Saturday 14 December 2013

Multilingual crosswords

I found out only the other day that 2013 marks the first centenary of crossword puzzles. I was rather surprised, actually, because I realised I had been under the impression that such marvellous entertainment must have been invented as soon as words themselves were. For some reason, my mind had dated crosswords all the way back to the invention of playing cards, which we (apparently) owe to Imperial China. In any case, I wouldn’t forgive myself for missing out on the celebration before the year is out.

Image © MCF

Quite a long time ago, I woke up in one of those multilingual moods which, as inexplicably, came associated with crosswords and with my children. The children were familiar with crosswords because of my addiction to them, and they also knew that crossword puzzling comes in many variants, like any other culture-bound entertainment. Swedish-style crosswords, for example, feature a picture, a mix of quick and cryptic clues which are included in the grid itself where other variants may have blocked cells, and strings of light-shaded cells for answers which have no explicit clue except some relationship to the given picture. Whatever their style, however, crossword puzzles all have one thing in common: they stimulate thinking about words in different ways, thereby engaging our linguistic little grey cells in different ways. Since I’ve spent most of my life enjoying linguistic fun and thinking about it, my odd mood on that day gave me the perfect excuse to try to spread the crossword virus to my little ones.

Swedish and English were the languages in which the children were literate at the time, so I created a grid containing Swedish-English orthographic twins with possible different meanings in each language (e.g. the word pass) and two sets of clues, one in each language. My clues were of the quick kind (I’m a coward, yes...), asking for names of people/characters, things, places, activities, synonyms, fill-in-the-blank and anything else I could think of which related to the children’s everyday interests. It was up to the children to decide whether they wanted to solve the crossword twice, separately in each language, or once, using both sets of clues at the same time. Needless to say, the grid had quite a lot of blocked cells, nothing in the way of symmetry, and was otherwise not very appealing to the eye. I used a typical Portuguese grid design, by the way, where rows and columns are numbered sequentially at the side/top of the grid, and individual clues for each of the answers in the same row or column are separated by punctuation marks. This was the least I could do to have some Portugueseness included in the puzzle.

Physical and mental activities spawned by this crossword puzzle had an unexpected side effect among the children. They all suffered a brief but all the more intense relapse of their (very) aggravating child humour bouts of years before, when they used to point at, say, dogs, then call them cats, then giggle their socks off at their joke, and then repeat the whole routine with (very) minor variations over and over again while prodding us parents to join in. They now spent time and energy inserting, say, Swedish crossword words in English utterances or vice versa, and likewise ROFLing at the results. Given that nurturing their awareness of words and word play in their languages was one of the purposes I had in mind when I set the puzzle, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about having kindled the associated silliness, too.

On the whole, then, I rate the effects of this word-venture quite positively. Crosswords develop our skills in thinking about a language in that language. They teach us new words and help us sort out old and new word spellings. In addition, many of us aren’t necessarily aware of lexical or other relationships among our different languages. Our languages are there to serve different purposes, so their everyday use seldom affords us opportunities to track any similarities they may share. But knowing about them can come in handy: two of my children had to study Latin in school (I know. Don’t ask: just have a look here), which they did in English, their school language. They had serious trouble memorising (ditto: here) all those “funny” words and their meanings until I pointed out to them that thinking about Latin words in Latin’s daughter Portuguese might assist otherwise puzzling homework tasks. This was a true epiphany for the children. Multilinguals do not develop this kind of cross-linguistic awareness spontaneously, by simply being multilingual, despite common assumptions to the contrary – an issue I’ll come back to some other day.

Not least, the multilingual crossword was sheer fun to set and solve. If you’re into language brain-teasers and language play, and would like to see how we can solve and appreciate them even in languages that we’ve never seen or heard before, you may enjoy my Lang101 Workbook. It includes puzzles in languages which use non-Roman scripts, though I have no idea whether or how multilingual print-based puzzles combining different scripts might work. I would be delighted to hear about this.

My next post has a couple of thoughts about what else we can do with our languages.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Expats and immigrants. Saturday 11th January 2014.

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