Wednesday 30 May 2012

Little multi-dialectals

Little multilinguals find themselves the object of much (undue) attention, because they are said to use different languages. Little monolinguals, in contrast, may fail to get (due) attention to their use of what is said to be their single language, which is taken for granted.

Myths surrounding monolingualism come complete with the notion that using one language means using it in the same way. I’ve addressed this issue before, for example in connection with (school) language learners: questions like “Do you speak X?” are loaded questions, because they take for granted the kind of X that you mean.

For those of us who are identified as multilinguals, the different uses that we make of language are said to be different languages – whatever “different languages” might mean). But all of us, including those of us who are identified as monolinguals, may be exposed to equally different linguistic uses in the same language – whatever “the same language” might mean. Whether in accent, grammar, vocabulary, or pragmatic features, different varieties of the “same” language can be as foreign to their respective users as “different” languages.

Children may grow up surrounded by different uses of language in different ways. So-called multilingual settings may be replicated in so-called monolingual ones: mummy may happen to be Honduran and daddy Peruvian, say, and everyone lives in Madrid, with a nanny who was born and raised in Andalusia. Schooling marks the beginning of a new life, including linguistically, because school environments are meant to standardise not only your knowledge, but also your uses of language.

Singapore is a case in point. There are four official languages, and education is bilingual, in that schooling takes place in the child’s (so-called) mother tongue, Mandarin, Malay or Tamil, and English. That is, schooling takes place in official versions of these official languages, which do not necessarily match the varieties used by the children at school start, because languages, like pineapples or prawns, change with the environments in which they are found.

Take the case of English, to give an example of a language which is familiar to you and me, in Singapore, which is quite familiar to me. The English which is spoken in Singapore is called Singapore Standard English, where the country name in the label indicates that this is a different English from other Englishes which are standardised elsewhere. There is also Singapore Colloquial English, commonly known as Singlish, and commonly described as an English-based creole. Creoles are languages which first emerged through contact of different languages, for adult purposes like e.g. trading, to then become native languages, passed on from adults to children.

Singlish is a native language in Singapore, and a de facto lingua franca melding the local pot of heritages and ethnicities. It reflects Singaporean culture: Singaporean is not a language name. Singlish is as much “bad” English as Swiss German is bad German or Kristang bad Portuguese, by the way. Similar judgements of value about language uses abound in the discourse of those who fail to realise that standardised varieties and real-life varieties of language(s) serve different purposes. That’s what they’re there for. Or those who remain persuaded that lingualism means engaging in a subtractive competition, where (certain) language uses are weeds depriving (certain) language uses of rightful nourishment. That’s not what lingualism is.

Singlish is the English, or one of the Englishes (if we insist on calling Singlish a “variety” of English), with which Singaporean children come to school. Anthea Fraser Gupta reported on what happens to the children’s Englishes in school, in her book The Step-Tongue. Children’s English in Singapore. More recently, Rani Rubdy’s study titled Singlish in the school: an impediment or a resource? found that Singlish mediation, in the classroom, may well favour school learning rather than detract from it. I address similar issues, specifically concerning accents, in a book chapter, Learning English in Singapore: pronunciation targets and norms.

This research also shows that coming to school with unofficial uses of language is true of teachers too, and I’ll return to this matter some other day. My point here is twofold. First, that school languages and school language uses can only be nurtured in school: a well-rounded education includes awareness of linguistic etiquette, that is, of what to say to whom, when, where and how – and why. Second, that we, educators, must meet the child where the child is, for schooling purposes, if schooling is to make any sense at all. Especially language-wise. Nobody can be schooled productively in Foreign-Speak. Especially in Foreign-Speak disguised under labels which call it “your” language.

The next post looks at one way of integrating the rich variety of linguistic resources that we discover around us, as we grow up, into a cohesive whole which makes sense of who we are.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Mixes & matches. Saturday 9th June 2012.

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