Wednesday 21 December 2011


My children grew up illiterate in one of their languages, Portuguese. In our family, this happens to be “my” language, in which I’ve been literate since my early school years, so depriving little ones of skills which are commonly seen as a must in all of one’s languages might well be taken as a regretful example of neglectful parenting.

It wasn’t neglect, in fact, it was pragmatism. My little ones had as much use for Portuguese orthography as for truck driving licenses. Their need to use printed Portuguese came first when they turned into big ones and left home: things like SMS and email are printed forms of language, and it was in printed Portuguese that my children chose to write to me. Mostly spelt-as-it-sounds to start off with, which soon became spelt-as-it’s-spelt because I wrote back in Portuguese too.

There are two reasons, I believe, for my children’s self-taught literacy in Portuguese. One is that they were literate in their two other languages. Once you realise that certain printed symbols are meant to represent speech sounds, you are ready to transfer that knowledge across your languages. It may have helped, when the children were small, that I asked them to write their shopping lists for me in Portuguese, and that we got ourselves a run-of-the-mill magnetic alphabet, through which we could leave silly messages to one another, like sou um gato (‘I’m a cat’) or mais bolo? (‘more cake?’), on the fridge. The other reason is that there were plenty of books in Portuguese around the house. If you read Portuguese yourself, you can check out Cláudia Storvik’s report of similar experiences, in a series of posts dealing with Alfabetização de crianças bilíngues em português at her blog, Filhos bilíngues.

We read those books in the classical way: child on lap, back towards parent, parent following text lines with finger. We read one page, or a couple of lines, or a whole story, or half a story, Scheherazade-way, depending on the day’s mood and attention span of all involved. Reading sessions nevertheless invariably resulted in all kinds of questions about Portuguese things and Portuguese ways of talking about things, that the children had no first-hand knowledge of, because we didn’t live in Portugal. Books do this for you, they tell you about what may not be there for you right now, right here, but is there anyway.

These Portuguese books were also beautifully illustrated. The children attempted to copy those drawings themselves, and we spent many hours deciding whether and how to improve colours and lines of the originals – all of this in Portuguese. Gaining awareness that three-dimensional objects, and living things, and abstract concepts can all be represented in two dimensions on paper teaches you about those things and teaches you about language: “doggie”, for example, is what you rightfully call both that drawing on that page in a book that you can hold in your hand, and the neighbour’s pet that is bigger than you.

This is why books are, to me, the epitome of user-friendly didactic multimedia. You can open and close them, you can touch them, smell them, see them and hear them, in your head or through someone else’s voice, and you can leave them and return to them any time, satisfied that whatever they store remains safely stored. Just for you, just you and them, when and where you want them. No crashes, no short-circuits, no breakdowns. Unless, of course, you relate to the situation portrayed in the Medieval help desk sketch, from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) show Øystein og meg.

Practice with books does not just teach you language-related skills that you don’t know you are acquiring – not knowing that you’re learning, by the way, is the best way to learn. Books also tell you about what matters to someone else, whom you’ll probably never come to meet face to face, but who took the trouble to write things down for you, and through whom you can learn more, precisely because you live in different places and different times – and are likely to use different languages to think about things and talk about them. Not least, books tell you about yourself. Viv Edwards captured the delight of engaging with books in a previous post, when she wrote that “children like to see – and hear – themselves in the books they read”. If you still need to be persuaded about the joy of reading, and of creating reading, check out this BBC report about ciShanjo, in Zambia.

Meanwhile, I’ll walk my talk: I’ll be worming into books until next year, when I come back to this blog.

Image: Clipart from

© MCF 2011

Next post: My homeland is my language? Saturday 7th January 2012.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Language geniuses and language dunces

Suppose you’ve spent the first couple of decades (or so) of your life in a happy monolingual state, and you then learned a new language in which you as happily came to reach reasonable (or so) proficiency. Before I go on, I must apologise for the hedges (or so): the thing is that nobody has any idea whether it is years, decades or what which make a difference for successful “late” language learning, and nobody has any idea what “reasonable” proficiency in a language might mean.

But suppose anyway. If this progression matches your language learning record, then you are likely to have created a problem for accepted accounts of language learning abilities – or ingrained beliefs about these abilities, which often amount to the same thing. You cannot have acquired proficient command of your new language because only children are able to do that, and you were no longer a child when you started your multilingual journey. But if you have indeed acquired proficient command of your new language (child-like command, perhaps?), you cannot be an adult, or at least not a typical adult. Since black-or-white persuasions like child = good language learner-or-adult = bad language learner take much toil and trouble to be thought over and revised, it’s easier to create a new label that fits them. You must then be a cross-breed of adult state and child ability, which obviously is something wondrous that we can’t really explain – and perhaps shouldn’t attempt to explain, lest we spoil the magic of it all: in a nutshell, the stars must have been partial to you.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Magic” is the right word. Even in academic publications, the process and the product of successful “late” language learning deserve words and expressions that connote unfathomable mysteries, the least emotional of which is “exceptional”. If you’re curious, I discuss a sample of these and other epithets that go on sticking to multi-language learners in a book chapter which is available online, Multilingualism, language norms and multilingual contexts (click on 59637_Intro.pdf ).

Believing in starred giftedness has side effects, of course, one of them being that it involves believing in starred un-giftedness. We’re born geniuses or morons, and that’s about all there is to it. As far as language learning is concerned, the unlucky ill-fated ones thus have a good excuse not to bother – and so do their teachers, naturally, whether they themselves are among the lucky ones or not. I’m not saying that talent (or genius, or giftedness, whichever way you prefer to label something that you’d rather not define precisely) doesn’t exist. Some of us have a knack for languages like some of us have a knack for finding bargains at flea markets. I’m saying that you can’t be good at finding flea bargains if you haven’t practised being around flea markets, and that the same goes for languages, wherever they are used. I’m also saying that if you, the genius, are found to be really good at what you do because you’ve worked really hard at what you do, then you’re not a genius after all: you’re a boring, unexceptional workhorse.

One good method to work your way to linguistic talent is to develop a friendly relationship with books. I’ll talk about this next time. Books are friendly things: they nurture you in the arts of using language, demanding no more gifts from you than an ability to flick pages – and, best of all, they do all this without sticking labels to your linguistic abilities.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Bookworming. Wednesday 21st December 2011.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That!
=Guest post=

by Brian A. Goldstein

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” (Thomas Paine)

In most countries, bilingualism is well-established. That is not the case in the United States. However, because of demographic changes, bilingualism in the United States is slowly but surely becoming the default condition… the underlying representation… the new normal (Goldstein, 2012). In the U.S., it is estimated that 10.9 million (21%) 5- to 17-year-olds speak a language other than English at home, and 2.7 million (5%) speak English with difficulty (Language Use, U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2007). At the same time, the amount of research related to bilingual children has increased significantly. Much of that research is translational in that it aids practitioners in providing reliable and valid clinical services to bilingual children.

Despite the rapid increase in research related to bilinguals, clinical practice has not always changed as a necessary and important by-product of that research (Kritikos, 2003). I witnessed this disconnect recently while attending the annual convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), in November this year. At the convention, I witnessed clinicians questioning clinical advice that has been current for 20 years. It was clear to me that these individuals did not seem to have received these messages. Here are some messages that I believe need to be delivered.

  • Stop telling bilingual parents to speak only one language to their children. There is no evidence that speaking only one language or practicing the one parent-one language dichotomy improves language skills or staves off a speech and language disorder. Even parents who report that they use the one parent-one language rule do not do so in practice (Lanza 2004).
  • Stop believing that being bilingual causes and/or exacerbates a speech or language disorder. As Kohnert says, “A disorder in bilinguals is not caused by bilingualism or cured by monolingualism” (Kohnert, 2007, p. 105). It is now reasonable to conclude that in the acquisition of two languages, bilingual children do not appear to be “remarkably delayed nor remarkably advanced” relative to monolingual children (Nicoladis and Genesee, 1997, p. 264).
  • Stop using family members as interpreters/translators (Langdon and Cheng, 2002). Family members are not trained in this area and are clearly biased when it comes to their own family members. It also places them in a precarious position in which they are not likely to be comfortable.
  • Stop trying to calculate an omnibus measure of language dominance. The notion of dominance has been criticized on both theoretical and methodological grounds (e.g., MacSwan and Rolstad, 2006). Moreover, its utility relative to speech and language skills is equivocal. Ball, Müller, and Munro (2001) found that Welsh-dominant children (aged 2;6-5;0) acquired the Welsh trill earlier than their peers who were English-dominant. However, Law and So (2006) found that both Cantonese-dominant and Putonghua-dominant children (2;6-4;11) acquired Cantonese phonology first. This is not to say that variables such as language history, language use, and language proficiency are not important variables to consider. They are. What should be dismissed, however, is determining language dominance based on a standardized test and then triaging clinical services based on its results.
  • Stop assessing speech and language skills in only one language. The bilingual’s languages are not mirror images of each other. Skills are often distributed across the two languages. The same language skills can be easy in one language but difficult in the other (Peña, Bedore, and Rappazzo, 2003). The distributed nature of language skills in bilinguals necessitates examining speech and language skills in each of the child’s languages.
  • Stop waiting 2-3 years before assessing a bilingual child for a possible speech and language disorder. The belief by many practitioners is that a child needs to have years of experience in the second language before even thinking about assessing their speech and language skills bilingually. That viewpoint runs counter to the mounting evidence that such children acquire their language skills fairly quickly. For example, Paradis (2007) found that after 21 months of exposure to English, sequential bilinguals exhibited skills within the normal range of monolinguals in the areas of morphology (40%), receptive vocabulary (65%), and story grammar (90%). In a seminar titled English Phonological Skills of English Language Learners, presented at the ASHA convention in New Orleans in November 2009, Gilhool, Goldstein, Burrows, and Paradis found that after an average of 8 months of exposure to English, sequential bilinguals (ages 4;6-6;9) averaged consonant accuracy of 90%.
  • Stop comparing the speech and language skills of bilinguals to those of monolinguals. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one (Grosjean, 1989). Thus, although their skills will be similar to monolinguals, they will not be identical. Further, in a seminar titled Lifelong Bilingualism: Linguistic Costs, Cognitive Benefits, and Long-Term Consequences, presented at the ASHA convention in Philadelphia in November 2010, Bialystok indicated that both languages of bilinguals are active when using one of them, even in strongly monolingual contexts. What this means is that bilinguals do not sublimate the other language, even if the speaking community is exclusively or largely monolingual. Both languages are always active to one degree or another. Thus, from a clinical perspective, this view argues for comparing monolinguals to monolinguals and bilinguals to bilinguals.
  • Stop treating those with speech or language disorders in only one language. To again quote Kohnert (2007, pp. 143-144), “Being ‘monolingual’ in a bilingual family or community exacerbates a weakness, turning a disability into a handicap.” If, as practitioners, our focus is to develop a bilingual speaker, then services for those with speech and language disorders necessarily have to be conducted in both languages. Intervention in only one language is not an option.

Finally, “Stop thinking in terms of limitations and start thinking in terms of possibilities.” (Terry Josephson)

Brian A. Goldstein is Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences and Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

© Brian A. Goldstein 2011

Next post: Language geniuses and language dunces. Wednesday 14th December 2011.


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