Saturday 29 October 2011

The trick is in the input

Given that languages are there to be used, preferably not to oneself, using languages means that it takes (at least) two to talk. “It Takes Two to Talk” is in fact the trademark guideline of The Hanen Program, which targets parents of young children who have been diagnosed with language disorders. The guideline makes as much sense for typically developing children: to make children talk, talk to them.

Talking to children doesn’t mean the now tedious talk of “quality” talk, whereby you should strive to spend time with your children “teaching” them (a concept which I’ll address in a future post) the latest in string theory or the tenets of Confucianism. Small children cannot learn anything through languages for the simple reason that they haven’t learnt languages yet. For small children, any talk is good talk, because talking is what nurtures language learning. We don’t learn our languages from books or the internet, we learn them from someone who also uses those languages, and who uses them with us.

Photo: © Walter Siegmund (Wikimedia Commons)

Children won’t spontaneously sprout languages either, whatever we adults do, or do not do about it, contrary to popular misconceptions about child language learning. Annick De Houwer makes a forceful case for the core role that language input plays in language acquisition, in a newly-published article, Language input environments and language development in bilingual acquisition, where she shows that “differences between individual bilingual children’s use of their two languages can be attributed to differences in the language input environments for each of the languages”.

One further misconception is that child output matches the input, all the way. It does, eventually, but not from Day One of incipient child productions, and not for many years after that. Whether we’re being exposed to monolingual or multilingual input, learning languages is a protracted process involving active working out of patterns, our way, from what is made available to us. It’s not a read-only transmission of an adult linguistic system – assuming, that is, that we do have some idea of what adult linguistic systems look like. We do have models, but so did the people who modelled combustion on phlogiston.

Many parents who are raising their children multilingually report to me that their usual reaction to the least perceived sign of disruption in one of their children’s languages is first, to fall silent, for fear of further confusing the child, and then, to switch language. It could be that the children used a word from another language, or fell silent themselves instead of responding in expected ways, or that they suddenly appear to feel more comfortable using one language rather than another, thus showing evidence of “unbalanced” linguistic development – an issue to which I’ll come back soon. It could be anything, really. The questions I get usually end up wondering whether there might be something wrong with the children, or with multilingualism, or both. My usual comment is that if we want our children to develop a particular language, the way to go is to use that language with them. And give time its time, as we say in Portugal, dar tempo ao tempo: someone once said (can’t remember who, unfortunately!) that if you want to enjoy the butterfly, you have to be patient with the caterpillar.

Which is all very well. Suppose now, however, that you’ve been talkative and patient, and your butterflies are doing just fine, when the time comes for you to move country. You’ll move your language(s) too, of course, and many different scenarios come to mind about what may happen to those languages. The next post, a guest post, reports on one of these scenarios, giving voice to the parents: how do immigrant parents assess their family’s new linguistic situation?

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= “Invisible” but actively present: Immigrant parents’ views concerning their children’s bilingualism, by Anastasia Gkaintartzi (Αναστασία Γκαϊνταρτζ​ή, in actual spelling). Saturday 5th November 2011.

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