Saturday 8 January 2011

(Im)prints in the brain

Some of the most frequent questions I get from parents in multilingual families concern the initiation of their children in cross-language literacy. The child has started learning spelling in one language, and the queriers wonder whether this doesn’t mean that the time has come to learn it in the child’s other languages too, whether or not literacy in all of the child’s languages is taught in school. Sometimes, the implicit reason for the query is the wish to avoid having the child’s proficiency in one language beat proficiency in the other(s).

Becoming literate in particular languages depends of course on whether becoming literate in those languages is useful to the child. Many people use languages that they never learned to read or write, and not only in communities where printed forms of language do not exist. Language proficiency is not a championship either. Languages, proficiency in them, and literacy in them, are there to do a job for their users.

Learning to read and write doesn’t come naturally. Many of us tend to associate prestige, like the one enjoyed by print, with essential properties of the prestigious entity (which are often hyped as such, too), but printed forms of language are as conventional as the languages themselves. The word cat means ‘cat’ in some places and the word kucing means the same in other places because of conventions similar to the ones that dictate the spelling of each of these words. However, in contrast to the natural acquisition of conventional word uses and word meanings that we all go through as we grow up, the conventions of spelling (orthography, its fancy name) need to be specifically taught, at a specific time in child development. They cannot be understood without the level of cognitive maturity required for this purpose – which is why it makes no sense to claim, for example, that two-year-olds can “learn spelling”.

Being conventional, and hence arbitrary, literacy skills do not transfer automatically from one language to another. They have to be learned, for each language and for each script. This is so across languages that each have different scripts (like Hindi, Korean and Czech) and for which different scripts have been developed (like Chinese characters vs. pinyin for Chinese languages, or Arabic vs. Roman script for Malay). Perhaps less obviously, the same is true for languages whose scripts represent the “same” units, e.g. syllables or sounds, like Thai and Norwegian, and for languages that share scripts (like Cantonese and Mandarin, on the one hand, vs. English and Spanish, on the other). One piece of evidence for the latter case is found in English-speaking football commentators’ common pronunciation of the word “Real” in Real Madrid to suggest the existence of a Fake Madrid, too.

The implicit reasoning in the questions I get matches the belief that children come equipped with the “knowledge” that languages are composed of the spelling-friendly constructs that some linguists, all of whom have been literate for a long time, indeed break up languages into. A bit like assuming that black holes are black and are holes just because someone invented the name black hole in order to be able to talk about something that we have no clue about. On the strength of this belief, all that the children need to work out is which spelling-friendly bits go with which printed symbols. Multilingual children should have no trouble either applying their “knowledge” of spelling-friendliness across their languages. If children show no signs of “phonological awareness”, as this assumed knowledge has been named, then there’s something wrong with the children. Not with the assumption. I’m not joking. And neither are the people who so assume.

The next post discusses some of the consequences of taking (linguists’) assumptions about early literacy for (language) facts.

The next post will also be a first, in this blog: a guest post. Several specialists have kindly accepted my invitation to contribute insights about being multilingual, in their areas of expertise. I am very, very grateful to them, and very happy to be able to diversify the contents of this blog in this way, beyond my own topics and concerns.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Language diverence or disapility?, by Laura B. Raynolds. Wednesday 12th January 2011.

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