Saturday 26 February 2011

Little multilinguals

Is this possible, to be little and multilingual? Well, as possible as being little and monolingual, one would guess. If, that is, someone should decide to start asking questions about being monolingual, for a change. Since no one has, there was a time, in the bad old days, when the answer to this question was “no”.

Researchers on multilingualism started off persuaded that the natural thing for children (and adults, by extension) was to operate with a single language – or a single “language system”, as the issue was discussed then. The lively controversy about this matter was called the one vs. two systems, on the interesting additional assumption that “more than one”, as far as languages are concerned, means ‘two’. Evidence for the command of two languages, or lack thereof, was for example gleaned from what became known as translation equivalents: either children had words in each of their two vocabularies for exactly the same things, or there was something wrong with their (bi)lingualism. Not with the assumption that x-lingualism, where x stands for any number, means ‘monolingualism in x languages’.

Then François Grosjean spelled out the Complementarity Principle that describes multilingual use of languages, and so multilingual acquisition, in an article titled The bilingual individual: “Bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life require different languages.” Since then, it has become unfashionable to go on looking for x-to-x equivalence where none can be found: if, say, one language is used with mummy, another one with daddy, and another one with peers, then a child will have mummy-relevant, daddy-relevant and peer-relevant words, syntax, phonology, tones of voice, pragmatic uses, and so on, in each language.

This statement of facts about what being multilingual means should, one would guess, have put an end to the practice of blaming multilingualism for what some people decided should be there, or not there, in other people’s languages, and especially in small people’s languages. Old habits are resilient, though. The bad old days may be gone, but the current days are hardly any better. Instead of being blamed for deficiencies in different languages of otherwise healthy children, multilingualism now appears equated with deficiency tout court. It is otherwise hard to explain why publications and sections of publications dedicated to language acquisition continue to include expressions like “exceptional” circumstances or developmental “varieties” in their titles, to lump together observations about child clinical disorders with observations about child use of more than one language.

That the focus remains on the “effects” of multilingualism, and on how multilingualism “affects” our little ones, is all a matter of perspective: we might as well dedicate ourselves, as usefully, to wondering about the effects of being monolingual, and about what they affect.

The relevant questions must surely be those that guide our understanding of what is typical and what is disordered linguistic development, as I’ve argued elsewhere. Their answers are the ones that teach us, parents, teachers and clinicians, what we should, and should not, worry about. The next post, a guest post, redresses another deep-rooted myth: that there are (worrying) differences between how little multilinguals and little monolinguals develop their pronunciation skills.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Bilingual phonological development is like driving in traffic, by Brian A. Goldstein. Wednesday 2nd March 2011.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

The monolinguals in the family

In many families around the world, being multilingual is the norm. I take the term “family” to mean ‘the extended family’ here, as opposed to the parent-child ‘core’. Whether or not everyone in the family uses the same languages, becoming multilingual, including from birth, is as (un)remarkable as growing up itself.

In other families, becoming multilingual comes as a disruption of monolingual norms, among monolingual relatives. These are the families that have so far caught public attention, whose language uses are, expectedly, observed and discussed through monolingual lenses. Our routine practices (or lenses) tend to become the benchmarks through which we peep outside our boxes, because we tend to forget that we are wearing lenses. I sometimes call this the Tuba Effect:  

The Tuba Effect: tubas affect vision.
Photo: MCF

This cuts both ways, of course: multilinguals play the tuba too. My children were raised with Portuguese from mum and Swedish from dad, and one of them, aged 3, came home from her first playgroup session frowning at some “very odd children” she had met there. The reason? Their “mum and dad speak the same language”, she explained. So no wonder that the monolinguals in one’s family have opinions about the oddness of growing up with several languages. They may have scant contact with the children, because becoming a multilingual family often goes together with moving away from near relatives. The extended family’s first-hand experience of what their little ones are developing into may be sporadic, sometimes through hasty and hassled visits complete with assorted gigantic bags and suitcases, unwieldy prams, cranky youngsters and jet-lagged parents. Add to this that there may be two sets of monolingual relatives, one from each side of the family, and sparks are likely to fly.

They did, in my family. Our children were the first children raised multilingually in our respective families. And, let’s face it, they did behave oddly. They expressed Swedish requests with Portuguese intonation, they used Portuguese words to convey Swedish attitudes and, like any other children, they lavished their unintelligible baby-talk creations on anyone in sight. Our respective relatives didn’t notice, because they couldn’t notice it, that the children were using their two languages. They noticed that they were not using the one language that is expected from “all the other children” that they had known up to then. Add to this the monolingual assumption that people can only speak one language “properly”, and we had both sets of relatives interpreting child gobbledygook as Foreign-Speak and asking us why we were raising our children to be able to speak only “the other” language properly.

There’s a first time for everything. Parents of small children are beginner parents, and veteran (grand)parents naturally want to help. Many things may change in educational practices with the flow of the times, all of which are taken in everyone’s stride with more or less minor quibbles: owning a cell phone virtually from the day you’re weaned was not part of earlier generations’ tuba scores, for example, but is becoming a given in current ones. Where languages are involved, however, any changes appear forbidding. Perhaps because budding multilingual parents and veteran monolingual relatives are all beginners here. There is a delicate balance to be reached in the management of this shared but uncharted territory.

Nurturing multilingualism in trainee mixed families often means two things for us parents: raising our children multilingually, and assuaging our relatives’ fears about not raising them monolingually. Toshie Okita’s book Invisible work. Bilingualism, language choice and childrearing in intermarried families vividly portrays the conflicting pressures that can make or break a home language policy. Okita focuses on Japanese-mother, British-father families living in the UK, but her findings go well beyond countries and cultures. Invisible work indeed. Most of what multilingualism is about goes on behind the scenes, and the monolinguals in the family play centre stage there.

Many of their worries in fact reflect a broader issue. It’s not just that being multilingual is “odd” because multilingualism continues to be treated as the “special case” of language uses. The issue is rather that we are beginners, all of us, on the topic of what typical multilingual development involves. I’ll have a number of things to say about this in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Little multilinguals. Saturday 26th February 2011. 

Saturday 19 February 2011

Sibling talk

Children are born as natural underlings – and quite helpless ones at that. Decision-wise, we start life at the very bottom of the totem pole: top-heavy mums and dads call the shots. Children are first socialised through this kind of hierarchical dominance, that they set out to demolish around the aptly named Terrible Threes. If there are siblings, of ages and statuses that allow their perception as co-underlings within the family, a child’s peer socialisation begins with them, also at home.

Socialising is about finding our niche in the groups that progressively come to matter to us. It is also about pecking orders and power relations, because these are the ways in which groups become groups, that is, cohesive assemblages of individuals.

Birth order provides a natural pecking order – or so firstborns are keen to remind us. Sex provides another, depending on how males and females are viewed in the groups in question. A big sister may or may not outrank a baby brother, for example. Strategic positioning of this and other kinds is negotiated and nurtured through language. So how do multilingual siblings go about managing their own peer business, and how is their multilingualism relevant to their socialisation?

I can give a few examples from my own family. At around age 2 ½, my firstborn became intrigued by the absence of intelligible speech from her newborn sister. Even more baffling was the baby’s complete indifference towards her repeated and enticing proposals to “come play”. We parents were probably to blame in this latter case: my pregnancy had been described to the future big sister as the promise of a willing and handy playmate, in the cosiness of home.

My big girl went on to ask me whether the baby also spoke “like daddy” (Swedish) and “like mummy” (Portuguese), which were then the two ways of speaking in our family. Reassured that this would indeed be the case, in time, and that the baby thus “understood” her own two languages, she proceeded to assign different functions to each when addressing her sister, in complete contravention of OPOL propriety: Swedish, which she used with deep, resounding tones of voice, served to warn and admonish; whereas Portuguese, for which she chose high pitches and questioning tones, served to soothe and suggest solutions to signs of discomfort.

Expectedly, the baby sister followed suit on this model, when she in turn became a big sister. The baby brother did the same in his turn, with the exception that he never got a chance to become a big brother. They thus created their own practices and their own expectations concerning what each language was there for, and what switching between languages was all about.

What we parents didn’t count on was our children’s subversion of the fully functional bilingualism in the family, that reigned undisturbed until the children’s school start. All three were schooled in English, a language that gained the powerful appeal associated with schooling itself, in their crucial formative years. More importantly, English was the language modelled through the irresistible appeal of peers and play. Naturally, it became their own peer language, and our family’s linguistic status had to be amended from bilingual to trilingual. My book Three is a Crowd? describes this whole process, with plentiful examples of the children’s linguistic goings-on – all translated into English where relevant, by the way. Scroll down the book’s webpage and click on ‘Contents’ to read the book online. (In case anyone is wondering, the “crowd” in the book title refers to the number of languages, not to the number of children.)

There’s a lesson to be learned here, I believe, from children’s own management of their needs, and from the natural ways in which they adopt, adapt, switch, maintain, reject and cherish what makes sense to them, not least uses of language. There are many lessons, in fact, for us adults who believe that we decide, when all too often we’re letting the languages decide for us instead. Why else should we fret, not over talking to our children, but over which languages to talk to them in? Children have one significant advantage over adults in this respect: they have no idea that languages are things that people can, and even should, worry about. They just use them. No worries.

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert’s new book, Bilingual siblings: language use in families deals with precisely this topic, in the first comprehensive overview of multilingual siblings’ uses of language. The author is herself a parent of three multilingual children, and her findings draw on a survey of international families which, I’m proud to add, includes data from my own family. Her website is dedicated to language uses in multilingual families.

Siblings’ language choices do therefore play a core role in the family’s multilingual landscape, but families consist of more than just parents and children. Just like sibling talk has deserved less attention than parent talk, so has the role played by the remaining adult members of a family in that family’s multilingualism, particularly where these adults may be monolinguals. I turn to this next.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The monolinguals in the family. Wednesday 23rd February 2011.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

One person, one ___.

Fill in the blank: occupation, attire, hobby, cooking pot, opinion, friend, home, car, TV show, cuisine, book, tone of voice, love, attitude? The daily business we go about and the humdrum things we use. Doesn’t sound quite right, right? Though language does, apparently.

Words like country, or nationality, or culture, or personality would also look funny in the blank. Many of us are transnational and transcultural, on whose modes I will have more to say in future; and our personality has less to do with our “person” than with the people we have to deal with, more on which later, too. But funnily enough, language doesn’t look funny, in the same blank.

It hasn’t done so for many, many years. In fact, the whole expression, with the blank thus filled, has even deserved acronymic recognition, OPOL, like other things that we have learnt to take for granted, such as BBC, CNN or WYSIWYG. Or LOL, which, by the way, doesn’t mean ‘language, one language’.

The P in OPOL can mean ‘parent’ or, more generally, ‘person’. In either case, the P in question associates with only one language, in that the O always means ‘one’ and the L always means ‘language’. All in the singular. We may then want to ask two things. Why singular, and how did this singularity come to be.

The first studies that dealt with parental uses of language in multilingual families concerned families where the parents were, or started off being, monolingual users of their language. As a monolingual, you naturally use your only language with your children, because you naturally use it with everyone else. “OPOL” was the name given to what those parents happened to be doing, in their respective families, with their respective languages.

It then became the name for what all parents are supposed to do, in a textbook example of descriptive norms morphing into prescriptive ones, about which I’ve said a couple of things before: observed behaviour gleaned from specific populations becomes recommended behaviour across the board.

Cartoon © Garrincha

We might as well conclude, from surveys of eating habits among Portuguese families, for example, that all families should adopt the BS policy – for ‘barbecued squid’. Why not? Portuguese squid-eaters are as representative of “all” families as the Western one-language-speakers who backed up the OPOL dictum. 

Eating barbecued squid (even with boiled potatoes and parsley butter) is as alien, that is, as unnatural, to those of us who haven’t grown up with it in their diets, as using a single language with anyone, our children included, is to those of us who are multilingual. Brandishing the “risk-of-confusing-the-child” argument to enforce the use of one language per person begs the question of why the same child shouldn’t get confused when confronted with the use of, say, spoon and fork vs. fingers vs. fork and knife vs. chopsticks, to continue in feeding mode, by the same person.

Languages are not like dental configurations, which, until evidence to the contrary, seem to be unique identifiers of individuals. I’ve mentioned problems with early studies about multilingualism before. One problem with the ones that spawned the OPOLicy is the recurrent assumption that languages have some kind of sacred decision power over people: forcing multilingual caregivers to use a single language takes them for inert vehicles of language transport. It’s like considering having surgery done to your toes, so that they fit pointed shoes or other foot-unfriendly fashionable recommendations. I happen to believe it’s the other way around: the shoe fits the foot, and we choose what to do with our languages.

A second problem is that recommending separation of languages according to speaker offers adult monolingual models to the child. If the purpose is to raise multilingual children, I don’t see why multilingual caregivers should refrain from providing their children with a model of what they intend them to become: multilingual adults.

A third problem is whether so-called OPOL parents actually enforce the “OL” part of the policy. This is a whole other story altogether, a very long one in fact, about which I’ll have much to say in coming posts. Let me just say here that the short of it goes together with branding mixes as the scourge of “proper” language use.

A fourth problem (I could go on, believe me) is that parental OPOL enforcement takes the newcomers to a family as the decisive players in the home language management game. Besides the parents, there may already be brothers and sisters around, and grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, all of whom play their part in the linguistic equation at home, because they all use languages too. My next two posts will have something to say about them.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Sibling talk. Saturday 19th February 2011.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Multilingual everyday uses vs. monolingual school views
=Guest post=

by Jasone Cenoz

I would like to discuss an issue I have been thinking about lately because it is related to my work and my personal life.

I am a specialist in multilingual education, a multilingual speaker and a mother of a multilingual teenager. I live in the Basque Country, in the city of Donostia-San Sebastián where Basque and Spanish are spoken. Basque is a minority language that has become the main language of instruction at school. As schoolchildren are exposed to Spanish, the majority language, they become fluent in Spanish as well (Cenoz, 2009). English is a third language at school and it is an additional language of instruction in some schools.  

Nowadays the need to learn English is strongly felt in society. At the same time, a lot of effort is made to maintain and develop the use of Basque. Basque is an ancient non-Indoeuropean language that has survived for many centuries surrounded by Indoeuropean languages. Schools in Donostia-San Sebastián also offer French and in some cases German and Latin as optional subjects.

The issue I would like to comment on is multilingual teenagers’ use of languages among themselves, and how far their language use is from the way languages are taught at school. This is even emphasized if we look at the way adolescents chat on the internet, as it can be seen in the following example. The actual words are in italics.

         Miren:  zmz?? 
                     (Zer moduz/‘How are you?’)
         Jon:     osond ta z 
                     (Ondo eta zu/‘Well and you?’)
         Miren:  osond te e vistoo
                     (Oso ondo te he visto/‘Very well I saw you’)
         Jon:      yaa yo tambienn pero stabas lejos 
                     (ya yo también pero estabas lejos/
                      ‘I saw you too but you were far’)
         Miren:  jajajja lasai te e visto tambien kon el skate  
                     (jajajja lasai te he visto también con el patín/
                      ‘jajajja don’t worry I have seen you also with the skate’)
         Jon:     jajjaja es de un amigo 
                    (jajjaja es de un amigo/‘jajjaja it belongs to a friend’)
         Miren:  ok

A Facebook conversation between two Basque teenagers
(red=Basque; green= Spanish; blue=English; purple=non words)

This short exchange shows that the three languages are mixed and also that teenagers adapt these languages to their needs, and use them in non-conventional ways. These uses have increased with access to the internet, but code-switching and code-mixing have always been characteristic of bilingual and multilingual speakers. The text shows that these teenagers are creative and not only mix languages but also add “non-words”, change the spelling conventions or emphasize words and syllables by increasing the number of vowels.

But let’s focus on the mixing of languages. The greetings are in Basque, which is the school and family language, but then Spanish, the majority language, becomes the main language. The use of English is more limited but the words used (skate, ok) can be common in this age group even if not for other speakers.

This way to use the languages is in clear contrast with the way languages are taught at school. Most language classes follow the “one language only” policy, whether Basque, Spanish or English, depending on which language is used as the medium of instruction or subject matter at a specific time. The use of any other language is avoided, even when other languages, which are also taught and used at the same school, could be an important reference and even facilitate the learning process. The language practices are separated in an artificial way that is different from the way multilinguals use their languages in everyday life. Separation creates tension.

What can we do about this? The first step would be to consider students as multilingual speakers/learners rather than as learners of each language. In this way they could be encouraged to use their resources when learning and using languages. It could also help to have more coordination among teachers of the different languages so that they plan their syllabuses thinking about the way they can benefit from the children’s multilingualism.

The idea could be to encourage interaction between language teachers and also between languages. In this way, teenagers would not only benefit more from their knowledge and use of other languages but their language practices at school would also be more related to their out-of-school practices. Interaction is more natural.
Jasone Cenoz is Professor of Research Methods in Education at the University of the Basque Country. She is editor of the International Journal of Multilingualism.
© Jasone Cenoz 2011

Next post: One person, one ___. Wednesday 16th February 2011.

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Multilingual adventures in School-Land

Schooling marks The Great Divide between babyhood, when you learn what matters around you, and studenthood, when you learn what other people decided should matter around you. For multilingual children, one issue that becomes relevant for schooling purposes is how their multilingualism matters.

For many centuries, language subjects have been on offer as compulsory subjects in standard schooling packages, in many places around the world. This must mean that educationists generally agree that knowledge of more than one language is a good thing. But what does “knowledge of more than one language” mean, exactly?

School language subjects do not aim at turning students into users of languages. If they did, it wouldn’t make sense for, say, monolingual Portuguese children to have a compulsory school subject called “Portuguese”. The goal is to provide students with a different skill: the means to talk about language through a specialised language, just like specialised languages are also provided in school to talk about numbers or the human body. Fair enough, and kudos to boot. I would be the last person to question the relevance of this goal: as a linguist, the language of language is my work and my passion.

However, school language subjects are not called talk-about-language subjects, being instead identified by names of particular languages. You then have to take a particular-language subject, in order to learn to talk about language. In contrast, you don’t need to examine a particular-human-body in order to learn to talk about the human body: examining models, drawings and photos of it usually does the trick. Add to this the assumption that language learners, by default, come equipped with a single language, and multilingual schoolchildren may well find themselves in a bind.

My children did. All three of them, users of Swedish and Portuguese at home, and of English in school, faced French as their first second language, which happened to be their fourth, learned in third place. Besides the number jumble, one other thing that never became clear to me was: why French? Learning languages and learning to talk about language are distinct things. Young children use their languages without being able to talk about them, and old linguists talk about languages without being able to use them. You can learn to talk about language using any language as model, so why French?

Let me make myself very clear here: I love French. I was nurtured in French, and Frenchness, for 10 whole years in school, together with Portuguese. I love French culture, literature, people, music, food, drink, façons. I am, in short, a devoted francophile (in lower case, à la française). Maybe I’m odd, who should have rejoiced that my children would have a chance to acquire another one of “my” languages. But I didn’t. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why multilingual-without-French children like mine had to learn to talk about past tenses, subject complements and attributive adjectives in English, their school language, with French as example – in Singapore, to top it all, where French has little everyday relevance and four official languages have a lot of everyday relevance. My children were as baffled. As one of them expressed it pithily (in Portuguese): “If I don’t need to speak French, why do I need to learn French?”

So what I mean is perhaps not why French?, but why is a learner’s natural multilingualism shunned in class, in favour of syllabus multilingualism-of-sorts. My children’s French lessons proceeded in exactly the same fashion as my English lessons, 30-odd years before: in the single language of schooling assigned to the language subject, and treating the learner as a user of that single language.

The next post, a guest post, looks into similar practices from a different part of the world, Europe.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Multilingual everyday uses vs. monolingual school views, by Jasone Cenoz. Saturday 12th February 2011.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Socialising in tongues

We start socialising when we realise, by around age 3, that being human means finding ways to get along with other human beings. People socialise chiefly through language, so we need to learn to make sense of linguistic signals from our fellow interactants, in order to find our place in our social groups.

Learning to interpret language takes time, energy and investment, but we can’t spend our whole lives investing: we must reap some reward, sometime. So we need to find our groups too, the ones that satisfy our socialising investments with reasonable reward.

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has quite a few interesting things to say about how we do this. He asks, for example, How many friends does one person need? His findings became known as Dunbar’s number, reflecting the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships” – about 150, give or take a few. The book that started me off on Dunbar’s work has the appealing title Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language, and is as entertaining as the title promises.

I came to think about significant limits to socialising (or do I mean limits to significant socialising??) when I was writing about globalisation. Our social groups and our socialising have certainly evolved. Physical proximity is no longer an issue, for example. We are all on Facebook, but we may have no idea who our next-door neighbour is; we’re permanently connected, with no time to meet; and we may send electronic greetings to the colleague sitting next to us at work. From social networking to smart phones and smarter apps, I came to think about the new language that we are all learning to use, to deal with them: we currently txt, ROFL, :D, and are *.*, O.o, and ^_^. I should add here that, being as I am a non-native user of this language, I asked the natives (my children) for confirmation that the words(!) above are printable in a blog like mine.

We thus learn to use languages in order to satisfy our socialising needs, and we learn new languages to satisfy new such needs. This cannot be fundamentally different from what a multilingual does. It is not even different from what monolinguals do too, if we replace the word languages with the more general expression “ways of using language” (registers, in the jargon). We learn to use our languages in different ways, so that we can socialise in different ways. We speak differently to children and adults, or to shop assistants and our boss, for example. Multilinguals and monolinguals alike switch register in their languages in this way, the difference being that multilinguals may also switch language to switch among registers. The learning process that produces this skill and the skilled product that enables effective socialising are the same for all of us.

Our social groups usually start at home, among our families, and I will have much to say about uses of language in multilingual families, in coming posts. The next significant group, for most of us, must be our school(s). I wrote about schooling of multilingual children before, but I didn’t mention then how schooling in language subjects manages the learners’ multilingualism. Being multilingual appears to stand in the way of becoming multilingual the school way. The next post reports a few observations about this.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual adventures in School-Land. Wednesday 9th February 2011.


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