Saturday 30 October 2010

Talking bodies and listening eyes

Languages are not just the things that we have been trained to dissect while sitting in general or specialised classrooms, where we are told to recast sentences in the past tense or identify phonetic properties of allophones (sorry, I just had to include this wink to fellow linguists here). If they were, how come we make faces and gesture emphatically even when we are talking on the phone? It seems that there’s more to languages than meets the ear.

Some languages have no sounds, and therefore cannot be spoken. This is because sound, the medium of many languages around the world, makes sense only if you hear it. Some of us cannot hear, and so use languages that make sense when you see them. Saying that some languages use audible movements of the mouth to produce meaningful exchanges, whereas other languages use visible movements of the hands for the same purpose, makes it look (or sound) like we’re talking about two completely distinct kinds of language. We’re not. As I hope is becoming clear throughout my posts here, things about languages are not as all-or-none as we sometimes like to believe: it’s rather a matter of clines.

Human means of expression are, to use a fancy word, multimodal. This “multi” word, very welcome in this blog, means that we draw on several modes: spoken modes use mostly the mouth, and sign modes mostly the hands. But all of us use both hand and mouth movements in human-to-human interaction – and sometimes human-to-other too: I cannot be the only one shaking fists and uttering profanity at the vagaries of my internet connection, for example. Mouth and hand gestures each offer unique expressive possibilities, which we combine in order to produce more meaning than what a single mode can achieve. In this sense, we are all multilinguals, and we all mix our languages.

Like in any exchange, sometimes there may be glitches, or what some of us might interpret as such: a hand gesture may reinforce, but also contradict a mouth gesture, and vice versa. We may do this intentionally, for example for sarcastic purposes. Or we may fail to notice that we are giving out ambiguous, or even unintelligible signals. If you are a lip-reader, or would like to see what it’s like to be one, you can try one experiment. Experiments are of course artificial, and often probe for extreme effects, but this one may give you a feeling of how visual and auditory cues can interfere with each other. This experimental paradigm became known as the McGurk Effect

There is a common misconception that sign languages are spoken languages “written” in signs, as it were. This reminds of the misconception that spoken languages are simple reproductions of one another, mentioned in a previous post. One reason that might explain it is that a number of sign languages are, or contain, fingerspelling, where hand gestures correspond to printable symbols. Spelling is of course a visual representation of spoken languages too. Printed forms of language are extremely interesting, by the way, because they have managed to take over spoken ones as tokens of so-called good linguistic usage. I will have quite a few things so say about this in a future post. My point here is that sign languages are not the same as hand spellings.

Sign languages are as sophisticated means of communication as spoken ones. If they weren’t, they couldn’t serve their users. All of our languages are acquired in the same way: babies babble, with their hands if they’re acquiring sign languages, with their mouths if acquiring spoken ones. All languages show geographical, historical and individual variation. We can be multilingual in all of them, sign, spoken, or both. Sign and spoken languages are mutually unintelligible, obviously, but so are spoken languages and sign languages among themselves. It may come as a surprise, for example, that British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are not different variants of the same language, like spoken American English and British English: they’re different languages altogether. In addition, fingerspelling can vary, for the same spoken language: BSL fingerspelling and ASL fingerspelling are different languages too.

There is a second misconception about gestural language. Gestures that go with spoken languages are often seen as just flourish: you add them because you belong to a funny culture – those who “add” gestures have equally definite opinions about those who don’t, of course. Take Latinos, for example, by which word I mean anyone sharing a Latin background. They have a reputation for not being able to keep their hands still when they’re talking, so the old joke goes that the way to shut them up is to tie their arms behind their backs. My own Latino roots are often betrayed by my gestural exuberance (I come from Portugal, in case I forgot to mention this), and so I see it as my duty to put the record straight on this one, publicly: I do use my hands a lot when I speak, but not whenever I speak. I’ve lived in several European, African and Asian countries, with two consequences: one, I’ve noticed that different peoples use different visual cues when they talk; and two, I’ve learned to adapt. So when I use my hands, I use them not because I’m Portuguese, but because I’m being Portuguese, which is an entirely different thing. In case this ability to be being different things reminds you of a trait commonly attributed to multilinguals, a “split personality”, I/we hereby pledge to say more about it in a future post.

Gestural language, and body language in general, are not ornamental. They are a necessary part of intelligible exchanges, and they have their own grammar, in that they pattern regularly. We can hear smiles in a voice and we can see passion in a face. If, that is, we’ve learned to associate passion with that particular expression, and perhaps on that particular face, just like we’ve learned to associate the word passion with its meaning. Meanings don’t come out of the blue (or out of dictionaries): we shape them, according to our cultural conventions. Some of us are professionally trained to gain awareness of cultural habits of this kind, and to interpret them in order to assess our overall state of health, including linguistic health. We’ll see how, next time.

© MCF 2010

Next post: The fight for a fair deal. Wednesday 3rd November 2010.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Putting languages to work

Languages are fascinating things: everybody talks about them, and nobody knows what they are. Try? Question: “What is English?” Answer: “English is the language spoken in... oh. I see.” The next question might be: “Er... is English one language?”

This is also a very good question, which means that we have no answer to it either. Some people talk, for example, about Englishes (this is not a typo; there is even an academic journal with the word in its title). I particularly like this word, because it serves to dodge the difficulty of defining what English in the singular is: if you can’t define something, just give it another name and then start talking about that name. By the same logic, there must also be Spanishes, Swahilis and Chineses, among big languages, and Danishes and Finnishes, among tiny ones, only we didn’t know we could call them so.

Some people will say that Englishes in the plural must mean that there are many (different) Englishes; others will argue that giving the name Englishes to different uses of English simply shows that they are all in fact the same thing, English. Some will insist that Old English is also the same English; others will counter that saying so amounts to saying that Latin and French are also the same language. You can check out the sound and text files of Beowulf, the Old English epic, to try to work this out for yourself.

Since we don’t know what “a language” might be, we have no way of telling how many languages there are either. I will talk about the number of languages that a multilingual can be said to have (or not have) in a future post but, for the time being, have a look at the Ethnologue. This is the most authoritative reference on world languages, and its introductory page explains why counting languages is a tricky matter. Notice that the database includes sign languages, in which we can be multilingual too, and about which I will have something to say in my next post. A very entertaining collection of facts (and myths) about languages is Mikael Parkvall’s book, Limits of Language.

The reason why we can’t define language boundaries is that there are no language boundaries. Just take a walk across a walkable border between two countries. If you stand here, you use language X; if you move one inch towards there, you use Y. (If you straddle the border, you risk becoming multilingual.) But in practice, on the ground, you use neither X nor Y, you use something that sometimes reminds of X and sometimes of Y. The clear-cut correlation of languages with countries has nothing to do with the nature of language and all to do with the nature of political decisions. The reason why there are no language boundaries is that languages are working tools. Very, very flexible ones, and very, very user-friendly. They don’t just change from century to century and from continent to continent, they change all the time and everywhere for the simple reason that we are using them all the time, everywhere. When we use, we adapt.

Did “using neither X nor Y” ring a bell? Multilinguals are often accused of doing just this, and of doing it because they are multilinguals. They should stick to each of their languages, the recommendation goes, and respect the integrity of each. But, honestly, what is the integrity of something whose boundaries you cannot pinpoint, even for monolingual uses? We find reason to create uses of language every day, whether we have one language or many. We discover, invent, borrow useful things, and we naturally do the same with language that allows us to talk usefully about them. To mention but words, phlogiston, leeching or telegram were household items in their time, just like DNA, collider or cyberspace are in ours. Or robot, ombudsman, typhoon, and other international words. We need these words because they do a job for us, which is what languages are there for: to be put to work in order to serve our needs.

Languages at work mean languaging (not a typo either), a word that I also like very much because its -ing neatly reflects the dynamic nature of human language use and language management. It would be surprising to find a multilingual whose linguistic repertoire were boxed up into watertight single languages. As surprising, in fact, as finding clear-cut language boundaries to match political boundaries, where people move across as they please. Languages are not museum pieces and we, the users, are not their curators. Languages are living things because we are alive.

Treating languages as possibilities, and multilinguals as fully-fledged participants in exploring their resources, is not a daunting task. The infinite variety found in single languages has not hindered prolific research and discussion about monolingual uses of language. There should therefore be no problem either in producing as much data about multilingual uses. The usual excuse that multilingualism is just too “complex”, as if monolingualism were “simple”, is a bad excuse.

I’ll have to leave the issue of language standards to another day. First, because standardisation is a Big Endeavour: infinity is of course unmanageable, but must somehow be made to behave itself; second, because infinity, being infinite, doesn’t end here. If you think that language variation is enough to keep us busy for life, what can we say about the other variation that necessarily comes with it? I mean all those other languages, like frowns, eye contact and overall physical posture which, like linguistic variation, also depend on cultural norms. This is what we find out next.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Talking bodies and listening eyes. Saturday 30th October 2010.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Languages come in flavours

If you’ve ever visited a foreign country, you may have been struck by the exotic features of the local cuisine. You may have marvelled: Do they eat this sort of thing? Can they cook this in this way?? Our gastronomic habits are as ingrained as everything else that makes us what we are, so we naturally react to raw squid or fried pickles, if they for some reason haven’t found their way into our regular diet.

Later, back at home, you may have wanted to replicate the experience, for yourself or to impress relatives and friends. You bought the ingredients, you spent time studying the recipe and bringing it up to edible standards... to then find that no, not really, it tasted better, or stronger, or stranger when you were there, as you try to explain your disappointment to yourself or to your guests. It tasted different. It could have been anything, really, you go on wondering. That the shrimp was fed and fished locally, that the pasta was home made, that tap water was harder, or that the cook washed her hands with a different brand of soap. But I don’t think this is it. I think that whatever struck you, when you were abroad, was that it struck you there and then. Because you were there, then. You can’t replicate the there-and-then in the here-and-now.

It’s the same with languages. The language in which you express yourself makes you express yourself in its special ways. Languages have flavours, local flavours, that make them unique experiences when you use them. I’m not saying that translations aren’t possible: sometimes they even manage to improve on the original. What I’m saying is that original and translation are not the same thing. I can try to explain what I mean with a couple of examples. Compare this translated version with its original

I don’t know about you, but hearing Edith Piaf bereft of her French /R/ has the same effect on me as experiencing a kräftskiva in English. Which I did, before I learned to speak Swedish, to later find out what I had been missing in English.

This is what a pristine kräftskiva can look like. You don’t want to know what the post-party always looks like.
Photo: David Castor (Wikimedia Commons)

The Swedish word kräftskiva can be rendered into English as ‘crayfish party’, an expression whose words both exactly translate the Swedish one and fail to retain the faintest whiff of what a kräftskiva actually is (Hej, alla svenskar! Är det inte så??). The Swedish word tastes Swedish, quite literally.

This is one of the reasons why multilinguals mix. Different languages are not simply alternative ways of saying the same things: their use shapes things, instead. So whenever I want to explain to non-Swedish speakers what a kräftskiva is, I do exactly what I’ve done here: first, I describe it roughly, in the language that we share, or by means of visual aids; then, I say that it is called a kräftskiva; and, from then on, I say kräftskiva whenever I want to talk about it with non-Swedish speakers. You could say that I’m corrupting that other language, by mixing funny words into it. I would say that I’m contributing to the globalisation of culture. And to broadening the vocabulary of that other language. If you think about it, there’s no big difference between doing this and using the word spaghetti, in English. Or in Swedish. All words were new, once upon a time.

Languages can be cooked in different ways. We can say this sort of thing, and we can say it in this way. It depends on what we are using the languages for. In multilingual interactions, the habit of using several languages shows as naturally as any other set of acquired habits: if we’re used to driving both on the right and left-hand side of the road, or if we regularly type using different language keyboards on our laptops, our fluency in each of these modes will also reflect upon our automatic behaviour.

I think one of the reasons why mixes have gained such a sombre reputation is that languages have come to be seen as objects of reverence rather than means of expression. We have to obey them, instead of having them serve us. I’ll expand on this in my next post but, meanwhile, let me leave you with a taste of another language and a thought for the day:
... it isn’t a noise, it’s my language!”  
Miriam Makeba “The Click Song”

© MCF 2010

Next post: Putting languages to work. Wednesday 27th October 2010.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Typical multilinguals

Besides the number of languages that they use, there is one major difference between monolinguals and multilinguals: we talk about multilinguals as such, whereas we don’t talk about monolinguals as monolinguals. I don’t think anyone ever wondered whether monolingualism can affect a child’s linguistic development, or worried that school monolingualism might impair reasoning abilities, for example.

Multilingualism comes labelled, and labelled things are worthy of attention. There are websites, associations, counsellors, self-help guides, research teams, project grants, academic journals, corporate businesses, books and blogs and whatnot dedicated to multilinguals by name – this blog included, just see its title –, but seldom are we explicitly reminded that virtually all that we know about language and languages draws on monolingual data (maybe someone will now consider starting a blog called Being Monolingual?). This means that we have a lot of information on monolingual norms of language use. These norms have routinely been extrapolated to account for multilingual uses too, on the assumption that I discussed in a previous post. That is, people have been talking about multilingualism through words and concepts that apply to monolingualism. The result is that we have virtually no information on multilingual norms.

Establishing norms of behaviour, including linguistic behaviour, is important for one very crucial reason: without knowing what is typical, we cannot tell what is deviant. This is because assessment, whether informal, academic or clinical, is basically a comparison. We suspect that our child may be running a fever today because she is behaving funny today, compared to her normal self. But how can we tell whether our multilingual child is showing signs of disorder or just being, well, multilingual?

A few pointers can help us decide whether or not it is time to seek professional advice. Barring conditions like impaired hearing, which is surprisingly common in very early childhood, my take is that the presumed health of each of the languages of a multilingual matters less than what healthy multilinguals do with their languages. Let me explain that. Say you’re raising your two-year-old in Mandarin and English. She speaks in single words, either Mandarin or English. Then she finds out that words can be put together, which allows her to say more things all in one go. And one day she produces something that you interpret as want nǎi, ‘want milk’. Your child is not confused, nor is she mangling Mandarin, or English, or both: your child is using Mandarin and English. In short, your child is being multilingual. Same thing if she later on starts using the words of one language with the grammar of another. Or even if she starts stuttering, around this time. Learning to speak fluently in more than single words takes years of sophisticated coordination of breathing with dozens of muscles, in any language, whatever the number of languages. Children also stumble and fall, while they are learning to walk. If you want another example of what tiny multilinguals will do, have a look here (Hi, David!).

My point is that your child (the language user) is doing new things with her languages (the tools), which are also new to her. Practising the use of new tools is a good thing. I, for one, had to figure out how to set up this first blog of mine, and how to post to it. It took me inordinate amounts of time and aggravation, but now I can do it – sort of, I’m still learning too. My point is that we need to focus on the user’s developing skills, not on predicaments of tools. We need to look at what we do with our languages, not at what we do not do. Like this:
  1. Multilinguals use their languages in different ways. One with mum, another one with dad, another one with siblings. In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the scenario in my own family. Or several languages at home, several others at work. Or one language to cook, another one to argue with the cat. Or any other way. The sky is the limit.
This amounts to saying that:
  1. The languages of a multilingual cannot be equivalent. If multilinguals could use all their languages in the same way, they wouldn’t need all their languages. One all-purpose language would be enough: we would all turn into monolinguals.
Which means that:
  1. Multilinguals draw on all of their linguistic resources, not on the resources afforded by single languages, in order to be able to function appropriately in their environment.
Which defines a multilingual, q.e.d.

... Hmm, some of you may be wondering. If all of this is so standard and so healthy and so fine, how come there is such hullabaloo about mixing? Mixes are uses of several languages in one utterance or, more generally, in a communicative exchange. They’re sometimes called codeswitches, codemixes, blends. “Mix” is a neater word, I find. I also wonder quite a lot about the mix fuss, so I propose to talk about it in my next post.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Languages come in flavours. Saturday 23rd October 2010.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Not being monolingual

As far as I can tell, multilinguals are quite ordinary human beings: they’re many and they’re ancient. There are more multilinguals than monolinguals the world over, and the use of several languages by the same individuals has been documented as far back in time as historical sources allow us to peer into our linguistic habits.

Those of us who use a single language throughout life are monolinguals. Multilinguals are, therefore, not monolinguals, as Monsieur de La Palice might have been credited with saying. Nevertheless, and strangely enough, there are cumulative indications that multilinguals should in fact behave like monolinguals. To me, this is about as reasonable as wishing that a monolingual behave like a multilingual. To Jacques de La Palice, this would be proof that sometimes it makes sense to spell out truisms.

I’m sure I am not alone in having been confronted with musings such as: “I see, so you speak several languages. But which one is your mother tongue?”, or “Multilingual, you say? Oh. In which language do you think, then?” Questions of this kind all have one thing in common: they attempt to extract the monolingual from within the self-described multilingual. They reach for the-expected-user-of-only-one-language that somewhere, somehow, must be lurking in there and struggling to surface for air.

We owe the reasoning behind such questions to the Ancient Greeks. Their enduring trend of thought about language uses (they must have thought in Ancient Greek) is best described by their endearing label, “barbarian”, which applied to anyone who failed to make themselves understood to educated users of Ancient Greek-only. Several centuries down the line, the assumption appears to take the form that if you’re human, you’re by definition a user of one language. Using several languages is therefore the special case.

Examples of monolingualism taken as default state of humankind crop up everywhere that it matters. At home, parents in mixed families are told to stick to one language each to address their children, even if they are themselves multilinguals. Better still, they should see to it that their offspring grow up with one main language (or a dominant one, or a primary one, or a first one, and so on). This is probably to make sure that the little multilinguals that they insist on nurturing also have a fair chance of becoming proper big monolinguals. In school, behavioural quirks, difficulties with academic performance and other signs of non-conformity are attributed to a child’s multilingualism. In clinic, confirmed signs of linguistic or cognitive disorder in a multilingual child result in the recommendation to switch to a single language, usually the mainstream language, in the child’s home.

Even on the understanding that multilinguals cannot be monolinguals, the expectation is that they should behave like several monolinguals, as many as the number of languages in their repertoire. This (rather unsettling) view of some human beings as composed of other human beings does not describe multilingualism: it describes something that I have no idea what it is, and that I call multi-monolingualism just to be able to talk about it. I suspect that taking multilingualism for multi-monolingualism is what makes people take multilinguals for patchwork: expressions like incomplete command of languages, semilingualism, split personality, deficient exposure, come to mind.

Monolingualism thus seems to be, still today, a programmatic approach to linguistic and other well-being, with both preventive and curative effects. Against monolingual mindsets and monolingual benchmarks, it is clear that multilingualism will emerge as special. But this cannot be right, because the majority of the world’s population cannot be exceptional. There must be default behaviours among multilinguals too. So what is it that makes a multilingual a multilingual? This is what I’ll attempt to work out in my next post.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Typical multilinguals. Wednesday 20th October 2010.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Being multilingual


The aim of this blog is to discuss what it means to be multilingual. Multilinguals are those of us who use several languages in our daily lives.

I am one of them. As a parent, an educator and a researcher, I have come to notice that multilingualism is often misunderstood, and often correlated with either over-ability or disability. Myths, paradoxes and misconceptions about multilingualism have consequences at home, in school and in clinic.

I have also noticed that the languages used by multilinguals are the usual focus of attention. My focus is the people, because languages do not exist independently of their users. Multilingualism is not about what several languages can do to people, it is about what people can do with several languages.

If you ever wondered about multilingualism, whether you are monolingual or multilingual, whether you acquired your languages from birth or later in life, this blog is for you.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Not being monolingual. Saturday 16th October 2010.


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