Wednesday 21 December 2011


My children grew up illiterate in one of their languages, Portuguese. In our family, this happens to be “my” language, in which I’ve been literate since my early school years, so depriving little ones of skills which are commonly seen as a must in all of one’s languages might well be taken as a regretful example of neglectful parenting.

It wasn’t neglect, in fact, it was pragmatism. My little ones had as much use for Portuguese orthography as for truck driving licenses. Their need to use printed Portuguese came first when they turned into big ones and left home: things like SMS and email are printed forms of language, and it was in printed Portuguese that my children chose to write to me. Mostly spelt-as-it-sounds to start off with, which soon became spelt-as-it’s-spelt because I wrote back in Portuguese too.

There are two reasons, I believe, for my children’s self-taught literacy in Portuguese. One is that they were literate in their two other languages. Once you realise that certain printed symbols are meant to represent speech sounds, you are ready to transfer that knowledge across your languages. It may have helped, when the children were small, that I asked them to write their shopping lists for me in Portuguese, and that we got ourselves a run-of-the-mill magnetic alphabet, through which we could leave silly messages to one another, like sou um gato (‘I’m a cat’) or mais bolo? (‘more cake?’), on the fridge. The other reason is that there were plenty of books in Portuguese around the house. If you read Portuguese yourself, you can check out Cláudia Storvik’s report of similar experiences, in a series of posts dealing with Alfabetização de crianças bilíngues em português at her blog, Filhos bilíngues.

We read those books in the classical way: child on lap, back towards parent, parent following text lines with finger. We read one page, or a couple of lines, or a whole story, or half a story, Scheherazade-way, depending on the day’s mood and attention span of all involved. Reading sessions nevertheless invariably resulted in all kinds of questions about Portuguese things and Portuguese ways of talking about things, that the children had no first-hand knowledge of, because we didn’t live in Portugal. Books do this for you, they tell you about what may not be there for you right now, right here, but is there anyway.

These Portuguese books were also beautifully illustrated. The children attempted to copy those drawings themselves, and we spent many hours deciding whether and how to improve colours and lines of the originals – all of this in Portuguese. Gaining awareness that three-dimensional objects, and living things, and abstract concepts can all be represented in two dimensions on paper teaches you about those things and teaches you about language: “doggie”, for example, is what you rightfully call both that drawing on that page in a book that you can hold in your hand, and the neighbour’s pet that is bigger than you.

This is why books are, to me, the epitome of user-friendly didactic multimedia. You can open and close them, you can touch them, smell them, see them and hear them, in your head or through someone else’s voice, and you can leave them and return to them any time, satisfied that whatever they store remains safely stored. Just for you, just you and them, when and where you want them. No crashes, no short-circuits, no breakdowns. Unless, of course, you relate to the situation portrayed in the Medieval help desk sketch, from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) show Øystein og meg.

Practice with books does not just teach you language-related skills that you don’t know you are acquiring – not knowing that you’re learning, by the way, is the best way to learn. Books also tell you about what matters to someone else, whom you’ll probably never come to meet face to face, but who took the trouble to write things down for you, and through whom you can learn more, precisely because you live in different places and different times – and are likely to use different languages to think about things and talk about them. Not least, books tell you about yourself. Viv Edwards captured the delight of engaging with books in a previous post, when she wrote that “children like to see – and hear – themselves in the books they read”. If you still need to be persuaded about the joy of reading, and of creating reading, check out this BBC report about ciShanjo, in Zambia.

Meanwhile, I’ll walk my talk: I’ll be worming into books until next year, when I come back to this blog.

Image: Clipart from

© MCF 2011

Next post: My homeland is my language? Saturday 7th January 2012.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Language geniuses and language dunces

Suppose you’ve spent the first couple of decades (or so) of your life in a happy monolingual state, and you then learned a new language in which you as happily came to reach reasonable (or so) proficiency. Before I go on, I must apologise for the hedges (or so): the thing is that nobody has any idea whether it is years, decades or what which make a difference for successful “late” language learning, and nobody has any idea what “reasonable” proficiency in a language might mean.

But suppose anyway. If this progression matches your language learning record, then you are likely to have created a problem for accepted accounts of language learning abilities – or ingrained beliefs about these abilities, which often amount to the same thing. You cannot have acquired proficient command of your new language because only children are able to do that, and you were no longer a child when you started your multilingual journey. But if you have indeed acquired proficient command of your new language (child-like command, perhaps?), you cannot be an adult, or at least not a typical adult. Since black-or-white persuasions like child = good language learner-or-adult = bad language learner take much toil and trouble to be thought over and revised, it’s easier to create a new label that fits them. You must then be a cross-breed of adult state and child ability, which obviously is something wondrous that we can’t really explain – and perhaps shouldn’t attempt to explain, lest we spoil the magic of it all: in a nutshell, the stars must have been partial to you.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Magic” is the right word. Even in academic publications, the process and the product of successful “late” language learning deserve words and expressions that connote unfathomable mysteries, the least emotional of which is “exceptional”. If you’re curious, I discuss a sample of these and other epithets that go on sticking to multi-language learners in a book chapter which is available online, Multilingualism, language norms and multilingual contexts (click on 59637_Intro.pdf ).

Believing in starred giftedness has side effects, of course, one of them being that it involves believing in starred un-giftedness. We’re born geniuses or morons, and that’s about all there is to it. As far as language learning is concerned, the unlucky ill-fated ones thus have a good excuse not to bother – and so do their teachers, naturally, whether they themselves are among the lucky ones or not. I’m not saying that talent (or genius, or giftedness, whichever way you prefer to label something that you’d rather not define precisely) doesn’t exist. Some of us have a knack for languages like some of us have a knack for finding bargains at flea markets. I’m saying that you can’t be good at finding flea bargains if you haven’t practised being around flea markets, and that the same goes for languages, wherever they are used. I’m also saying that if you, the genius, are found to be really good at what you do because you’ve worked really hard at what you do, then you’re not a genius after all: you’re a boring, unexceptional workhorse.

One good method to work your way to linguistic talent is to develop a friendly relationship with books. I’ll talk about this next time. Books are friendly things: they nurture you in the arts of using language, demanding no more gifts from you than an ability to flick pages – and, best of all, they do all this without sticking labels to your linguistic abilities.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Bookworming. Wednesday 21st December 2011.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!
=Guest post=

by Brian A. Goldstein

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” (Thomas Paine)

In most countries, bilingualism is well-established. That is not the case in the United States. However, because of demographic changes, bilingualism in the United States is slowly but surely becoming the default condition… the underlying representation… the new normal (Goldstein, 2012). In the U.S., it is estimated that 10.9 million (21%) 5- to 17-year-olds speak a language other than English at home, and 2.7 million (5%) speak English with difficulty (Language Use, U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007). At the same time, the amount of research related to bilingual children has increased significantly. Much of that research is translational in that it aids practitioners in providing reliable and valid clinical services to bilingual children.

Despite the rapid increase in research related to bilinguals, clinical practice has not always changed as a necessary and important by-product of that research (Kritikos, 2003). I witnessed this disconnect recently while attending the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), in November this year. At the convention, I witnessed clinicians questioning clinical advice that has been current for 20 years. It was clear to me that these individuals did not seem to have received these messages. Here are some messages that I believe need to be delivered.

  • Stop telling bilingual parents to speak only one language to their children. There is no evidence that speaking only one language or practicing the one parent-one language dichotomy improves language skills or staves off a speech and language disorder. Even parents who report that they use the one parent-one language rule do not do so in practice (Lanza 2004).
  • Stop believing that being bilingual causes and/or exacerbates a speech or language disorder. As Kohnert says, “A disorder in bilinguals is not caused by bilingualism or cured by monolingualism” (Kohnert, 2007, p. 105). It is now reasonable to conclude that in the acquisition of two languages, bilingual children do not appear to be “remarkably delayed nor remarkably advanced” relative to monolingual children (Nicoladis and Genesee, 1997, p. 264).
  • Stop using family members as interpreters/translators (Langdon and Cheng, 2002). Family members are not trained in this area and are clearly biased when it comes to their own family members. It also places them in a precarious position in which they are not likely to be comfortable.
  • Stop trying to calculate an omnibus measure of language dominance. The notion of dominance has been criticized on both theoretical and methodological grounds (e.g., MacSwan and Rolstad, 2006). Moreover, its utility relative to speech and language skills is equivocal. Ball, Müller, and Munro (2001) found that Welsh-dominant children (aged 2;6-5;0) acquired the Welsh trill earlier than their peers who were English-dominant. However, Law and So (2006) found that both Cantonese-dominant and Putonghua-dominant children (2;6-4;11) acquired Cantonese phonology first. This is not to say that variables such as language history, language use, and language proficiency are not important variables to consider. They are. What should be dismissed, however, is determining language dominance based on a standardized test and then triaging clinical services based on its results.
  • Stop assessing speech and language skills in only one language. The bilingual’s languages are not mirror images of each other. Skills are often distributed across the two languages. The same language skills can be easy in one language but difficult in the other (Peña, Bedore, and Rappazzo, 2003). The distributed nature of language skills in bilinguals necessitates examining speech and language skills in each of the child’s languages.
  • Stop waiting 2-3 years before assessing a bilingual child for a possible speech and language disorder. The belief by many practitioners is that a child needs to have years of experience in the second language before even thinking about assessing their speech and language skills bilingually. That viewpoint runs counter to the mounting evidence that such children acquire their language skills fairly quickly. For example, Paradis (2007) found that after 21 months of exposure to English, sequential bilinguals exhibited skills within the normal range of monolinguals in the areas of morphology (40%), receptive vocabulary (65%), and story grammar (90%). In a seminar titled English Phonological Skills of English Language Learners, presented at the ASHA convention in New Orleans in November 2009, Gilhool, Goldstein, Burrows, and Paradis found that after an average of 8 months of exposure to English, sequential bilinguals (ages 4;6-6;9) averaged consonant accuracy of 90%.
  • Stop comparing the speech and language skills of bilinguals to those of monolinguals. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one (Grosjean, 1989). Thus, although their skills will be similar to monolinguals, they will not be identical. Further, in a seminar titled Lifelong Bilingualism: Linguistic Costs, Cognitive Benefits, and Long-Term Consequences, presented at the ASHA convention in Philadelphia in November 2010, Bialystok indicated that both languages of bilinguals are active when using one of them, even in strongly monolingual contexts. What this means is that bilinguals do not sublimate the other language, even if the speaking community is exclusively or largely monolingual. Both languages are always active to one degree or another. Thus, from a clinical perspective, this view argues for comparing monolinguals to monolinguals and bilinguals to bilinguals.
  • Stop treating those with speech or language disorders in only one language. To again quote Kohnert (2007, pp. 143-144), “Being ‘monolingual’ in a bilingual family or community exacerbates a weakness, turning a disability into a handicap.” If, as practitioners, our focus is to develop a bilingual speaker, then services for those with speech and language disorders necessarily have to be conducted in both languages. Intervention in only one language is not an option.

Finally, “Stop thinking in terms of limitations and start thinking in terms of possibilities.” (Terry Josephson)

Brian A. Goldstein is Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences and Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

© Brian A. Goldstein 2011

Next post: Language geniuses and language dunces. Wednesday 14th December 2011.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Language and language

In case you haven’t noticed, language may well be at risk of death. If you’re in the habit of gathering information through headlines and ignoring the small print, this is what you’ll learn from the title of this 2009 BBC report, The death of language?

If, however, you decide to read on and find out what this report in fact reports, you may agree with me that the headline is not about the death of language, but about “language death”, a concept which became standardised in discussions of the demise of particular languages. Alternatively, you may agree with the official who responded to the comment I sent to the BBC about this at the time, and who dismissed it on account of my unawareness that “the death of language” and “language death” mean the same thing. As you can see, the report and its title are still there, both unchanged.

Whichever the case may be – and unless, of course, my non-native intuitions completely fail me –, the mismatch that I’m quite aware of between the title and the contents of this report illustrates the ambiguity of the English word language. The word has a countable meaning, as in ‘one language-many languages’, and a mass/uncountable meaning, as in ‘language ability’ or ‘acquisition of language’. Which means that there are actually two English words language, just like there are two English words thought, as in ‘one thought-many thoughts’, and in ‘human thought’ or ‘thought development’, respectively.

By this quirk of English vocabulary, the singular form of the count noun language and the mass noun language are homonyms. This is fine, homonymy and ambiguity and confusion about what words might mean are probably the rule rather than the exception, in any language. But the problem is that ambiguity and confusion percolate through to (assumedly) scientific accounts of language, by means of the current so-called “language of science”. Most writing (and probably thinking) about linguistics is available in English, so it is indeed unfortunate that the language we’ve come to associate with talk about language lacks the lexical means to distinguish language from language.

Conflation of both “language” meanings/words abounds in English-medium academic publications – which may explain why English-medium popularisation of research about language doesn’t bother to tell those meanings apart either. Similar blurring of meanings recurs in languages with similar homonymy, one example being Swedish and its word(s) språk. I’ve often wondered whether the confusion stems from deliberate word play, or from “natural” fogging up of thought paths on account of formal similarity between words of a particular language, be it a language that we choose to use (if we have a choice there) or a language that we have to use (if we don’t). In Portuguese or in French, for example, things are crystal-clear here: the linguistic ability shared by all human beings is linguagem and langage, and specific tongues shared by specific human beings are língua(s) and langue(s), respectively.

Terminological imprecision of this kind is what explains that we find English-medium publications where “language acquisition” means ‘acquisition of one language’; where “first language” regularly appears in the singular; where introducing talk about language means introducing talk about a particular language; and where “language ability” invariably refers to ‘ability in particular languages’. You can read my most recent review of this resilient English-bound confusion in a chapter on First language acquisition and teaching, included in a collection of studies dedicated to folk beliefs about “language” across the board, Applied Folk Linguistics.

Tolerating vague uses of the core term(s) of a discipline which prides itself on describing a “unique” human feature has, predictably, resulted in loose judgements about those human beings for whom language does not mean a single language. The next post, by a guest whom I’m proud to welcome to this blog for the second time, gives a state of the art appreciation of what clinical assessment of multilinguals has meant.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!, by Brian A. Goldstein. Wednesday 7th December 2011.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Half-linguals and semilinguals

Speaking of semi-things assumes that it is possible (and possibly relevant) to speak about whole-things, so I think it is certainly relevant to check out what whole-things might mean, language-wise.

One way to start working this out could be to ask what whole-lingualism might mean. Luckily, we don’t need to ask this question any more, because it has already been answered. Over 25 years ago, in an article titled Semilingualism: A Half-Baked Theory of Communicative Competence, Marilyn Martin-Jones and Suzanne Romaine showed that characterising linguistic competence in terms of wholes and parts amounted to “the container view of competence”, whereby ideal (i.e. mythical) monolinguals have a full linguistic container, ideal multilinguals (ditto) have as many full ones as the number of languages they say they use, and semilinguals have a mishmash of containers, all half-filled to different % %.
Image: © Alti 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

Container views of linguistic competence miss the point on two counts – which in fact are all counts. First, by assuming that languages take up space, literally or metaphorically. And second, by assuming that whatever space they take up is finite, is therefore liable to overcrowding, and therefore affects a cognitive potential that is finite too. I refer to a previous post for clarification on both matters, and I refer now to the example of my children. As they were growing up, their use of the two languages they had at the time, Swedish and Portuguese, naturally waxed and waned as our family shuttled among different countries in rapid succession. This meant that they did sound funny, at times: you can see for yourself, in one of the episodes that I report in my book Three is a Crowd? (scroll down to the Book Preview, click on Contents, and look for pages 74-75).

My children’s productions, as well as those of other children and adults in similar situations, were evidence that linguistic input plays a crucial role in language development and language maintenance. Their “less than whole-proficiency” reflected the (almost) exclusive parental input they had, at the time, in their two languages. It didn’t help things that those users of their languages with whom they could have sporadically honed their budding linguistic skills, relatives and friends alike, invariably met their productions with commiserating body language, or silence, or exclamations and comments, in languages that the children understood, about whether “everything” was “all right” with them. There were even attempts, believe it or not, to use English with my children, a language they at the time had no idea even existed, apparently on the conviction that some languages, but not others, come nicely whole-packaged from birth.

The half-stated assumption was that multilingualism was taking its (predicted) toll: the children were well on their way to “semilingualism” instead. This term, and the concept it supposedly represents, are as conveniently ill-defined as the many others whose only claim to fame lies in having become synonymous with disparaging remarks about multilingualism, on account of profound ignorance of what multilingualism is. You may well wonder why I chose to dedicate a whole post to an obsolete misnomer such as this one. I did it for two reasons. One, that ignorance tends to revive itself by feeding on its own bliss; and the other, that ignorance tends to hurt those who depend, in part or in whole, on its executives.

Next time, I’ll deal not so much with ignorance, but with confusion, also quite profound. What, exactly, does the English word language mean?

© MCF 2011

Next post: Language and language. Wednesday 30th November 2011.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Balancing (f)acts

Immigration scenarios, such as the ones described in a previous post, are probably among the first that come to mind when we think about “unbalanced” uses of languages. But the term “unbalanced” crops up to characterise the languages of multilinguals who stay put where they happen to be born too. The appropriateness of this term to (assumedly) describe multilingualism bears some thinking. This is why I thought of dedicating a post to it, following up on other grudges of mine against obscure terms which persist in appearing collocated with the term “multilingualism”, like here, or here, or here.

The first observation is that the term unbalanced does not aim at description at all. It draws on comparisons, because one thing can only be said to be unbalanced in comparison to another. This is interesting, in that it reflects the odd fate of past and current approaches to multilingualism, which have had a really, really hard time breaking loose from the vicious circles of comparative methodologies. Multilingual competence (or incompetence, often) has mostly been ascertained through comparison of each of the languages of a multilingual with monolingual uses of the same languages. An additional layer of comparison comes through comparing the languages of a multilingual among themselves, in order to decide whether they are “balanced” or not – which, if those languages are developing as they should and are being used for what they are meant to be used, they cannot be.

Let’s see why. Comparing the different languages of an individual to find that they are used in unbalanced ways is about as interesting as comparing the same individual’s two or three mobile phones, or four or five pairs of shoes, to find that they are also used in unbalanced ways. The reason must be obvious: if you didn’t need to use different phones and shoes and languages in different ways, you wouldn’t need different phones or pairs of shoes in the first place. Or languages. The languages of a multilingual are “unbalanced” by definition, not because of linguistic (or multilingual) incompetence, but because of pragmatic competence: the real-life situations for which multilinguals need their languages are unbalanced.

We use our different languages in different ways, for different purposes, with different people, at different times, and in different places because that’s what we have different languages for. As I’ve argued before,“If multilinguals could (or should) use all their languages in exactly the same way, they would not need several languages: one all-purpose language would be enough. ‘One all-purpose language’ defines a monolingual, not a multilingual”. The interesting questions to ask about multilingual uses of languages must surely be whether and how those uses fit their purposes – which are also the interesting questions to ask about different mobile phones and different pairs of shoes. The reason such questions are important is that their answers are the ones which can shed light on whether and how multilingual uses are typical or disordered.

A second observation concerns the meaning of the term “balanced” itself, which isn’t ‘of equal weight’. If it were, I would be a balanced multilingual in Japanese and Swahili, because I can say Thank you in both languages and that’s about all I can say in them. When applied to languages, “balanced” means ‘full weight’, across the board. Which is in its turn quite interesting, for three reasons. First, that we should expect to find users of several full-weighted languages as often as we find fire-spitting dragons racing down from the skies. Not even professional multilinguals, such as translators and interpreters, can claim to have “balanced” command of their languages: each of their languages also serves specific purposes in specific situations. Second, what should we make of the apparently desirable multilingual goal of having several full-weighted languages, against the paradoxical but equally desirable multilingual goal that one of the languages must be dominant? And third, what exactly do words like “full”, or “complete”, or their synonyms mean, applied to languages? I’ll deal with this last bit next time – which means I’ll go on ranting some more about the funny terminology that goes on sticking to multilingualism.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Half-linguals and semilinguals. Wednesday 23rd November 2011.

Saturday 5 November 2011

“Invisible” but actively present: immigrant parents’ views concerning their children’s bilingualism
=Guest post=

by Anastasia Gkaintartzi (Αναστασία Γκαϊνταρτζ​ή)

We came to live in a country but not to let our children be “in blind” with one language only

«Ηρθαμε σε ένα κράτος να ζήσουμε όμως όχι και να μείνουν τα παιδιά μας «στα γκαβά» με μία γλώσσα»

Immigrant parents’ language perspectives and practices play a very important role to language maintenance and the intergenerational transmission of language, which is a basic factor for the encouragement of bilingualism. Quoting Fishman (1991:113), “that which is not transmitted cannot be maintained”. Internationally, language shift to the majority language has emerged as a sociolinguistic phenomenon which takes place rapidly, since research data reveal that the moment immigrant children enter kindergarten, they tend to present a change in their linguistic behavior, using the majority language increasingly. Thus, in most cases of children of immigrants today, who attend mainstream primary schools, the second language is developed at the cost of the first, gradually replacing it and becoming the children’s dominant language, since it takes up a dominant place in their linguistic use and proficiency. On the other hand, the children’s home language is not recognized or valued in the school context.

How do immigrant parents perceive the issue of language maintenance in relation to school language learning? How do they interpret broader monolingual ideologies and consequently deal with their children’s bilingualism at home? The discussion on issues of bilingualism of minority language children and language school learning is usually dominated by the academic, scientific and educational discourse, whereas immigrant parents’ own voices and perspectives are absent. The invisibility of minority children’s bilingualism also extends to the invisibility of their parents’ language views and practices within the school context, who are perceived and constituted as an “absent” group by dominant school ideologies and practices. Listening to immigrant parents’ voices concerning their children’s bilingualism and studying their own language ideologies and practices, as they are constructed and enacted in interaction with the dominant ideologies, can help us examine the ways school language practices affect the children’s language behavior. There are powerful messages to be heard, concerning the value of languages and the shaping of parents’ language views and practices too.

I have carried out an ethnographic study on the language views and practices of Albanian immigrant parents, whose children attend the mainstream Greek primary school, for my doctoral dissertation, which I am currently completing at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Drawing on my data, it emerges that the way the parents perceive and act upon their children’s bilingualism is directly related to dominant school practices and ideologies, to which they respond in different ways. Immigrant parents perceive and report the fact that their children choose to speak the Greek language more and more in their everyday language use. They also report the gradual decrease of the children’s communicative skills in their home language, which begins to take place as soon as they enter the Greek school, and they express, at the same time, the importance of language maintenance and the encouragement of bilingualism.

In addition, the children’s lack of literacy in the Albanian language emerges as an issue that appears to concern and puzzle them, since some of them claim their right to have the Albanian language spoken and taught in the Greek school educational system. On the other hand, the teachers’ language views regarding the children’s bilingualism and the use of the Albanian language in the school context play a powerful role in shaping the parents’ attitudes and bring about dilemmas and confusion. Immigrant parents experience conflicts and ambivalence concerning the extent to which they can fight for their language rights and encourage the use and learning of the minority language in relation to their children’s academic development. The teachers’ common advice “don’t speak Albanian at home” toward immigrant parents and “don’t speak Albanian in class” to their children brings these parents face to face with dilemmas, since they struggle to balance between their duty to support their children’s school language learning and their duty (and right) to speak and maintain their home language.

Through the views of these immigrant parents concerning their children’s bilingualism and the importance of first language maintenance, a sense of anxiety emerges for the future course of their language and the ability of their children to function in it. The teachers’ language views and practices have a powerful presence in the parents’ discourse concerning the children’s bilingualism, which reveals the influence of school ideologies and calls on us all, who belong to the field of education and bilingualism, to take into serious consideration the language views and attitudes of bilingual children and their parents.

International conference “Crossroad of languages and cultures: Learning beyond the classroom”,
8-10 April 2011, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, organized by Polydromo.

Closing, as I started, with Anastasia’s resistant voice, an Albanian immigrant mother who has lived for 14 years in Greece, we argue for the importance of listening to immigrant parents in order to encourage the minority children’s bilingualism and strive for a pluralistic education and society:
“This is what is best for our children, the more languages you learn, the better. But you can’t forget your own language, like us, we came here and our children forgot our language. It is not right what we do. We came to live in a country but not to let our children be “in blind” with one language only. I don’t throw this language here down, but I count our language too.”
Allowing space for the children’s home languages in the school context and letting their bilingualism emerge and flourish, includes creating connections with their home context in order to give “voice” to their parents’ language views and empower their role in supporting their children’s language development.

Anastasia Gkaintartzi is an English language teacher in Greece. She holds an MA in pedagogy and is currently completing her PhD in the Department of Early Childhood Education of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, focusing on sociolinguistic and educational issues of bilingualism. Her research interests include bilingualism and minority children education, language ideology and multiculturalism. She is also a member of Polydromo, a group dedicated to bilingualism and multiculturalism in education and society. 

© Anastasia Gkaintartzi 2011

Next post: Balancing (f)acts. Wednesday 16th November 2011.

Saturday 29 October 2011

The trick is in the input

Given that languages are there to be used, preferably not to oneself, using languages means that it takes (at least) two to talk. “It Takes Two to Talk” is in fact the trademark guideline of The Hanen Program, which targets parents of young children who have been diagnosed with language disorders. The guideline makes as much sense for typically developing children: to make children talk, talk to them.

Talking to children doesn’t mean the now tedious talk of “quality” talk, whereby you should strive to spend time with your children “teaching” them (a concept which I’ll address in a future post) the latest in string theory or the tenets of Confucianism. Small children cannot learn anything through languages for the simple reason that they haven’t learnt languages yet. For small children, any talk is good talk, because talking is what nurtures language learning. We don’t learn our languages from books or the internet, we learn them from someone who also uses those languages, and who uses them with us.

Photo: © Walter Siegmund (Wikimedia Commons)

Children won’t spontaneously sprout languages either, whatever we adults do, or do not do about it, contrary to popular misconceptions about child language learning. Annick De Houwer makes a forceful case for the core role that language input plays in language acquisition, in a newly-published article, Language input environments and language development in bilingual acquisition, where she shows that “differences between individual bilingual children’s use of their two languages can be attributed to differences in the language input environments for each of the languages”.

One further misconception is that child output matches the input, all the way. It does, eventually, but not from Day One of incipient child productions, and not for many years after that. Whether we’re being exposed to monolingual or multilingual input, learning languages is a protracted process involving active working out of patterns, our way, from what is made available to us. It’s not a read-only transmission of an adult linguistic system – assuming, that is, that we do have some idea of what adult linguistic systems look like. We do have models, but so did the people who modelled combustion on phlogiston.

Many parents who are raising their children multilingually report to me that their usual reaction to the least perceived sign of disruption in one of their children’s languages is first, to fall silent, for fear of further confusing the child, and then, to switch language. It could be that the children used a word from another language, or fell silent themselves instead of responding in expected ways, or that they suddenly appear to feel more comfortable using one language rather than another, thus showing evidence of “unbalanced” linguistic development – an issue to which I’ll come back soon. It could be anything, really. The questions I get usually end up wondering whether there might be something wrong with the children, or with multilingualism, or both. My usual comment is that if we want our children to develop a particular language, the way to go is to use that language with them. And give time its time, as we say in Portugal, dar tempo ao tempo: someone once said (can’t remember who, unfortunately!) that if you want to enjoy the butterfly, you have to be patient with the caterpillar.

Which is all very well. Suppose now, however, that you’ve been talkative and patient, and your butterflies are doing just fine, when the time comes for you to move country. You’ll move your language(s) too, of course, and many different scenarios come to mind about what may happen to those languages. The next post, a guest post, reports on one of these scenarios, giving voice to the parents: how do immigrant parents assess their family’s new linguistic situation?

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= “Invisible” but actively present: Immigrant parents’ views concerning their children’s bilingualism, by Anastasia Gkaintartzi (Αναστασία Γκαϊνταρτζ​ή, in actual spelling). Saturday 5th November 2011.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Learning to be multilingual

Multilingual children learn their languages in the same way that all children learn their languages, which is by practising their use. Small children don’t know that they are learning “languages”, as little as they know that they are being nurtured into other cultural behaviours that happen to be practised around them. They learn to use handy ways of getting things done for them, by eventually realising that piercing cries result in immediate attention, or that saying the word(s) for ‘water’ is an effective way of getting a drink of water.

When children start making sense of their surroundings as surroundings, that is, as something independent of themselves, they also start making sense of their languages. Whether we’re big or small, we don’t need sophisticated vocabulary to express ourselves about our surroundings and our positioning within them. Children may yawn or giggle, they may mimic the characteristic body language or voice inflections of someone they want to refer to, or they may use someone’s language to refer to them, including in exchanges taking place in a different language – which is yet another typical instance of multilingual mixes.

The dawning of the age of awareness, also known as The Terrible Twos And Threes, is marked by tiny tots’ attempts at imposing (their) order on what they progressively come to understand as a whole wide world which isn’t, after all, populated by personal slaves at their beck and call. For multilingual children, one sign of budding awareness of the linguistic landscape into which they were born is their classification of the people around them according to the language(s) that they use, siblings included. Observations like “He speaks like mummy”, or “Can she speak like in my school?” reflect common child concerns at this time, and guide multilingual children’s choices of appropriate use of language(s) when, where and with whom.

Awareness of multilingual etiquette grows too, one example being that you follow suit on the language that someone addresses you in. There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this rule. One relates to an episode which took place among my family. Our children were by then users of Portuguese, mostly from mum, and Swedish, mostly from dad, and had duly classified users of these languages accordingly. One of our relatives, a speaks-like-daddy one, happened to have spent quite a long time in Portugal, and spoke Portuguese, though never to our children. But one day, he decided to do so, to our then three-year-old. Her reaction surprised not only him, but us parents too: she first froze in place, and then rushed to me to hide her face tight against me, refusing to address him, in any language, for the length of his visit.

Something was clearly wrong, to the child. We can only speculate about what. She was used to being addressed in different languages by the same people, so that was not the problem. Was it foiled expectations about that particular person, a breach of the rules she thought she had worked out to organise her world? Things like A speaks only X, and B speaks X and Y, though only X to me? Things like horsies don’t meow, to me or to anyone else? Child reactions help us shed light into intriguing matters like these, and may prompt us to rethink what being multilingual is all about. Our girl reacted in one way which she had available to express her bafflement, which was to remain silent. It made me wonder whether so-called selective mutism, for example, on the assumption that silence is the absence of something instead of the presence of something else, might not be due to similar causes.

And yes, there are other reasons for not following suit on the language that someone uses to you, as I suggested above. They range from developmental immaturity, where words of one language may contain sounds which are too difficult for small children to articulate, to quite mature realisation that switching language is, in itself, meaningful behaviour. I’ll come back to both issues in future posts, but meanwhile, I thought of switching too, from looking at what children do in order to learn to be multilingual to what the adults around them do to assist them.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The trick is in the input. Saturday 29th October 2011.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Children, toys, and languages

When it became clear that the internet and its associated paraphernalia had come to stay, my family decided to invest in a brand new (and expensive) desktop, complete with all the latest hard and soft gadgetry that, to our minds, also had come to stay. To us, parents, deciphering the workings of the cyber-friendly software by means of actions performed on the not so friendly hardware was a whole new language, which we duly set out to learn the way we had learnt our other new languages: instruction leaflet in hand, we typed and clicked the rules that someone else had worked out for us, with kid gloves and bated breath.

What we forgot, however, was that our children were by then big enough to sit unaided in front of a computer, and to tackle it, also unaided. One morning, we found all three of them huddled around the precious contraption, that we thought we had left safely turned off and off-puttingly covered the night before, taking more or less orderly turns at hammering away at mouse and keyboard, exclaiming at findings and commenting on procedure. Never mind about exercising parental authority right there and then, the facts were that the children turned to us to actually inform us about computer management tricks that we had timidly glimpsed on the Advanced Uses pages of the leaflet. This was as much a first for them as it had been for us but, well, the kids didn’t know about gloves, and their breathing was profoundly relaxed.

Small wonder that they treated our languages with the exact same lightheartedness. To the children, languages were yet other intriguing things to play around with, for the same purposes – to find out how they work. Neither the bulky desktop nor the languages had come to stay, as it turned out. Our (parental) problem, there too, was that we thought of our languages as, literally, our languages. We kept forgetting that the languages were theirs too and that, like the computer, the children could use them unaided.

Like all children, they created their own words, or new meanings for adult words and, like all multilingual children, they mixed their languages and the body language that they had learnt to associate with each one – more on which in a later post. Just like they used tea towels as turbans, or disassembled a toy car to check out the effects of an alternative assembling. These things are not part of user’s manuals for tea towels and toy cars, but they are part of the possible uses of tea towels and toy car parts.

Exploring possibilities, to my mind, is what learning is all about. Playing is often defined as engaging in some (idle) activity for pleasurable purposes rather than serious ones. That is, playing for serious purposes seems to be a contradiction in terms – though one wonders what to make of the “playing” in golf and bridge tournaments, or of playing video games for a living. Add to that the idea that learning is a serious endeavour, which should be seriously managed by serious policy-makers, and we end up with the conviction that learning must be achieved through boring activities, because achievement takes 99 parts transpiration to one part inspiration, and where there’s no pain there’s no gain, that sort of thing. Children’s spontaneous learning tells us a different story: it is precisely because learning is such a serious activity that play plays such an important role in it.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Child play may even strike some of us as aimless waste of time, because we believe that learning as much as possible as soon as possible is what children are there for, and that learning aims at goals which are well-defined, through equally well-defined learning routes. If you’re learning languages, for example, you should be learning words and ways of putting them together to form sentences. I’ve said a few things about this before. But small children have no idea that they are learning languages, or that they are learning at all. In their article The development of embodied cognition: six lessons from babies, Linda Smith and Michael Gasser put it this way: “How can a learner who does not know what there is to learn manage to learn anyway?” Their answer: “babies can discover both the tasks to be learned and the solution to those tasks through exploration, or non-goal-directed action”. In babies, they add, “spontaneous movement creates both tasks and opportunities for learning”.

So how come we adults forgot all about non-goal-directed action, spontaneous whole-body engagement with learning, and creating opportunities for learning? Sir Ken Robinson, in a 2006 TED talk, explains how traditional, “serious” learning practices have put child creativity, and so human creativity, to waste (obrigada pela dica no seu blog, Cláudia!). Perhaps not knowing what there is to learn, and not knowing that one is learning, is what makes learning effective. And why we learn best through play. My next post will have a few examples of how multilingual children learn to be multilingual, their way.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Learning to be multilingual. Saturday 22nd October 2011.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Multilingual beginnings

One of the striking impressions I get from my dealings with language learning, language use and multilingualism is our tendency to look at what is not there. I don’t mean the commendable mindset that urges us to keep doing more and better because we know that we haven’t done our most and best yet, I mean the way we tend to disregard what is there.

I plead guilty too. When I took my firstborn to one of her routine check-ups, another 11-month-old, also a girl, was in the waiting room with her mum. This other girl was crawling all over the place at breathtaking speed, and grabbing at anything and anyone in sight to lift herself up and try to walk, whereas my girl, who had rehearsed a few half-hearted attempts at rolling and dragging herself on her tummy a few months earlier and soon given up, was doing what she did best at the time, which was sitting there on the floor and enjoying the show. My eyes glued to the little acrobat and I became instantly unsettled. What was wrong with my baby? Why wasn’t she moving at this late age?

I then noticed that the other mum was, in turn, staring at my girl, which added to my discomfort. She must be wondering about my motionless child too, so I decided to praise her child before she could condole with me about mine. “Sorry I’m staring”, I said, “but I couldn’t help noticing how active your girl is, compared to mine”. “Oh”, she replied, “thanks for telling me that! I was staring myself, at the impressive amount of teeth your girl has. Mine has none”. We had to laugh, both of us.

Informal observations like these are one thing. Quite another concerns official verdicts about our children’s development falling short of standard milestones, and this is no laughing matter. Take vocabulary, for example, the traditional tell-tale indicator of early linguistic health. If we assume that words reflect the first signs of linguistic development, then lack of words, or of a specific amount or type of words, means lack of expressive abilities. So much so that children who have yet to acquire words are said to be at the “pre-linguistic stage”. That is, these children don’t have language.

We’ve nevertheless known for quite a while that, prior to the appearance of words, babbling and babbling patterns provide reliable indicators of typical development. But descriptions of babbling often concern what analysts can recognise as syllables, vowels and consonants, that is, “word-like” baby utterances. Should we then look for words and word-like productions as evidence of the earliest linguistic resources that children have available? We might be looking in the wrong places, actually. Perhaps what wordless babies are said to lack, according to popular benchmarks, is instead what popular benchmarks themselves lack.

Take prosody, for example. For ages 5 and upwards, Sue Peppé and colleagues are currently developing an instrument for assessment of child prosody, PEPS-C (Profiling Elements of Prosodic Systems – Children), but our understanding of how very young children use the prosody of their languages has been most lacking. Yet we’ve also known for many years that children begin making sense of their languages by making sense of prosody, and I was thrilled to be able to confirm this in a study of my own children’s language development.

Before they had any recognisable words in any of their two home languages, Portuguese and Swedish, the children started using any sounds that they were able to produce as fillers, that is, as handy carriers of salient prosodic patterns of each of their languages. They also babbled things like blh-blh-blh (to be read in Portuguese, [bʎˈbʎbʎ], where ˈ indicates a stressed syllable) and hadda-hadda-hadda (ditto in Swedish, [hadahada ̏ hada], where  ̏  represents the so-called ‘double-accent’ of the language).

The children switched between these uses of their resources when addressing people whom they associated with each language, or when looking at pictures of them – as well as when talking to toys which they got from Portuguese or Swedish speakers and which, therefore, also “spoke” each of these languages. The baby-dialogues that they fashioned in this way sounded Portuguese or Swedish, because the prosody was Portuguese or Swedish. When the first words appeared, the children accommodated them to the linguistic melodies that they had by then mastered, and went on using their old prosodic strategies as replacement for words which they hadn’t yet learnt in one of their languages, or which for some reason failed them at some time or other. Just like all of us use fillers like thingamabob or what’s-its-name, for the same reasons.

These earliest linguistic resources were not “words” of either language, but the children were nevertheless using their two languages. I’ll have some more to say about multilingual child strategies for learning language in the next couple of posts. 

© MCF 2011

Next post: Children, toys, and languages. Saturday 15th October 2011.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Vocal gestures

If someone calls you a brick, and you have no idea whether to swell with pride or burn with anger (it happened to me), you ask what being a brick means to whoever called you that. But in order to be able to ask, you need to be able to understand that you didn’t understand.

Asking about the meaning of gestures is rather more difficult. We communicate with our whole bodies, whatever the languages that we use in face-to-face interaction, but we appear to assume that our bodies behave in ways that belong to human bodies and not, like word meanings, to cultures. Body language is as much a language as Swahili or Italian, as Desmond Morris showed in his book Bodytalk. A world guide to gestures. Pointing at something with your foot or shrugging your shoulders in response to a question are symbolic behaviours whose meanings are as arbitrary as calling someone a chicken (I think I know what that means, at least in English) or yelling Ai!! instead of &*☁#☠!! when you stub your toe.

Our interlocutors may take the gestures that we use, like the words that we use, to represent what we are and, by extension, to represent the culture (region, country, level of education, habits of politeness, etc., etc.) which they perceive as ours. For better or for worse – an issue to which I’ll come back some other day. First-time visitors to Portugal, for example, regularly ask me why the Portuguese are always angry when they talk to each other. We’re not. Vociferous voices, faces and gestures are just part and parcel of fluent Portuguese-ness.

The meaning of vocal gestures tops the list of difficult things to ask about. We may not understand that we didn’t understand what someone else intended by their tone of voice, including where we may understand it in a way that makes sense to us – which thus becomes the “intended” meaning. This is the domain of prosody, our ways of modulating our vocal resources. I believe we’re doubly lost here, because we’re using spoken language, and we take spoken language to be translatable into print, but we can’t ask our usual glitch-fixer How d’ya spell that?, because prosody is not contemplated in the printed forms of any language. Boring symbols like ?, !, commas, ..., possibly ?!, and so on, tell us as much about speech prosody as the letter ‘s’ about its pronunciation – which is why, by the way, the current flurry of *-*, ;-p, =[, ROFL, and company is doing such a nice job of providing us with printed clues to body language. Plus you can’t ask about spellings with small children, who can’t spell at all, who have no idea at all that grown-ups like asking questions about language uses, and whose multilingual acrobatics, gestural or otherwise, are therefore known to cause much chagrin. How do you spell your voice, indeed?

Has-no-spelling, ergo does-not-matter is probably the reason why prosody passes under silence in standard school language teaching. Those language courses that do include pronunciation regularly feature it after everything else that needs to be “covered” in the syllabus, as if the sound of spoken languages complemented their vocabulary and their syntax. But, as regularly, “pronunciation” means vowels and consonants (and semi-such), which do have some printed representation. I once wrote, in a paper titled Prosodic mixes, that if pronunciation has been said to be the Cinderella of language matters, then prosody must be Cinderella’s broomstick.

Prosody is not the cherry on the cake of our uses of a language. It is a necessary component of speech, in the sense that you can’t say anything, in any language, without colouring it with rhythm, pitch, stress. Prosody is also the signature of a language or a language variety, in the sense that if you speak French, say, with French vowels and consonants, and English prosody, you sound like you’re speaking English, not French. And if you’re actually speaking English when you think you’re speaking French, then you’re meaning English meanings with your voice, not French ones.

The issue is not just that your uses of your new language may be unintelligible to your interlocutors because your prosody doesn’t make sense: the issue is also that you may be intelligible in ways which you don’t suspect you are, because your prosody does make sense, though not the sense that it makes to you. For better or for worse, here too. If the use of the word brick had meant something to me, I would have assigned to it the meaning that was familiar to me. Likewise, if someone uses a tone of voice which, to me, means huffiness, then I’ll assume that the speaker is (being) huffy, rather than wonder about that person’s awareness of the uses of prosody in whatever language they’re using at the moment.

Vocal gestures are at the core of language uses, and this is why prosody is the first thing that we master, as we learn our languages. With multilingual children, prosody can also tell us quite a few interesting things about being multilingual. I’ll give a few examples next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual beginnings. Saturday 8th October 2011.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Teaching languages vs. teaching learners

In the very first post of this blog, I stated my persuasion that many misconceptions about multilingualism stem from our habit of assigning centre stage to languages and their properties, in matters of language learning, use and assessment. My persuasion is also that the main players in language matters are people and their abilities.

What I mean is this: teaching properties of languages, that is, the “grammar” of languages, is a fine, time-honoured educational goal. Just like we need to understand what angles, friction and sepals are, we need to understand what phonemes, metaphor or subjunctives are. I even do this for a living. But this kind of knowledge is a different kind of knowledge from the one that enables us to use angles, metaphors or subjunctives. Likewise, you don’t attempt to teach someone to cook by describing recipes to them. It’s the cooking and the languaging that make a proficient cook and a proficient language user, respectively.

Saying that we’re teaching languages when we’re in fact teaching their grammar, the grammar of their sounds included, has one side effect: we end up persuaded that languages possess some kind of “integrity” which keeps being threatened by monolingual and multilingual users alike. For language learners, this results in learner uses being labelled with learning-unfriendly terms like “second” and “foreign”, which refer to differences instead of similarities, and thus highlight stumbling blocks instead of know-how.

I can give a few examples, from my experience as both a language learner and a language teacher. If English, say, is your only language so far, and you wish to learn Mandarin, you may become persuaded that Mandarin tones are not for you because English “has” no tones, forgetting that tones draw on pitch and that we all use pitch in our languages in one way or another; or if Portuguese is your choice of new language, you may come to think that you can’t say psicose with [ps] because you say ‘sychosis with [s], and not think that you can and do say [ps] in English in a word like caps. English “does not have” nasalised vowels either, so you may well be told that you can get away with pronouncing French words like tant, ton, teint as ‘taunt’, ‘tonne’, ‘taint’, more or less as they are spelt, because spelling pronunciations, those following the spelling conventions of the languages that you are used to read, are generally expected from language learners. If no French-speaking person understands you, no problem: just produce paper and pen, or a mobile device where you can type things, and write the words that you can spell but cannot say. Everyone will appreciate your efforts, because literacy skills in a new language are also generally expected to beat spoken skills.

Cartoon © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena
In Cruz-Ferreira, M. Multilinguals are ...?

Focus on the languages is also what, to my mind, spawned the view of accent training as addition and/or reduction. The rationale seems to be that some accents “have” bits and pieces which can be missing or superfluous in other accents, respectively. But languages, and accents, cannot “have” things. Stating, as we do informally, that a language “does not have” a particular voiced fricative, say, does not entail that speakers of that language cannot pronounce that voiced fricative. All of us can produce voiced sounds and all of us can produce fricative sounds, so producing a particular voiced fricative is a matter of making it clear to learners that they’ve already got the voiced bit and the fricative bit, and what they need to do is to work from there to put both bits together.

Daniel Silverman, in his 2006 book A critical introduction to phonology. Of sound, mind, and body, points out that, when we speak, we are not targeting ideal “phonemes” that live in our minds, but targeting articulations which make our speech intelligible to other users of the same language. That is, we target vocal tract gestures, and all human beings come equipped with vocal tracts. It is the coordinated effect of these gestures which makes up what we call, informally, “the sounds of a language”.

Focusing away from the language in “language learning” to focus instead on the learning means focusing on the learner: we learn by drawing on what we already can do, so that we know what we need to do. Learner accents are not the problem, they are part of the solution of acquiring an intelligible use of a new language. But there is a snag: unless you, as a language learner, enrol in a dedicated pronunciation course, part of the self-fulfilling prophecy that new accents are beyond learners is the common practice of tucking away pronunciation instruction at the very end of language textbooks – if, that is, pronunciation is part of a textbook at all. As if to make sure that, in case there is no time to finish the syllabus (which is another interesting issue), pronunciation will be the thing you are bound to skip. I’ll leave this for next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Vocal gestures. Saturday 1st October 2011.


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