Saturday 23 March 2013

Children speak child-speak

            Me: Children speak child-speak, you know?
            Possibly you: Duh!?
            Possibly you: Of course they do!
            Possibly you: Hellooo (singsong), they’re *children*... (ditto)

If your reaction to the title of this post matches one of these (possible) responses to it, I’m with you all the way. But do read on, by all means. I’m not going to tell you that children speak child-speak, I’m going to tell you about those of us who appear to believe that children don’t. And I won’t be telling you only about your average, averagely misinformed layperson, either.

The first time I realised that something must be very wrong with academic treatments of child multilingualism was back in the 1980s, when the literature about “translation equivalents” was making headlines. Briefly, proponents of multilingual equivalence had it that children being raised multilingually should either provide evidence that they had acquired words for the same things in all of their languages, or forfeit their right to be (called) multilingual. Being multilingual was then viewed as being what I call multi-monolingual: multilingual children are just like monolingual children, only several times over. Implicitly, the claim was that multilingual adults must also be multi-monolingual, on the understanding that children don’t typically remain children all their lives.

If you’re shaking your head in benevolent disbelief at how this kind of nonsense could ever have made headlines, then don’t. Not just because nonsense about multilingualism keeps making headlines, but principally because this claim appears to have resurfaced lately: one announcement of a meeting on multilingualism, dating from only a few weeks ago, states that “early bilingualism often result[s] in perfect parallel proficiency”. Note: perfect, parallel, proficiency. I doubt it that the convenors’ choice of words was a simple tribute to alliteration. But I do wonder what these words mean, in isolation and in collocation, and I would love to know about the evidence supporting this statement.

My first publication explaining that perfect parallel translation equivalence proficiency can’t make multilingual sense also explained why. The data came from my own children, then only two of them, and then users of only Portuguese and Swedish. At the one-word stage, the children started using the “wrong” language with us, parents. Or rather, they started using the same language with both parents, in words like, for example, Swedish där (‘there’) or Portuguese (‘gimme’), and I wanted to know why.

On preliminary inspection, the observation was that “translation equivalents” of these words in their other language were way beyond babies’ articulatory abilities, e.g. Portuguese ali or Swedish får jag. I concluded that the children’s “vocal tracts were, at the time, not mature enough to pronounce the respective translations in each language, which are phonologically more elaborate.” Child speech doesn’t reflect adult articulatory sophistication.

On closer inspection, the children turned out to use different intonations with each of the words that they so “mixed”. In fact, they used different prosodies altogether with each parent, and they did so in their babbling. I understood their use of prosody as a means of differentiating between the otherwise very similar syllables/words that they were able to pronounce, like Swedish där or Portuguese . The children were signalling, through intonation, rhythm, and stress, that they were speaking different languages, and that they were doing so with the “right” parent. So I wondered: should we also look for “equivalents” of intonation across languages, as evidence of “perfect parallel proficiency”? Where can we find such equivalents? And if we can’t find them (we can’t), does this mean that multilingual children who do this (my children are not the only ones) are not multilingual after all, and are instead “confused”, because they’re using the “wrong/right” words with the “right/wrong” parent?

We may want to rethink what we mean when we talk about using “words”, and we may want to rethink what being multilingual means. It’s not the children’s fault that adult expectations shape the way we see and hear our little ones. My children were using both of their languages, and they were differentiating their use of both. Not by replicating adult uses of these languages, not in ways that adults believe languages “should” be used, and not in baby ways of doing adult things: they were doing baby things the baby way. If you’re keen to read a detailed account of (all three) children’s strategies to sort out their (three) languages, have a look in my book Three is a Crowd?

In contrast to many adults, small children do and say things that make sense. What they do and say teaches us about how we all learn, including how we learn to be multilingual, and teaches us how to give evidence of what we’ve learned: by using the means that are available to us. If, that is, we choose to *see* what’s going on, instead of attempting to fence in facts within the theory of the day.

OK, so untrained vocal tracts explain child mixes, and productions which don’t match uses of language in the children’s surroundings. Could this also be the case for adult language learners? My next post has something to say about this.
Cruz-Ferreira, M. (1990). Karin and Sofia in Bilingual-Land In J. Leather & A. James (Eds.), New Sounds 90. Proceedings of the 1990 Amsterdam Symposium on the Acquisition of Second Language Speech (pp. 248-254). Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Shibboleths & Co. Saturday 6th April 2013.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Glitches, false starts, and dead ends

Languages don’t come in ready-to-use packages. Their use is what makes them, because languages don’t exist without users. Languages are not “gifts”, either. Their acquisition takes time and commitment even when, as tiny infants, we don’t know we’re spending time or honouring commitments.

Language acquisition is a process, one which never ends, in fact. All of us are still learning all of our languages, because languages themselves are processes, as Wilhelm von Humboldt reminded us two centuries ago: Sie selbst [die Sprache] ist kein Werk (Ergon), sondern eine Thätigkeit (Energeia). We say that languages are “transmitted” from parent to child by force of habit, like we say that the sun “rises” and “sets”. Languages don’t (re)emerge unscathed by human interference across generations, for two reasons: they don’t have a life of their own, and we aren’t neutral conveyors of anything that we “pass on”.

We do end up using our languages like somebody else, for the simple reason that all of us, young or old, learn somebody else’s languages, from somebody else. But we do this our way. When we learn, we change, both ourselves and what we learned: just like there are no languages without users, there is no learning without learners. Our children don’t imitate us. If they did, they wouldn’t say gween for “green” or call every grown-up male in sight “daddy”, and our languages would be, today, exactly like they were ever since we started calling them “languages”. Child uses of language, whether monolingual or multilingual, don’t follow a script, because languages aren’t scripts.

Our children are not being “taught” our languages either, they are learning their own. Acquiring things means making them ours. When we acquire languages, we need to adapt to them and adapt them to us, whether our purpose is to ask to have a nappy changed, or provide a referee report for an academic paper. The interesting thing is that we can’t learn to do any of these things without, well, doing them. The trick is in the doing.

I like to think that we’re doing something new whenever we’re doing something. This is what fascinates me, for example, about the theatre and other live performances. I know there must have been rehearsals, I know there’s some kind of script, and I know the performers are trained professionals. But then, aren’t we all, when it comes to using our languages? I like to think that our uses of language are as unique as any other live performances – and I like to think that any glitches, false starts, and dead ends are part of the performance. The Roman “circenses” wouldn’t have had half the appeal they enjoyed if everyone knew exactly what was going to happen.

We may have been brainwashed into thinking that language acquisition in home environments is glitch-free, because we’ve been brainwashed into believing that “later” language acquisition is, by definition, glitch-full, but the facts are that any language acquisition will have glitches, false starts and dead ends. We say ser for estar in Portuguese, and tycka for tro in Swedish, or vice versa, and we say fink for think and think for sink in English, to mention but these acquisitional goodies in each of these languages. We speak like mummy when we might want to speak like daddy, or vice versa. We stutter and stammer, and fall silent in search of missing words or in bafflement at just-uttered bits and pieces of language that we suddenly realise we have no idea how to parse. We finish thoughts that we haven’t started, and we hit linguistic walls when we should be finishing the thoughts that we did start. And we do this most of the time.

Whoever believes that we all speak in what linguists call “words” and “sentences” has never bothered to listen to real-life speech (whoever believes that we *should* speak in words and sentences probably also believes that words and sentences are real-life beings). Glitches, false starts, and dead ends aren’t evidence of faulty language learning, they’re part of the learning process. They’re evidence that we’re using our new linguistic tools for what we need to say and do with them. Again, whether we’re young or old. Again, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual.

Next time, I’ll go back to small children, and to what they teach us about the way they learn.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Children speak child-speak. Saturday 23rd March 2013.


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