Saturday 25 February 2012

Making a home for new languages

My family ended up trilingual instead of bilingual, as we parents had taken it for granted, not because we one day decided that it would be fun (or “beneficial”) to add a third language to our home, but because this thing about agreeing on family language policies has more to it than just adult know-how.

When the children came along, our home was built around our two languages, Portuguese and Swedish. Each of them was a foreign language to the speaker of the other, but both nevertheless carried within them home flavours that our former common language, English, never did. We went on building our home in the same way for a number of years, rejoicing, not least, in the added goodie that hearing our new languages spoken to our children turned out to be a very effective (and inexpensive) way of learning them ourselves. But home, of course, is only one part of a child’s world.

Our children attended preschool in both Swedish and German, although it was English that became their real language of schooling. It did so in the best possible way. Their first experience of an English-medium school was in Hong Kong. As it happened, the principal had in place what he called a “buddy programme”, something that we parents had never heard of before, to cater for children whose command of English was for some reason below par. Each new child became the ward of a veteran monolingual English-speaking child in the same class. It was the veteran child’s responsibility to make sure that the new child integrated, from knowing where the toilets were located and how to use them (Asian toilets included), through making new friends, to sorting out difficulties with class assignments. It was the new child’s responsibility to show active goodwill in integrating. There were no rewards for any of the children. They took their teamwork as part and parcel of school activities, on the awareness that if someone in some class is struggling, then the whole class is struggling.

It worked very well. One of our children had a hearing disorder which up to then had stymied integration in other schools, including monolingual schools in the children’s home languages, and this was the first time that not hearing well didn’t mean not feeling well in school. What I learned from this was that school well-being, and therefore learning, is best taken care of through assigning responsibility to the children themselves.

It worked so well, in fact, that English, the “foreign” language that we parents had once banished from our home, found its way back in through the backdoor, the children’s door. We came to realise two things: first, that we parents needed to use English to assist with homework, because homework comes in tongues; and second, that English was turning from our children’s school language into their sibling language – which it still is, by the way, now that the children are no longer children. And no, neither of these novelties lost their novelty in any smooth way. The children found it funny, to put it mildly, to hear us parents use their language to them; and we parents found it even funnier, ditto, to watch our own flesh and blood build a cubbyhole of their own around Foreign-Speak. You can read all about the negotiation of our respective toils and tribulations in Chapter 10, ‘Language input and language management in a multilingual environment’, of my book Three is a Crowd?

The title of this post, in short, reflects what multilingualism is all about: each of the languages of a multilingual serves a dedicated niche. It also reflects the dynamics of language use. Whether we use one language or more, our children cannot become replicas of ourselves, including in the niche that we assign to each of our languages, because cloning fits sheep better than human beings. Like everything that matters to us, languages matter more or matter less to different people, or matter in different ways along our lives. The next post has more to say about this.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Languages lost and languages regained. Wednesday 7th March 2012.

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