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.

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