discern the effects of so much global creativity on the continued design and implementation of, say, our global economic, political or educational systems, a closer inspection of what we actually know (as opposed to believe) about this might be in order. A sample of studies from the past decade shows mixed (un)certainty about correlating multilingualism with creativity, let alone asserting that multilingualism causes (or enhances, favours, develops, etc.) creativity, as follows.

Olusola O. Adesope and colleagues assessed findings from previous research in A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism, and concluded for positive correlations between multilingualism and increased cognitive outcomes on, for example, memory, attention and abstract skills. Bernhard Hommel and colleagues, in Bilingualism and creativity: Benefits in convergent thinking come with losses in divergent thinking, compared the creative performance of low-proficient and high-proficient bilinguals, finding that “bilingualism should not be related to ‘creativity’ as a unitary concept but, rather, to the specific processes and mechanisms that underlie creativity”. Hangeun Lee and Kyung Hee Kim, in Can speaking more languages enhance your creativity? likewise examined the relationship between creativity and “degree of bilingualism”, taken to reflect “multicultural experiences”, to find that “degree of bilingualism and creativity are positively correlated”. Mark Leikin, in The effect of bilingualism on creativity, reported that “both early bilingualism and some form of bilingual education” appear to affect (non)mathematical creativity, concluding that there are “differences between two types of creative ability in the context of bilingual and monolingual development.” Anatoliy Kharkhurin’s study, Bilingual verbal and nonverbal creative behavior, in turn, offered evidence to dampen any blanket statement that multilingualism necessarily implies creativity.

It becomes obvious from the research literature that there simply are too many variables at stake, whether linguistic, cognitive, cultural, educational, and so on, to allow clear-cut isolation of multilingualism as a factor of creativity. These variables, however, aren’t inherent to multilingualism: they have absolutely *nothing* to do with its purported ‘complexity’, and all to do with our choices to study them in relation to multilingualism. As much complexity, of the exact same kinds, would emerge if we ever decided to compare creativity among low-proficient vs. high-proficient monolinguals, for example, or among degrees of monolingualism

But we don’t do this. Why we don’t study monolingualism in the same way that we study multilingualism only proves our assumption that monolingualism is ‘simple’. It doesn’t prove that monolingualism is simple. This assumption is ideological, not empirical, as Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu observe in Polite Chinese children revisited: Creativity and the use of codeswitching in the Chinese complementary school classroom: “The ideology of monolingualism prevails throughout society, including within minority ethnic communities who are bilingual and multilingual.” My take is that if we wish to answer apparently straightforward questions about multilingualism and creativity in any useful way, we must first make sure that we understand what exactly we’re asking, and from within which premises.

Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu’s topic, codeswitching (sometimes also called code-mixing or simply, mixing), lays bare another very relevant take on multilingualism and creativity. This is the double standard in our theoretical stances about multilingualism, on the one hand, which nowadays is unquestionably ‘good’, against our practical management of being multilingual, on the other, which may not be so good after all, as I pointed out here. Li Wei and Chao-Jung Wu’s statement that “There is still widespread fear of bilingual and multilingual practices such as codeswitching” remains as cogent. So why isn’t codeswitching ‘creative’ (and therefore ‘good’), since it is evidence of multilingualism?

The answer may have to do with what we mean by creativity. Does it have to do with how we use things and languages, or with how many things and languages we use? Quality or quantity? Learning to use what we need to use, for example languages, means learning how they work – their rules, in the descriptive, procedural sense of this word. These rules don’t exist in nature, they emerge from everyday behaviour. But learning rules entails learning how to break them, too, and not playing by the rules is as good a definition of being creative as any. ‘Creativity’, however, depends on who’s deciding which rules – or rather whose rules – can and cannot be broken. This is why we award literary and other prizes to certain rule-breakers: we praise them for doing things outside the box. And this is why multilinguals don’t get prizes for breaking rules when they mix languages: we don’t praise those who do things outside the language.

I’ve dealt before with this misconception that multilingualism is best approached by investigating the languages of multilinguals instead of the language users themselves, and I’ll return to it very soon. Meanwhile, still on the topic of creativity, I’ll have to qualify what I say in my second paragraph, above. The next post, a guest post, offers evidence that rethinking approaches to teaching, and implementing novel methodologies, have more than welcome effects on how we engage with our new languages.


© MCF 2016

Next post: =Guest post= Teaching languages through drama/theatre positively impacts oral fluency, by Angelica Galante and Ron I. Thomson. Saturday 28th May 2016.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Attitudes to multilingualism – or to multilinguals?

The human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that confirm it, and though the contrary instances may be more numerous and more weighty, it either does not notice them or else rejects them, in order that this opinion will remain unshaken.
            Francis Bacon (1620), Novum Organon 1: XLVI

Few of us might nowadays wish to voice out loud doubts about the ‘benefits’ of multilingualism, or about how and why this current choir of praise came to be. Not all that long ago, however, equally loud choirs were as adamant about the ‘disadvantages’ of multilingualism.

The pendular backlash that we witness today comes from realisation that research supporting multilingualism-is-bad vogues was in fact no research at all, in that it failed to control variables. For example, it compared multilingual children from lower socio-economic strata with monolingual children from higher ones. The turning point dates from 1962, and is credited to Elizabeth Peal and Wallace E. Lambert’s study The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. It also compared multilinguals to monolinguals, but it removed confounding variables to find that “bilinguals performed significantly better than their monolingual controls” on intelligence tests.

From then on, we seem to have decided that if multilingualism isn’t bad after all, then it must be good. Why? Because it doesn’t seem to cross our minds that multilingualism can simply be. Because we can’t but find deviation, which we then label as good or bad, when we randomly take one instance of natural behaviour as ‘the’ instance of natural behaviour: monolingualism has served as this benchmark for far too long. Because when we compare, we look for what’s not there. Multilingualism is bad when we look for what’s not there in multilinguals. Compared to monolinguals, they ‘lack’ vocabulary, for example. Human beings also lack four legs, compared to horses. In contrast, multilingualism is good when we look for what’s not there in monolinguals. Multilinguals ‘outperform’ monolinguals in social empathy, for example. Human beings also outperform horses in vertical locomotion. I find this habit of listing absences a bit like putting in our CV what we haven’t done: not very enlightening, and probably quite wordy.

The question then arises of whether this seesawing of opinions about multilingualism calls into question Francis Bacon’s insight about our understanding. I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, because we go on mistaking opinions for facts which, to me, is the core of Bacon’s observation: we seem to find it exceedingly difficult to look at things without judging them. And second, because the view that multilingualism is special, that is, not normal, and therefore in need of ‘special’ treatment, remains unshaken: we remain comforted that the current ‘findings’ nicely confirm our current expectations, and blissfully immune to whatever facts may shatter our convictions – in which connection I must hail the inclusion of faktaresistens in the list of new Swedish words for 2015, courtesy of Språkrådet.

The current consensual ‘goodness’ of multilingualism, however, doesn’t somehow seem to extend to multilinguals. If it did, why would so many of us keep advising multilinguals to become monolinguals, or treating them like disordered or failed (multi-)monolinguals, or all of the above? Multilingualism is good, but being multilingual apparently isn’t.

This intriguing paradox is rooted in an equally intriguing refusal to deal with multilingualism from a multilingual perspective. Evidence? Look for the sources of judgements about multilingualism and check whether and how they refer to real-life multilinguals. Look for the resonators of these judgements and check their familiarity with real-life multilinguals. Not least, look for the languages in which these sound bites originate and propagate, and check their relationship to real-life multilinguals. Does it show that research on multilingualism (as on virtually anything else) goes on being published and disseminated in a single preferential language? As Anthony J. Liddicoat argues in Multilingualism research in Anglophone contexts as a discursive construction of multilingual practice, this gives “the impression that research communicated in other languages is of marginal relevance for researching the multilingual world. [...] The monolingualism that exists within the research field is not only a linguistic phenomenon, but can also be understood as the development of a monoculture of knowledge [my emphasis].” Liddicoat concludes that “research into multilingualism largely constructs multilingualism as a subject to be studied from a perspective that lies outside the phenomenon of multilingualism itself”. That is, outside of what multilinguals do.

This is why we’re not being multilingual, we’re being rude, or showing off, or refusing to answer ‘simple’ questions like in which language do we think, dream, swear or count, or like which country (or better still, nationality) do we plead allegiance to. This is why schools favour curricular multilingualism in the (desirable) languages that matter to the school over actual multilingualism in the (real-life) languages that matter to the children, as Jasone Cenoz showed in a guest post to this blog, and I’ve also discussed here.

This is why having to ‘deal with’ multilinguals appears to raise adrenaline to such levels that intelligent, sensible people lose their linguistic bearings – and their commonsense. One example: my family’s friends, speakers of either Portuguese or Swedish, knew that our children, then aged 2 or 3, were being raised in both languages. The children naturally used Swedish or Portuguese according to interlocutor and, as naturally, used 2-3-year-old versions of each language. But, because the children were known to be ‘special’, being multilingual, some of these friends used to apologise to them for not being able to use “their language” (i.e., ‘the other one’), and they did this in English, a language that they also knew wasn’t part of the children’s repertoire at the time. The persuasion that multilinguals must have one and only one ‘good’ language, which never is the one that they are using at any given time, was shared by our relatives, and unsurprising to me. But I had to marvel at the additional assumption that English might well be a sort of innate language that everyone who acts linguistically less conventionally understands by default.

Such attitudes to multilinguals stem from judgemental discussions of multilingualism which pay lip service to the stylised -ism contraption that results from dysfunctional reverse engineering of bits and pieces of imaginary multilinguals. From there to assuming that real-life multilinguals must abide by idealised conceptions of multilingualism is but a small step indeed. We keep looking at what’s not there.

Which reminds me of another quote, this time from my fellow countryman and Nobel laureate José Saramago, in his novel about the death of one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis: “não somos o que dizemos, somos o crédito que nos dão” (‘we aren’t what we say, we are the credit we’re given’ [my translation]).

Paul Klee, O! die Gerüchte! 
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next time, I’ll deal with creativity. Are multilinguals also ‘specially’ creative?


© MCF 2016

Next post: Multilinguals and creativity. Saturday 30th April 2016.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Being multilingual in clinic

When we feel that we’re not feeling quite like ourselves, we may choose to consult a specialist in (un)well-being to find out what might be going on. Our decision will draw on what feeling well has felt like to us, which is our baseline for comparison. In order to decide that we’re unwell, in other words, we compare ourselves to ourselves.

Children can’t make decisions of this kind on their own, so we adults will have to step in on their behalf. But who are ‘we’? We parents may resort to the same kind of baseline that we use for ourselves and compare the child to itself, because no one knows our children better than we do. This is true of suspected language disorders, too: if a child who is less lively than usual may be running a fever, so a child who is using, say, fewer words than usual may be having language problems. We teachers, in contrast, are of necessity less likely to get to know the children in our care in as much detail. This is why teachers are also more likely to compare individual children to generally accepted norms which, also of necessity, were standardised through other children. Because such norms are standardised, that is, statistically validated, they claim an impartiality which cannot always be ascribed to parental norms.

Most referrals of multilingual children to special/remedial services come from school, typically following subpar ranking in language aptitude screening procedures in the school’s mainstream language. Tests in other languages that the children may use, where available, will show similar results, raising suspicion that the children lack a complete language or, as described in Jeff MacSwan’s report The “non-non” crisis and academic bias in native language assessment of linguistic minorities, that they are non-nons: nonverbal in all of their languages. Failure to perform up to test standards is in all good faith feared to reflect a linguistic disorder.

Enter the clinician who, to a significantly higher degree than a teacher, will also be a stranger to the child. Like the child’s teachers, the clinician will typically be unfamiliar with multilingual linguistic behaviour, a finding that my study Assessing multilingual children in multilingual clinics. Insights from Singapore was the first to report for clinicians who are themselves multilingual. Like the tell-tale school tests, the assessment instruments available to the clinician will as typically be monolingual, normed for (mainstream) monolinguals, and thereby likely to confirm a diagnosis of disorder. The child now has a clinical record, having been duly sanctioned as special by a specialist.

But there is a snag. Several, actually, which can be summarised like this: the languages of a multilingual cannot be monolingually ‘complete’, because multilinguals aren’t monolinguals. It is the persuasion that they should be that leads to mistaking their full linguistic repertoire for a null linguistic repertoire. The assumption that testing one of the languages of a multilingual – *any* of the languages of a multilingual – yields reliable insight about multilingual linguistic ability draws on three misconceptions. First, the belief that multilingualism is the addition of monolingualisms that I’ve termed multi-monolingualism. It’s not: if multilinguals could use all of their languages in the same way that monolinguals use their single one, they wouldn’t need all of their languages.

Second, the persistent confusion between the two meanings of the word ‘language’. Language disorders affect all the languages of a multilingual, and cannot therefore be diagnosed from proficiency, or test scores, in one particular language.

And third, the myth that monolingualism equals unquestionable linguistic health, whereby we misrepresent deviations from single-language tests as linguistic impairment. Since the tests are monolingual but the child is multilingual, multilingualism must be the cause of deviation, if not the deviation itself, and must therefore be eradicated. Treating the child for multilingualism will, no less, fail to identify and remedy disordered multilingualism, which research such as Kathryn Kohnert’s, and Elizabeth Peña’s and colleagues has shown must take into account the child’s full linguistic repertoire. Why? Simple fairness: that’s what we do for monolingual children.

Encouragingly, there is growing awareness among professionals that monolingual assessment tools should be used with great caution for multilingual populations. Brian A. Goldstein alerted to this in a guest post to this blog, Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!, and so did I, in a book chapter titled Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children

The question then arises of how to assess the language ability of children who use languages for which there are no norm-referenced tests, or who don’t share a language with the clinician. The tempting answer is that this is virtually impossible, because of the ‘complexity’ of multilingualism: there are just too many multilingualisms, given the number and type of languages involved in each individual’s case. But if this is true, then it is also true that there are too many monolingualisms as well: if multilinguals in languages A, B and C are fundamentally different from multilinguals in languages Y and Z, then monolinguals in C are as fundamentally different from monolinguals in Y – which is an additional reason why multilinguals shouldn’t be assessed by monolingual standards: monolingualism, like multilingualism, matters locally, so which monolingualism do we choose?

The factual answer is that dynamic assessment provides methods of evaluating language ability regardless of ability in specific languages, and that clinicians can avail themselves of practical assessment guidance where no shared language of intervention exists. This is the topic of an article currently in press, authored by the International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech of which I am a member, and titled Tutorial: Speech assessment for multilingual children who do not speak the same language(s) as the speech-language pathologist.

Multilingual children must be assessed as multilinguals, so we can tell whether their language development raises cause for concern. The reason why multilinguals outnumber monolinguals in special/remedial care is that we go on blaming multilingualism for deviations to our assessment standards, instead of querying the appropriateness of those standards. Multilinguals are special only in the special attention we keep paying to them, to which I turn next.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Attitudes to multilingualism – or to multilinguals? Saturday 2nd April 2016.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Being multilingual in school


Schooling nurtures development of academic ways of talking about things. This has come to be called ‘education’, in the sense that an ‘educated’ person is able to use language in this way. Schooling teaches us how, why and with whom our languages can be used to acquire knowledge formally, about history, chemistry, or geography, things that not all of us will have encountered at home, by these or any other names. It also teaches us that knowledge, of these and other things, can come to us from strangers, not just from people whom we’ve been familiar with from birth.

Since all of us must be schooled in some language, those strangers will use their language(s) to us. This means that we’ll be facing new ways of using our old languages, or new ways of using new ones. For some children, the ability to switch use of their language(s) appropriately, according to purpose, topic or interlocutor, won’t be new at school start. Preschoolers know how to deal with linguistic register (the technical term for this) both passively, as Laura Wagner and colleagues report in Development in children’s comprehension of linguistic register, and actively, as Melissa Redford and Christina Gildersleeve-Neumann show in The development of distinct speaking styles in preschool children.

For all children, however, using languages in school-bound ways will be new, because school will be a new environment to them. For multilingual and monolingual children alike, home and school uses of language won’t match. Tradition has it that we label such monolingual uses ‘language varieties’ (or dialects, or registers) and multilingual ones ‘languages’, although what the children will need to learn is exactly the same: to sort out their linguistic resources appropriately.

All of us, young and old, learn to manage register switches on the job and because of different jobs. Children will acquire school uses of language by being exposed to those uses and practising them in a school environment, just like they acquired home uses of language through exposure and practice at home. Exposure and practice is what teaches us linguistic skills, and what generates awareness that our languages offer differentially appropriate choices to what we wish to say. We’re not born knowing how to use our languages before we start using them.

Home and school uses of language are, indeed, differentially appropriate, each befitting its environment qualitatively. They do not represent the gradable quantities of linguistic competence that popular and very unfortunate labels such as ‘basic’ (for home uses) and ‘academic’ (for school uses) appear to imply, whether applied to languages or language varieties. In the case of multilinguals, reliance on judgemental labels such as these has meant repression of all their languages except the ‘good’, ‘rich’, worth-developing school language.

Forbidding the use of the home language not just in class but in school premises may no longer involve the physical violence it once did, for both spoken and sign languages, but advice to parents to switch to the school language at home, in order to “enhance” their children’s academic performance still abounds. Such advice may include threatening assertions of dire consequences, for the children, of continued use of “too many languages at home”. Parents in multilingual families keep writing to me agonising over what to do about this, given their inability to use the school language in school-bound ways, or to use it at all, or their unwillingness to comply, objecting to what they deem an intrusion: just like school language practices are decided in school, not at home, home language practices are decided at home, not in school.

School recommendations of this kind reflect an intriguing view that multilingual schoolchildren must strive to become monolingual both in school and at home. They come not only from local schools in places traditionally associated with monolingualism, but also from international schools, whose designation itself traditionally associates with multilingualism. Why should multilingualism be undesirable for academic achievement? The answer might lie in simple ignorance of what multilingualism is.

There is, first, the myth that multilingualism is subtractive by definition, whereby learning a new language means losing other languages. Second, the myth that only one language can promote ‘higher’ academic goals. And third, the myth that only school languages and school environments support intellectual sophistication. What’s ‘basic’, I wonder, about cooking dinner with our children, say? This is likely to take place at home rather than in school, through home languages rather than school ones, and this is doing science, besides being an excellent (and fun) way of honing cultural, gastronomic and maths skills.

Other reasons to promote mainstream monolingualism, equally rooted in zero-sum ideologies, relate instead to power relations within communities. Entitlement to one’s languages (and to calling them languages rather than, say, dialects) carries entitlement to what those languages represent, and therefore threatens the entitlement of the powers that be to decide who is entitled to use which languages. Do we want to pursue the scenario described in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? On first suspicion of Guy Montag’s deviation from standard book burning rituals, Captain Beatty lectures him: “We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, [...] but everyone made equal.” And he adds: “[T]he home environment can undo a lot you try to do at school. That’s why we’ve lowered the kindergarten age year after year until now we’re almost snatching them from the cradle.”

Or do we want to make it clear to ourselves and the children in our care that there is no conflict between home and school uses of language because they serve distinct environments? To my mind, school would be an ideal environment to teach children both that using language(s) at home and in school is a matter of appropriate choices, and why these choices matter. Where else, in fact, can we be educated about this? Simply suppressing inappropriate home uses of language in school won’t work, because we can’t make choices if we don’t know that there are choices to make.

School-bound linguistic resources are not synonymous with ‘linguistic resources’, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. We can talk about anything in any language, if we so wish, because the languages aren’t in charge: we are. If using the same language at home and in school were the key to enhanced academic accomplishment, children growing up in monolingual environments would outperform their multilingual peers academically. I’m sure that the parents who worry about these school recommendations would be very interested to know about research supporting this. So would I.

In contrast to mythical beliefs in redemption through ‘higher’ monolingualism, what research does show is that nurturing the learners’ full linguistic repertoire in school favours academic achievement. Virginia Scott and María José de la Fuente show this in their paper What’s the Problem?, and so does Joana Duarte in Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools.

Nurturing schoolchildren’s multilingualism, by the way, doesn’t mean the other mythical absurdity that everyone in school must become fluent in everyone else’s languages. It means nurturing schoolchildren’s multilingualism. See, for example, Maurice Carder’s book, Bilingualism in International Schools. A Model for Enriching Language Education; or Jean-Jacques Weber’s Flexible Multilingual Education. Putting Children’s Needs First, on which the author contributed a guest blogpost to this forum; or Sandie Mourão and Mónica Lourenço’s collection Early Years Second Language Education, to which I wrote a Foreword.

Being multilingual in school is a norm, not an affliction to excise. I mean the word norm quite literally: multilinguals are special only when misconstrued through monolingual lenses. This is why most referrals of multilingual schoolchildren to ‘special/remedial’ intervention come from schools where monolingualism still reigns as unquestionable benchmark of linguistic skills. The next post has some more on this.

ResearchBlogging.org






Duarte, J. (2011). Migrants’ educational success through innovation: The case of the Hamburg bilingual schools. International Review of Education, 57 (5-6), 631-649. DOI: 10.1007/s11159-011-9251-7

Redford, M.A., & Gildersleeve-Neumann, C.E. (2009). The development of distinct speaking styles in preschool children. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research, 52 (6), 1434-48. PMID: 19951923

SCOTT, V., & FUENTE, M. (2008). What's the Problem? L2 Learners' Use of the L1 During Consciousness-Raising, Form-Focused Tasks. The Modern Language Journal, 92 (1), 100-113. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2008.00689.x

Wagner, L., Greene-Havas, M., & Gillespie, R. (2010). Development in Children’s Comprehension of Linguistic Register. Child Development, 81 (6), 1678-1686. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01502.x


© MCF 2016

Next post: Being multilingual in clinic. Saturday 5th March 2016.

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