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. 

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