Wednesday 20 June 2012

Mixed recipes

Recipes involve mixes. The point I want to make in this post is that the converse is also true: mixes involve recipes. There are reasons why multilinguals mix, which means that there are patterns in both the ingredients and the methods of mixing.


Like multilingualism itself, mixes have had a mixed fate in the literature that purports to clarify their use. In the 18th century, the English critic and essayist Samuel Johnson likened mixes to “contamination” (a French word, incidentally), when he wrote that “To use two languages familiarly and without contaminating one by the other, is very difficult; and to use more than two is hardly to be hoped.” In 1950, Einar Haugen reviewed research from the late 19th century to the effect that mixes presuppose competence in the languages which are (being) mixed, in a piece titled The analysis of linguistic borrowing.

Twenty years later, scholars went on disagreeing about what mixes might mean. Mixed child speech, for example, was claimed as evidence that multilingual children operate both with a single linguistic system and with distinct linguistic systems. In different publications, of course, which nevertheless highlights the crucial difference between a finding, in our data, and the interpretation that we assign to that finding, in our theory.

Whether taken as proof of linguistic muddle or linguistic lucidity, the consensus has long been that mixes should be avoided, on the understanding that languages are there to be kept intact, each in its proper linguistic container. This is the same consensus which identifies a multilingual with what I’ve called a multi-monolingual. A bit like saying that when you’re making an omelette, you should take care to keep the eggs whole. To my mind, the true muddles plaguing multilingual matters stem from an interpretation of multilingual data as deviations from monolingual norms of language use, which cannot make sense of what multilinguals do and what multilinguals are.

Mixes are a multilingual norm of language use. So much so, in fact, that typical patterns of mixing help diagnose atypical development among multilingual children, as Sean Pert showed in Bilingual language development in Pakistani heritage children in Rochdale UK: intrasentential codeswitching and the implications for identifying specific language impairment. Working with Carolyn Letts, in a study titled Codeswitching in Mirpuri speaking Pakistani heritage preschool children: bilingual language acquisition, he also found that children’s utterances containing mixes/codeswitches were longer and more sophisticated than their utterances in a single language. The obvious explanation must be that only multilingual settings allow multilinguals to make use of their full linguistic repertoire.

Patterns of mixing occur in all walks of multilingual life because they serve multilingual life. They may involve words (perhaps the most familiar kind of mixing), grammatical structures and sound structures, including prosody, of the languages in question. Switching language altogether in a communicative exchange also serves a purpose. Multilinguals follow suit on the language of an exchange by default, that is, unless there are reasons to switch language. My children, for example, came home daily from their English-speaking school in English-speaking mode, the language that they naturally had to use to describe school-bound happenings. We parents switched to our respective languages in our replies and comments to the children’s descriptions because, at home, we were in Portuguese and Swedish modes, and the children used English to comment on our comments. And so on, until our home languages eventually took over for the children, which they did, also daily. The children switched languages among themselves too, not because the language to/from which they switched matched any specific purposes, but because the act of switching language is meaningful in itself. Switching language served pragmatic goals, be it to emphasise a point they were making, or to make it clear to a sibling that their funny jokes were not being funny any more.

Mixes involve overall culture-bound behaviours, which don’t come in tamper-proof containers either. One example is in Eduardo H. Diniz de Figueiredo’s study, To borrow or not to borrow: the use of English loanwords as slang on websites in Brazilian Portuguese. Phonetic mixes are what became known, particularly in the literature on foreign/second language acquisition, as “a foreign accent”. And if you are part of a mixed family which celebrates Christmas, or Vesak, or Hari Raya, or Deepavali, you are likely to celebrate Christmases, Vesaks, Hari Rayas, or Deepavalis with mixed cultural accents. You can have a look in my book Three is a Crowd?, for extensive exemplification and discussion of all these kinds of mixes.

Mixes are matches, in that they build bridges across the different environments that make up our lives. I’ll have some more to say about how and why we find our niches, next time.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Fitting in. Saturday 30th June 2012.

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