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.


  1. Hi Madalena

    Thanks for this post and for letting me know of your blog :) I've learnt a lot from it.

    One thing I'm wondering about is whether the child, when using "want nǎi, ‘want milk’", is consciously aware that she's using two languages? It's two languages to us adults obviously; like you say, she's "using Mandarin and English". It's really not important to a little multilingual at the end of the day, of course, whether her talk constitutes one or more languages, as long as she is understood and gets what she wants, i.e. milk, but I'm just curious, as an adult, on whether she might be aware that "want" is from one language, and "nǎi", another?



  2. In Singapore, where being multilingual is the norm rather than the exception, we multilinguals really don't look so out of place. But I have had very fascinated monolingual friends who can't understand how I can speak multiple languages!

    On the issue of the fuss over "mixes", I can tell you for sure that it is a big deal in a school setting. Especially as a language teacher. We are constantly reminded of the need to speak in STANDARD English...

  3. Deborah: That’s a very good question. We don’t really know what/whether children know about their languages, so we can only guess from what they do and say. In the example I give, it could be that the girl for some reason finds it easier to put certain words before or after others while she’s practising putting words together. She may even prefer want nǎi to e.g. the converse yào milk because she thinks that her two words sound good together. We do know that children are sensitive to rhythm, sound play, and so on. Or maybe she doesn’t know how to say want and milk in both languages yet?? And I agree: what matters is that she gets her milk!

    Jessie: I’m right there with you on the fuss about standards of English in Singapore! You may be pleased to know that language standards and variation will be recurring topics in this blog. I’ll have something to say about this already next week. Here’s a preview: it’s not just multilinguals that do “funny things” with their languages, monolinguals do exactly the same.

    Thank you for your comments!

  4. Hi Madalena,

    As a multilingual mother-to-be (my languages being Spanish, English, Italian, French and German) married to a multilingual German/French who also speaks perfect English&Spanish, I'm a bit concerned about how to teach these languages to our future child. We live in Spain. I'd like to speak to her in English, while her dad will use German. Living in Spain means she'll learn Spanish very quickly (I don't think we need to use it at home). But how to teach her French and Italian? Should she be exposed to all 5 languages from birth? We know our daughter will eventually travel to France to visit her French/German relatives there (grandma, grandad, auntie...), but I'm the only one who can speak Italian here (my favourite language), could I choose a specific day of the week or game or room to talk to her in Italian as well - from day one?

    We also want to teach her baby sign language so that she can communicate with us before she starts to talk - something that will probably happen quite late.

    What's your opinion on our case? Any feedback is very much appreciated.

    Thanks a lot!

    Yolanda&Matthias, two devoted language teachers and (language) lovers :-)

  5. Warm congratulations, Yolanda and Matthias, on the coming little multilingual! I wish you lots of multilingual *fun*.
    Thank you for your questions, let’s see:

    -- There is no problem in exposing a child from birth to as many languages as are relevant to the child. Relatives, as you point out, are clearly very relevant in a child’s life.

    -- Switching language depending on day of the week, topic of conversation, or place (e.g. at home vs. outside the home) are all attested strategies used by multilingual families. What matters is that the method you choose should feel natural to you, so it comes naturally to your baby too. You shouldn’t force yourself to use one particular language in a specific way just because you imposed that “rule” on yourself. Why not use Italian any time you are in an Italian mood, for example? Or when you decide to cook an Italian meal, or sing Italian songs. Languages are there to serve our needs, not to be served by us. Recall how you became multilingual yourself?

    -- You say that your child will probably start talking late, and I wondered: late compared to what? If you mean compared to monolingual children, there’s no evidence whatsoever to support this claim.

    -- About baby sign language: you must realise, of course, that this will be an additional “language” that you propose to teach to your child. The baby sign for “milk”, say, involves mimicking the milking of a cow. Babies have no idea that milk comes from milking, as little as they know that milk is called “milk” in English or “lait” in French. So-called “baby signs” are no more intuitive for children, and so no easier to learn, than words. You can have a look at one answer I gave to a baby sign question here.

    I hope this helps!


  6. Hi Madalena,

    Thanks so much for your prompt and useful reply!

    Your approach on BSL is very interesting. We thought all multilingual children needed more time to start to talk, but your wise words are of great help. As first-time parents, I guess we're a bit concerned about things that should come naturally.

    I love the idea of using Italian when I'm in an Italian mood! Besides, I love cooking Italian food :-)

    We now see that it's not a question of "programming" our child or showing her the "right path" in the fascinating world of languages... Rather, we should "go with the flow" and have fun, feeling it's all a natural process.

    Muito obrigada! We'll let you know how things go with our little Yoma (that's her name).


  7. Here’s to Yoma’s Adventures in Multilingual-Land! Yes please, do keep us briefed any time. I, for one, am always keen to learn more about multilingual practices.

    How lucky that your two names blended so nicely to give your baby her name. My name would be hopeless – Ma? Mad?!?


  8. Hahaha! We couldn't agree on a name for her, that's why we made one up :-) We'll need to find another name for our next child - since "mayo" is not an option! :-)

    Thanks for everything, you're a star!



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