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.

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