Wednesday 30 November 2011

Language and language

In case you haven’t noticed, language may well be at risk of death. If you’re in the habit of gathering information through headlines and ignoring the small print, this is what you’ll learn from the title of this 2009 BBC report, The death of language?

If, however, you decide to read on and find out what this report in fact reports, you may agree with me that the headline is not about the death of language, but about “language death”, a concept which became standardised in discussions of the demise of particular languages. Alternatively, you may agree with the official who responded to the comment I sent to the BBC about this at the time, and who dismissed it on account of my unawareness that “the death of language” and “language death” mean the same thing. As you can see, the report and its title are still there, both unchanged.

Whichever the case may be – and unless, of course, my non-native intuitions completely fail me –, the mismatch that I’m quite aware of between the title and the contents of this report illustrates the ambiguity of the English word language. The word has a countable meaning, as in ‘one language-many languages’, and a mass/uncountable meaning, as in ‘language ability’ or ‘acquisition of language’. Which means that there are actually two English words language, just like there are two English words thought, as in ‘one thought-many thoughts’, and in ‘human thought’ or ‘thought development’, respectively.

By this quirk of English vocabulary, the singular form of the count noun language and the mass noun language are homonyms. This is fine, homonymy and ambiguity and confusion about what words might mean are probably the rule rather than the exception, in any language. But the problem is that ambiguity and confusion percolate through to (assumedly) scientific accounts of language, by means of the current so-called “language of science”. Most writing (and probably thinking) about linguistics is available in English, so it is indeed unfortunate that the language we’ve come to associate with talk about language lacks the lexical means to distinguish language from language.

Conflation of both “language” meanings/words abounds in English-medium academic publications – which may explain why English-medium popularisation of research about language doesn’t bother to tell those meanings apart either. Similar blurring of meanings recurs in languages with similar homonymy, one example being Swedish and its word(s) språk. I’ve often wondered whether the confusion stems from deliberate word play, or from “natural” fogging up of thought paths on account of formal similarity between words of a particular language, be it a language that we choose to use (if we have a choice there) or a language that we have to use (if we don’t). In Portuguese or in French, for example, things are crystal-clear here: the linguistic ability shared by all human beings is linguagem and langage, and specific tongues shared by specific human beings are língua(s) and langue(s), respectively.

Terminological imprecision of this kind is what explains that we find English-medium publications where “language acquisition” means ‘acquisition of one language’; where “first language” regularly appears in the singular; where introducing talk about language means introducing talk about a particular language; and where “language ability” invariably refers to ‘ability in particular languages’. You can read my most recent review of this resilient English-bound confusion in a chapter on First language acquisition and teaching, included in a collection of studies dedicated to folk beliefs about “language” across the board, Applied Folk Linguistics.

Tolerating vague uses of the core term(s) of a discipline which prides itself on describing a “unique” human feature has, predictably, resulted in loose judgements about those human beings for whom language does not mean a single language. The next post, by a guest whom I’m proud to welcome to this blog for the second time, gives a state of the art appreciation of what clinical assessment of multilinguals has meant.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!, by Brian A. Goldstein. Wednesday 7th December 2011.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Half-linguals and semilinguals

Speaking of semi-things assumes that it is possible (and possibly relevant) to speak about whole-things, so I think it is certainly relevant to check out what whole-things might mean, language-wise.

One way to start working this out could be to ask what whole-lingualism might mean. Luckily, we don’t need to ask this question any more, because it has already been answered. Over 25 years ago, in an article titled Semilingualism: A Half-Baked Theory of Communicative Competence, Marilyn Martin-Jones and Suzanne Romaine showed that characterising linguistic competence in terms of wholes and parts amounted to “the container view of competence”, whereby ideal (i.e. mythical) monolinguals have a full linguistic container, ideal multilinguals (ditto) have as many full ones as the number of languages they say they use, and semilinguals have a mishmash of containers, all half-filled to different % %.
Image: © Alti 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

Container views of linguistic competence miss the point on two counts – which in fact are all counts. First, by assuming that languages take up space, literally or metaphorically. And second, by assuming that whatever space they take up is finite, is therefore liable to overcrowding, and therefore affects a cognitive potential that is finite too. I refer to a previous post for clarification on both matters, and I refer now to the example of my children. As they were growing up, their use of the two languages they had at the time, Swedish and Portuguese, naturally waxed and waned as our family shuttled among different countries in rapid succession. This meant that they did sound funny, at times: you can see for yourself, in one of the episodes that I report in my book Three is a Crowd? (scroll down to the Book Preview, click on Contents, and look for pages 74-75).

My children’s productions, as well as those of other children and adults in similar situations, were evidence that linguistic input plays a crucial role in language development and language maintenance. Their “less than whole-proficiency” reflected the (almost) exclusive parental input they had, at the time, in their two languages. It didn’t help things that those users of their languages with whom they could have sporadically honed their budding linguistic skills, relatives and friends alike, invariably met their productions with commiserating body language, or silence, or exclamations and comments, in languages that the children understood, about whether “everything” was “all right” with them. There were even attempts, believe it or not, to use English with my children, a language they at the time had no idea even existed, apparently on the conviction that some languages, but not others, come nicely whole-packaged from birth.

The half-stated assumption was that multilingualism was taking its (predicted) toll: the children were well on their way to “semilingualism” instead. This term, and the concept it supposedly represents, are as conveniently ill-defined as the many others whose only claim to fame lies in having become synonymous with disparaging remarks about multilingualism, on account of profound ignorance of what multilingualism is. You may well wonder why I chose to dedicate a whole post to an obsolete misnomer such as this one. I did it for two reasons. One, that ignorance tends to revive itself by feeding on its own bliss; and the other, that ignorance tends to hurt those who depend, in part or in whole, on its executives.

Next time, I’ll deal not so much with ignorance, but with confusion, also quite profound. What, exactly, does the English word language mean?

© MCF 2011

Next post: Language and language. Wednesday 30th November 2011.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Balancing (f)acts

Immigration scenarios, such as the ones described in a previous post, are probably among the first that come to mind when we think about “unbalanced” uses of languages. But the term “unbalanced” crops up to characterise the languages of multilinguals who stay put where they happen to be born too. The appropriateness of this term to (assumedly) describe multilingualism bears some thinking. This is why I thought of dedicating a post to it, following up on other grudges of mine against obscure terms which persist in appearing collocated with the term “multilingualism”, like here, or here, or here.

The first observation is that the term unbalanced does not aim at description at all. It draws on comparisons, because one thing can only be said to be unbalanced in comparison to another. This is interesting, in that it reflects the odd fate of past and current approaches to multilingualism, which have had a really, really hard time breaking loose from the vicious circles of comparative methodologies. Multilingual competence (or incompetence, often) has mostly been ascertained through comparison of each of the languages of a multilingual with monolingual uses of the same languages. An additional layer of comparison comes through comparing the languages of a multilingual among themselves, in order to decide whether they are “balanced” or not – which, if those languages are developing as they should and are being used for what they are meant to be used, they cannot be.

Let’s see why. Comparing the different languages of an individual to find that they are used in unbalanced ways is about as interesting as comparing the same individual’s two or three mobile phones, or four or five pairs of shoes, to find that they are also used in unbalanced ways. The reason must be obvious: if you didn’t need to use different phones and shoes and languages in different ways, you wouldn’t need different phones or pairs of shoes in the first place. Or languages. The languages of a multilingual are “unbalanced” by definition, not because of linguistic (or multilingual) incompetence, but because of pragmatic competence: the real-life situations for which multilinguals need their languages are unbalanced.

We use our different languages in different ways, for different purposes, with different people, at different times, and in different places because that’s what we have different languages for. As I’ve argued before,“If multilinguals could (or should) use all their languages in exactly the same way, they would not need several languages: one all-purpose language would be enough. ‘One all-purpose language’ defines a monolingual, not a multilingual”. The interesting questions to ask about multilingual uses of languages must surely be whether and how those uses fit their purposes – which are also the interesting questions to ask about different mobile phones and different pairs of shoes. The reason such questions are important is that their answers are the ones which can shed light on whether and how multilingual uses are typical or disordered.

A second observation concerns the meaning of the term “balanced” itself, which isn’t ‘of equal weight’. If it were, I would be a balanced multilingual in Japanese and Swahili, because I can say Thank you in both languages and that’s about all I can say in them. When applied to languages, “balanced” means ‘full weight’, across the board. Which is in its turn quite interesting, for three reasons. First, that we should expect to find users of several full-weighted languages as often as we find fire-spitting dragons racing down from the skies. Not even professional multilinguals, such as translators and interpreters, can claim to have “balanced” command of their languages: each of their languages also serves specific purposes in specific situations. Second, what should we make of the apparently desirable multilingual goal of having several full-weighted languages, against the paradoxical but equally desirable multilingual goal that one of the languages must be dominant? And third, what exactly do words like “full”, or “complete”, or their synonyms mean, applied to languages? I’ll deal with this last bit next time – which means I’ll go on ranting some more about the funny terminology that goes on sticking to multilingualism.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Half-linguals and semilinguals. Wednesday 23rd November 2011.

Saturday 5 November 2011

“Invisible” but actively present: immigrant parents’ views concerning their children’s bilingualism
=Guest post=

by Anastasia Gkaintartzi (Αναστασία Γκαϊνταρτζ​ή)

We came to live in a country but not to let our children be “in blind” with one language only

«Ηρθαμε σε ένα κράτος να ζήσουμε όμως όχι και να μείνουν τα παιδιά μας «στα γκαβά» με μία γλώσσα»

Immigrant parents’ language perspectives and practices play a very important role to language maintenance and the intergenerational transmission of language, which is a basic factor for the encouragement of bilingualism. Quoting Fishman (1991:113), “that which is not transmitted cannot be maintained”. Internationally, language shift to the majority language has emerged as a sociolinguistic phenomenon which takes place rapidly, since research data reveal that the moment immigrant children enter kindergarten, they tend to present a change in their linguistic behavior, using the majority language increasingly. Thus, in most cases of children of immigrants today, who attend mainstream primary schools, the second language is developed at the cost of the first, gradually replacing it and becoming the children’s dominant language, since it takes up a dominant place in their linguistic use and proficiency. On the other hand, the children’s home language is not recognized or valued in the school context.

How do immigrant parents perceive the issue of language maintenance in relation to school language learning? How do they interpret broader monolingual ideologies and consequently deal with their children’s bilingualism at home? The discussion on issues of bilingualism of minority language children and language school learning is usually dominated by the academic, scientific and educational discourse, whereas immigrant parents’ own voices and perspectives are absent. The invisibility of minority children’s bilingualism also extends to the invisibility of their parents’ language views and practices within the school context, who are perceived and constituted as an “absent” group by dominant school ideologies and practices. Listening to immigrant parents’ voices concerning their children’s bilingualism and studying their own language ideologies and practices, as they are constructed and enacted in interaction with the dominant ideologies, can help us examine the ways school language practices affect the children’s language behavior. There are powerful messages to be heard, concerning the value of languages and the shaping of parents’ language views and practices too.

I have carried out an ethnographic study on the language views and practices of Albanian immigrant parents, whose children attend the mainstream Greek primary school, for my doctoral dissertation, which I am currently completing at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Drawing on my data, it emerges that the way the parents perceive and act upon their children’s bilingualism is directly related to dominant school practices and ideologies, to which they respond in different ways. Immigrant parents perceive and report the fact that their children choose to speak the Greek language more and more in their everyday language use. They also report the gradual decrease of the children’s communicative skills in their home language, which begins to take place as soon as they enter the Greek school, and they express, at the same time, the importance of language maintenance and the encouragement of bilingualism.

In addition, the children’s lack of literacy in the Albanian language emerges as an issue that appears to concern and puzzle them, since some of them claim their right to have the Albanian language spoken and taught in the Greek school educational system. On the other hand, the teachers’ language views regarding the children’s bilingualism and the use of the Albanian language in the school context play a powerful role in shaping the parents’ attitudes and bring about dilemmas and confusion. Immigrant parents experience conflicts and ambivalence concerning the extent to which they can fight for their language rights and encourage the use and learning of the minority language in relation to their children’s academic development. The teachers’ common advice “don’t speak Albanian at home” toward immigrant parents and “don’t speak Albanian in class” to their children brings these parents face to face with dilemmas, since they struggle to balance between their duty to support their children’s school language learning and their duty (and right) to speak and maintain their home language.

Through the views of these immigrant parents concerning their children’s bilingualism and the importance of first language maintenance, a sense of anxiety emerges for the future course of their language and the ability of their children to function in it. The teachers’ language views and practices have a powerful presence in the parents’ discourse concerning the children’s bilingualism, which reveals the influence of school ideologies and calls on us all, who belong to the field of education and bilingualism, to take into serious consideration the language views and attitudes of bilingual children and their parents.

International conference “Crossroad of languages and cultures: Learning beyond the classroom”,
8-10 April 2011, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, organized by Polydromo.

Closing, as I started, with Anastasia’s resistant voice, an Albanian immigrant mother who has lived for 14 years in Greece, we argue for the importance of listening to immigrant parents in order to encourage the minority children’s bilingualism and strive for a pluralistic education and society:
“This is what is best for our children, the more languages you learn, the better. But you can’t forget your own language, like us, we came here and our children forgot our language. It is not right what we do. We came to live in a country but not to let our children be “in blind” with one language only. I don’t throw this language here down, but I count our language too.”
Allowing space for the children’s home languages in the school context and letting their bilingualism emerge and flourish, includes creating connections with their home context in order to give “voice” to their parents’ language views and empower their role in supporting their children’s language development.

Anastasia Gkaintartzi is an English language teacher in Greece. She holds an MA in pedagogy and is currently completing her PhD in the Department of Early Childhood Education of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, focusing on sociolinguistic and educational issues of bilingualism. Her research interests include bilingualism and minority children education, language ideology and multiculturalism. She is also a member of Polydromo, a group dedicated to bilingualism and multiculturalism in education and society. 

© Anastasia Gkaintartzi 2011

Next post: Balancing (f)acts. Wednesday 16th November 2011.


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