Wednesday 15 December 2010

Schooling in tongues

Schools gather together teachers and pupils who, like everyone else, must use some language to communicate with one another. Since schools are meant to teach you, it follows that whatever you learn in school you must learn through some language.

In some parts of the world, the languages that schoolchildren naturally use are naturally catered for. The Swiss village Bivio is one example. Rebecca, “a curious Yankee in Europe’s court”, tipped me about this report (thank you!). I should perhaps add that the “linguistic curiosity” noted by the reporter in Bivio is not so curious around Africa and Asia, where it is routine to use several languages and several dialects of each language within the same community.

In other parts of the world, being multilingual and in need of schooling appears to belong, well, to different worlds. Below is a sample of comments that I’ve heard/read in different countries, and my own comments on them.

  • Immigrant pupils need more attention from us because they are multilingual.
Isn’t it because they don’t know the school language? It is clear that you can’t learn chemistry in Khmer if you don’t speak Khmer, or the version of it that your school chose as standard. But it is also true that you can’t learn school things in Khmer if you haven’t been exposed to school ways of using Khmer, even if Khmer is your only language. We all need to learn that languages can be used to talk about school subjects, before learning to talk about those subjects in those languages.

  • The language ability of minority children is limited.
Isn’t it their ability in one particular language? This comment reflects the ambiguity of the word “language”, in English and other languages, and blends its two meanings: language ability, which we all share alike because we’re all human beings; and ability in different languages, which we all share differently, depending on where and to whom we happen to be born. I will return to the bottomless lay and specialist confusion spawned by this ambiguity in a future post.

  • In order to boost their children’s academic performance, parents should be encouraged to switch to the school language at home.
Does parenting involve academic nurturing? Saying that using one specific language in one specific environment makes that language usable in other environments too matches the twin and paradoxical beliefs that there must be one all-purpose language for every individual, and that all languages must serve all purposes. Parents are as much academic specialists as teachers are lay parents. If they were all the same, we wouldn’t need schools.

  • Bilingual children learn better when school subjects are taught in their mother tongue.
Don’t monolingual children too? Any language can serve schooling purposes, if it is used for schooling purposes. Conversely, you can’t make a language fit for use in school contexts if you don’t use it in school contexts. Comments such as this one usually come up in discussions of children’s deficient resources in a mainstream language, like specialised vocabulary or written composition skills. These resources don’t develop spontaneously: written composition skills, for example, develop by practising written composition skills in the places where developing written composition skills is deemed of relevance.

Aside from contradictions that emerge from comments like these, taken together, they reflect the perception that the children’s “many languages” are the complicating factor in their schooling, and the source of academic (or other) underachievement. Schooling involves school-bound initiation rituals, including specific uses of language, regardless of the linguistic resources of the initiated. The complication may lie instead in spending time and effort addressing multilingualism as a complicating factor.

I will come back to schooling issues in future, including how a child’s natural multilingualism may be disregarded in favour of curricular, so-called “second language” learning. The next posts deal with a different school-bound issue, the prestige of the printed word as reflected in budding literacy. 

Meanwhile, like many schools at this time of year, I will take a break while I attend to a number of multilingual and multicultural traditions. 

Happy English New Year to all of you, as I’ve heard it wished outside of the Western side of the world.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Speech passes, print endures. Wednesday 5th January 2011.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Mother tongues

Going by straightforward definitions, a mother tongue should be the tongue that your mother uses. Assuming that she uses it to you and so you learn it from her, your mother’s tongue is then your mother tongue too.

“Is that your tongue, mother?”
Photo: Drawn on wood by T. W. Wood, 1869 (Wikimedia Commons)

However, as I’ve been arguing in this blog, things to do with languages are seldom straightforward and, when they happen to be, someone is sure to mess them up. In lay and specialist circles alike, the meaning of the term “mother tongue” ranges from ‘first language’, through ‘best language’, to ‘main language’. We sometimes even find mother tongue equated to “L1”, a term belonging to an intriguing tradition of identifying languages by numbers. I will have quite a few things to say about 1st Ls and other numbered Ls in future, but what these supposed definitions of mother tongue have in common is that they are all undefined themselves. So saying that your mother tongue is, for example, your best language, or vice versa, if you don’t know what a mother tongue or a best language might be, is like explaining that sulphuric acid is H2SO4 and that H2SO4 is sulphuric acid, if you have no idea what sulphuric acid and H2SO4 might be.  

In short, there is no definition of mother tongue. We could live with this: other things that we talk about, like life, or love, or languages, or multilinguals, have no definition either. But what “no definition” in fact means is ‘many definitions’. Which means that everyone defines mother tongue their way, which means that nobody is talking about the same thing when they are talking about mother tongue. The only thing on which there seems to be some agreement is that mother tongue is singular (meaning ‘just one’, not ‘funny’).

One solution to mother tongue singularity is to assign one to a child, or the other way around, on the strength of the child’s presumed ancestry. But since someone decided that ancestry is also a singularity, and since children can have multi-ancestries through no choice of their own, this solution in fact solves very little. In Singapore, to give but one example, a child’s mother tongue is defined according to the ethnicity of the child’s father. This raises the fascinating question of how a child’s father tongue might be defined, not to mention a child’s other-caregiver tongues, which do not necessarily match the parents’, in multilingual communities like Singapore. (A side-thought: isn’t it interesting that so many terms that have to do with language, languages, their uses and their users are undefined, undefinable, or funnily defined?)

In short, again, mother tongues are assigned on the strength of random criteria. It doesn’t matter, for example, that your mother (or your father) may have more than one mother(father) tongue her(him)self, and use all of them with you, or that your mother (ditto) doesn’t use any of her own tongues with you. It doesn’t matter either that your mother tongue might possibly be what you are exposed to as a child, which is (yet) another definition of this term, and might possibly mean that “mother tongue” corresponds to your full linguistic repertoire. In monolingual contexts, this is certainly what mother tongue means. In multilingual ones, your supposed mother tongue may actually turn out to be a step-tongue, to borrow and generalise the pithy title of Anthea Fraser Gupta’s book.

Singular mother tongue assignments arise in multilingual contexts only, and their consequences are far from random. If you are matched to a mother tongue, you are expected to show proficiency in that tongue, and to represent its speakers. Including if you’re a child. If you don’t, because you don’t use that tongue in the way someone says you should, or because it’s not your fault that someone decided you had that tongue, your whole future may be at stake. Especially if you’re a child.

Children go to school. Decisions about mother tongue gain relevance in schooling contexts, for schooling purposes. Knowing that children are the ones to be schooled, and assuming that schools are there for the children, one would be justified in believing that mother or other tongue assignments would take the schooling child’s conditions into account. My next post will check this out.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Schooling in tongues. Wednesday 15th December 2010.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Linguistic virtuosi, prestissimo

We all know that children are outstanding learners, and especially outstanding at learning languages. But how do we know this? Who told us, or how else did we find this out?

Let’s see. Children are, apparently, champion sprinters. Whatever they learn, they learn very fast, and their linguistic galloping prowess is in a class of its own. Words fail us: child language acquisition is a feat, it’s staggering, it’s magic – these are not my words, by the way. Our tiny Formula One racers acquire language at astounding, breakneck, breathtaking speed – not my words here either. 

I’ve often wondered why these words appear in the same statements that say that all children acquire language in the same way, at the same pace, with the same results. The “speed of acquisition” of language has nevertheless become one of many unquestionable truths about children and their learning. But how can something that we all do be wondrous? Compared to what, since we can’t be comparing children among themselves?

Geoffrey Sampson prefers to question the unquestionable: why, he asks, “is it appropriate to regard a learning period of two years or so as ‘remarkably fast’ rather than ‘remarkably slow’? [...] The truth is that the only reason we have for expecting language acquisition to take any particular length of time is our knowledge of how long it actually has taken in observed cases”. Adults, he adds, tend to be favourably disposed towards small children, so a verdict of slowness, or of indifference, against one of speed, would make one seem “boorish”. Sampson concludes that children “are good at learning languages, because people are good at learning anything that life throws at us”. You can read the whole argument in his 2005 book, The ‘language instinct’ debate

It turns out that children are outstanding language learners because adults aren’t. This comparison deftly glosses over the fact that we’re talking about versions of language learning that cannot be compared. The reasoning is that children are good and fast because adults are bad and slow. Or that adults are bad and slow because children are good and fast. If, that is, this can be called a “reasoning” at all. Where children are taken as ideals of linguistic perfection, it is perhaps understandable that adults can do little more than remain spellbound – and tongue-tied.

The intellectual marvels that we go on crediting our children with might also explain, perhaps expectedly, another development. This is the quite frightening one that Susan Linn documents in Consuming Kids. Soon, on the perception of “many languages” as the latest desirable gadget, children themselves may start demanding to be made multilinguals.

If they do, they may be in for an unpleasant surprise as soon as they start school, where multilingualism appears to matter less than commitment to a “mother tongue” (one only, yes). We’ll see how, in the next two posts.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Mother tongues. Saturday 11th December 2010.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Child prodigies

This post is not about children who are prodigies, or vice versa, but about the prodigies that we, adults, insist on believing that children are capable of. (If you’re keen on linguisticky nerd stuff, the phrase child prodigies is an example of structural ambiguity.) This post is about perfectly typical children, in other words.

Children are adorable – well, most of the time. But from adoring them to worshipping super-human powers that we invent for them takes a long, long twist down the old reasoning path. We’ve all heard, for example, that children are like sponges. Setting aside the quirky detail that identifies children with passive absorbers that first swell and then leak, this usually means that children will learn, and learn well, anything, any time, any way. Children are, in short, learning machines.

This is why we find widespread reports that our drooling, nappied, teething, and possibly soothed infants can read books, play the piano, identify mathematical symbols, and probably devise models of naked singularities, if we ever decide to teach them that too.

Photo: MHV (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

I was (still am) intrigued by why tiny tots should be taught this kind of thing, so I once asked a school principal, who was expressing pride at having two-year-olds learn spelling, as he put it, at his private institution. His answer: “Because they can learn it, you know?” Setting aside another quirky detail, about the interpretation of “learn spelling” at age 2, I do know that children can learn, “it” and other “its” like it. We all can, given the need for it, and this was the point of my question. But the principal’s version of the quip about Mount Everest, credited to Sir Edmund Hillary, eerily reminded me of the many circus shows I attended in my own childhood, starring cute little animals doing impressive tricks that are completely useless except to secure the livelihood of the circus owner.

Pushing your abilities is never wrong, at any age. I just happen to believe that children have better things to do than getting their timetables filled, like sponges, with adult ideals of accomplishment. Children need their time to be children, to learn what they need to learn at their own pace. The true child prodigy, to me, is that children manage to manage their childhood despite adult interference.

Current adjectival exuberance about child learning “feats” matches current wonderment about multilingual “achievements”. This must mean that being a child and being multilingual is the day’s supreme form of wow!-ness. Children are the right age, as the fairy tale asserts, and we should therefore feed them as many languages as possible, so they don’t lose out to the competition.

There’s a wonderful Singaporean word for this fear of losing out: kiasuism. It comes from Hokkien kiasu, and started a presumably humble life in Singlish to then climb all the way up to the Oxford English Dictionary, no less. Singaporeans did not invent the condition, by the way, nor has it ever been exclusive to them: they were simply brave enough to recognise it and name it.

Or maybe there’s no fear of anything at all. Maybe school principals, parents and other accountable adults simply want some of the mystique surrounding the higher intellectual abilities attributed to children and to multilingualism to rub off from their tiny wards on them. I’ve talked about the myth of multilingual virtues, so let me next address the myth of learning perfection, particularly language learning perfection, in childhood.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Linguistic virtuosi, prestissimo. Wednesday 8th December 2010.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

“We shall overcome monolingualism.”

The title of this post is not, but could be, a slogan befitting the pro-multilingualism campaign of the day. If you do an online search for “being multilingual”, as in the innocent title of this blog, and then count the number of advantage, boost, reward, enhance, benefit, improve, good, opening, and other affirmative-action words that collocate with these two, you’ll see what I mean.

Let us think for a little while, in the quiet of our own heads. Why are people monolingual, or multilingual? This is like asking why do people use chopsticks to eat their food, or why do people organise rodeo shows to entertain themselves. So the answer cannot be that it is because they wish to achieve enhancements by doing the one, or because they don’t know that enhancements can be achieved by not doing the other. The answer must be that chopsticks and rodeos are what makes sense around them. The languages that you use must therefore also make sense in the contexts where you live.

We’ve all learned that multilinguals and monolinguals are different, because differences between them are what’s apparently interesting to focus on, nowadays. Findings from sociology, psychology, neurology, and so on, and from their hyphenated counterparts with linguistics, constantly remind us of this. But the people who typically use chopsticks and the people who typically enjoy rodeos are different too. Findings about differences are bound to be replicated for anything we are, do, or live through. So what else is new?

Differences in cognitive, social or whatever behaviour reflect our adaptation to our environments. Adaptation is precisely the reason why expecting multilinguals to behave like monolinguals, or forcing them to do so, is unnatural. I’ve said this time and again in this blog. So I fail to see why we should strive to achieve the converse, and turn monolinguals into multilinguals, in order to “enhance” their quality of life. Introducing multilingualism for its own sake in a monolingual community, for example, isn’t likely to “benefit” either multilingualism or the community.

I don’t think either that the way to redress the (many) injuries done to multilinguals is to increase their numbers. Promoting is not synonymous with understanding, and being multilingual doesn’t necessarily mean having insight about being multilingual, as I’ve noted before. We need to understand what multilinguals are, which, to my mind, leads to understanding of what we all are, regardless of our respective linguistic resources. Highlighting differences hasn’t got much to speak for itself. We’re all familiar with the old quip:

and its small print:

Rash claims about multilingualism simply perpetuate the myth that multilinguals are special in some way or other. Saying that “special” nowadays means ‘beneficial’ instead of ‘detrimental’ in turn persuades multilinguals of their entitlement to the same kind of smugness that monolinguals flaunted about in older times. Feuds, whether drawing on what my great-great-grandmother did to your not so great ancestor, or on the number of languages that we happen to need to use, are pointless and never-ending. The see-saw of opinions about multilingualism is clear evidence of this.

Contradictory and fuzzy messages like these keep us baffled about what multilingualism is, and seeking shelter among the herd of the day. The first victims of this insecurity, and I mean victims quite literally, are our children. The twin myths of the ease, speed, perfection, with which children acquire languages, and of unquestionable multilingual bliss urge us, responsible and caring adults, to make our little ones as multilingual as possible, as soon as possible. Perhaps we should turn away from the “effects” of multilingualism to the effects, without scare quotes, of myths about child learning. I’ll do that, in my next two posts.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Child prodigies. Saturday 4th December 2010.


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