Saturday 22 December 2012

Roots and wings

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote that children should be nurtured to grow roots and wings (“Zwei Dinge sollen Kinder von ihren Eltern bekommen: Wurzeln und Flügel.”).

Knowing Goethe’s thought, his juxtaposition of two apparently contradictory upbringing requirements can neither have meant “roots” in the sense of ‘motionless’, nor “wings” in the sense of ‘restless’: he must have meant that we can’t find roots unless we’re able to go look for them, and that we can’t fly unless we also can perch. Roots expand towards where their nutrition comes from, and flying creatures thrive in the homes that they choose to build for themselves. Likewise, we learn to seek what makes us grow and thrive, and flee what doesn’t.

I was reminded of Goethe’s quote years ago, when I read a fascinating book, Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders. In it, Peter McConchie reports one elder as saying: “We always knew the people were okay because they would come home” which, to me, describes the feature which makes a cultural community acknowledge someone as their own: these people knew that they had a home to return to, which means that they had been taught to leave it. And the elder adds: “They knew to get home, it’s instilled in them, in their spirit and in our stories.” I particularly liked this formulation: their individual, winged spirit, was nurtured by our stories, the roots of our culture.

We all start sprouting root feelers as soon as we realise that “home” is just, well, wherever you feel at home. We find our individual bearings in a multitude of environments, whose distinctive cultural, linguistic and personal habits we can only appreciate once we learn to let go of them, so we also learn how to go back to them, if we so wish. There’s nothing like distance, physical or intellectual, to teach us how to take flight and stay rooted which, to me, is what learning about ourselves is all about.

Image © Copyright Hugh Chevallier
Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Gianpiero Petriglieri gives a real-life account of what Moving Around Without Losing Your Roots may involve (obrigada pela dica, Karin!). If you read German, Wurzeln und Flügel discusses the topic of this post with the added bonus of two other of my favourite Roots-and-Wings books, Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgerssons Underbara Resa genom Sverige and Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I would definitely include in this list Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, with which I grew up when I was learning to take flight.

I wonder whether I’ve just given you a couple of ideas to go and visit, or revisit, these books. I’ll certainly do the latter. Reminiscing about them also reminded me that this is the perfect time of year to find a cosy place from where to fly away by means of cosy reading. I’ll be back next year. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll be able to take time to savour your own roots and wings, too.

© MCF 2012

Next post: What causes what? Saturday 5th January 2013.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Speech and language

Generally speaking, speech concerns physical abilities, whereas language concerns cognitive abilities. Speech is what we say and hear, in actual linguistic interactions, language is what allows us to produce and perceive speech as mediating meaningful interactions. This is why speech bubbles are called speech bubbles and not language bubbles.

Image © Marian Sigler (Wikimedia Commons), adapted (MCF)

The medium of speech is sound, although language ability does not exhaust itself in sound-mediated languages: sign languages are a case in point, making it clear that speech and language are independent abilities.

Both speech and language feature in the job description of clinicians dealing with spoken means of expression. We can produce and perceive what sounds like intact speech but might not be cognitively processed as meaningful interaction, as John Cleese demonstrates in a lecture about the human brain; and we can have intact language abilities without being able to produce intact speech, as when we stammer or stutter: Cleese’s Monty Python co-star Michael Palin explains what led him to create the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children.

Stammering and stuttering are a source of concern among parents of multilingual children, judging by the amount of queries I receive on this topic. The usual question is whether multilingualism can “cause” these disfluencies. The answer is that it cannot, because multilingualism is a matter of language, not speech – and because multilingualism does not “cause” any problems of any kind (I’ll have more to say about “causes”, scare quotes included, in a coming post). Stuttering and/or stammering are well-attested consequences of something else, small children’s newfound abilities to string words together by means of grammatical constructions, and newfound eagerness to say everything they want to say at the same time, as I noted before. This is why children may stutter/stammer in one of their languages, but not in the others, and these are developmental rather than pathological issues, which sort themselves out in time.

Other features of child speech may have similar or different explanations. Having “trouble with ‘r’ sounds” (another common question I get) can also be developmental. These speech sounds are among the last ones that children acquire, because their production involves quite sophisticated control of articulators and airstream. Many of us have trouble with ‘r’ sounds throughout life, in early or later languages: just do a web search on e.g. “rolled r”, or “learn to trill”, or “pronouncing r”, to see what I mean.

In contrast, “not pronouncing the letter ‘s’ at the end of words”, as one parent once wrote, may be worth investigating further. Sounds represented by ‘s’ are also a typically late acquisition, and avoiding their troublesome articulation by omission is then a developmental speech issue. However, depending on factors such as the child’s age, or linguistic environment, absence of ‘s’ sounds at the end of words may point to a grammar issue, and so to a language issue: in several languages, including English, word-final ‘s’ sounds represent grammatical noun plurals or person/number verbal inflections, of which the child may not be developing cognitive command, as in, for example, SLI (Specific Language Impairment). My Ask-a-Linguist FAQ ‘Child language acquisition’ gives a brief overview of typical language development, meant to help caregivers make informed decisions about whether and when to worry about children’s speech and language development.

Language ability can be gauged through speech – though not exclusively. A bit like driving ability can be gauged by the way you drive a car, though not exclusively. Analysis of speech samples collected from clients is one of the many ways through which speech-language clinicians acquaint themselves with their clients’ abilities, in order to decide whether and how clinical intervention is required for speech, for language, or both. The ASHA site has more information on speech and language in clinical settings. And Charles Sturt University has just launched an online resource dedicated to Multilingual Children’s Speech. It includes a downloadable Position Paper, created by the International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech, of which I am a proud invited member.

The next post will have something to say about a well-known cause (no scare quotes) of our speech-language abilities: the ways we’ve learnt to adopt and shed cultural traits which characterise our different environments.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Roots and wings. Saturday 22nd December 2012.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Language therapy or language tuition?

The titles Speech-language Therapist and Language Tutor name different job descriptions, different qualifications and, therefore, different professional competencies: speech-language therapists (or speech-language pathologists, in alternative terminology) do therapy, language tutors do tuition.

In practice, however, the distinct services that these professionals provide are sometimes not so distinct. One reason might be the resilient confusion between two meanings of the word language, in English and other languages. Both job descriptions include this word, although language therapists (let’s call them so) deal with overall language ability, whereas language tutors deal with specific languages. Another reason stems from both specialists being called upon to intervene in a child’s life because there is a problem, or a suspected problem: language therapy addresses problems which affect all of the child’s languages (e.g. language delay), whereas language tuition solves problems with specific languages (e.g. everyday or specialised exposure) which bear no relation to the child’s other languages.

Interestingly, the merger of professional competencies works one-way only: you probably wouldn’t dream of entrusting your child’s possible language disability to a qualified language tutor, whereas you do expect qualified language therapists to address deficiencies in particular languages. I’ve had reports of therapy-for-tuition services of this kind from a number of countries in Africa and Asia, although I doubt that they are restricted to these parts of the world. I would be very interested to know whether the same situation holds elsewhere.

Let me try to work out why this situation arises at all. Children naturally acquire the language uses around them, from elders and/or peers. These uses may not match what parents or schoolteachers deem to be desirable ones, where “desirable” means ‘standard’. In matters of language, the word “standard”, in turn, means ‘good’, whereby non-standard uses of language are ‘bad’, that is, in need of remediation. By the same reasoning which recommends clinical assistance for bad health, cure for bad language should also be sought from a qualified clinician.

I mean the word cure quite literally. An increasing number of typical child language features have also come to merge with features of disordered development, drawing on current standards of normality which are as usable, in practice, as current standards of physical beauty. Almost 70 years ago, in her Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy depicting life in the English countryside in the 1880’s, Flora Thompson saw it coming :

“The general health of the hamlet was excellent. The healthy, open-air life and the abundance of coarse but wholesome food must have been largely responsible for that; but lack of imagination may also have played a part. Such people at that time did not look for or expect illness, and there were not as many patent medicine advertisements then as now to teach them to search for symptoms of minor ailments in themselves.”

Any label which remotely hints at clinical disruption, tagged on to a child, will drive zealous caregivers to appeal to those whose job descriptions likewise include clinical labels.

Zealous teachers stand for the lion’s share of such moves, despite cautionary reports exemplified by Jeff MacSwan and Kellie Rolstad’s ‘How language proficiency tests mislead us about ability: implications for English language learner placement in special education’. The article reviews evidence that the bulk of referrals of young language learners to special education, in the US, has nothing to do with the learners, and all to do with assessment policies and poorly designed language tests. This is the case elsewhere around the world, as also reported in my book Multilingual Norms.

Misguided referrals of this kind count as false positives, where typical multilingual behaviour is mistaken for language disorder. In time, cumulative practices “identifying” multilinguals as disordered become standard practices, in yet another interesting meaning of the word “standard”: as Brian Goldstein quotes in a previous post: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” Accepted habits boost reluctance to revise mindsets and practices, with two consequences: overworked language therapists, squandering time and resources tuned to atypicality on typically developing children; and blindness to false negatives, which mistake disorder for typical multilingual behaviour and thus fail to identify disordered multilingualism.

A third consequence, perhaps the direst of all, is the stigma which sticks to the children who get singled out by means of special labels. Not just because “special” is Correct-Speak for ‘not-quite-up-to-par’, but principally because labels go on deciding our opportunities for us.

Next time, I’ll deal with the bit that I missed, in this post, in the label speech-language therapist.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Speech and language. Wednesday 12th December 2012.


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