Saturday 21 March 2015

Child musings on being multilingual – The language users

Popular lore has it that children who are raised multilingually confuse their languages. One piece of presumed evidence for this belief comes from the fact that such children mix their languages.

Mixing languages is indeed typical of multilinguals, of all ages: if using words (or grammar) of one language in another were a sign of linguistic or mental disarray, probably in need of therapeutic correction, we would need to conclude that users of at least all major world languages are potential clinical cases. Those languages are historically mixed, made up and being made up of bits and pieces from other languages which, in turn, borrowed and keep borrowing bits and pieces from them. Just like their users, languages need to adapt in order to survive, because they’re there to serve those users.

The myth that linguistic mixes ‘mean’ language confusion confuses facts with interpretations – besides indulging in common causality fallacies. Child mixes can just as well provide evidence of early awareness of distinct languages, as shown in a study that I carried out on my own children’s trilingual language development, Three is a Crowd?. One of their differentiation strategies involved slotting together languages and language users, for example by asking who speaks what (including newborn babies), on the sensible assumption that languages are there for people, and because of them. Another favourite strategy, which I called Turn-to-stare, assisted them whenever words in one of their languages for some reason failed them: they mixed words of another language, turning to face ‘rightful’ users of that language as they switched to it, so as to engage them in the exchange. It’s of course up to us analysts to then choose to account for similar behaviours in terms of linguistic confusion or of linguistic appropriateness.

Propriety appeared in fact to rank quite high among the children’s expectations, once the users’ linguistic property rights, as it were, became clear to them. Establishing who has the right to say what is an important sociolinguistic skill that must be acquired: all of us, monolinguals or multilinguals, learn that different uses of language(s) fit different situations, as different people do, too. Assigning distinct territories to languages in this way also matches nicely small children’s keen sense of property. Just like my children knew very well which toy belonged to which sibling, they became quite intolerant of what they must have perceived as breach of language ‘copyright’. This could happen within each of their languages, when they would, say, tell me off for using Portuguese words and expressions which they strongly associated with other Portuguese speakers: they would frown and fall silent or, later, respond with something to the effect that “Mummy doesn’t say so, uncle does”. This could also happen across their languages, when parental word choice or accent in another language deviated from the standard they associated with other users of that language.

Telling parents off for linguistic shortcomings was in fact a favourite child pursuit in our home, particularly when one parent used the language of the other. It came complete with explicit apologies to the presumedly offended receivers, ranging from asserting that “Mum can’t speak Swedish” when I was speaking Swedish, to nodding a patronising “He’s Swedish” towards shop assistants in Portugal, upon dad’s completion of a transaction in Portuguese. They, the children, were the ‘proper’ users of each of their languages, and were therefore entitled to judge because they knew best. Perhaps we can witness here the (?spontaneous) emergence of linguistic bigotry among fellow human beings?

Responses such as these to perceived ‘wrong’ uses of language may well follow from a broader sense of wrongness. One of the children’s most profound disenchantments related to their realisation that their beloved cartoon videos, in Swedish or in Portuguese, were actually dubbed from English-language originals. They felt duped: they had been enjoying something in a language which isn’t its, and they then wondered whether that wasn’t the case, too, for everything else that they had ever watched, or read, or listened to, or been told. Another interesting episode relating to those videos is here. (An immediate consequence of all this was heavy on the family finances, by the way: we had to invest in a brand new collection of the same videos, in English.) Simply hearing the ‘wrong’ language from any speaker could in fact trigger quite strong adverse reactions at a very early age, as well as later on: when we parents found it necessary to switch from one of the home languages to a school language in order to assist with homework, it took quite a lot of cajoling to make the children stop cringing and wailing “Don’t speak that to me!”.

The children were well aware that different languages serve different topics (skiing, for example, was consistently discussed among themselves in Swedish) but, to them, language-topic bonds were apparently weaker than language-people bonds – the extreme form of which is found in ‘one person-one language’ prescriptivism, as I discuss in a podcast, Addressing common misconceptions about multilinguals. Their own bond to their languages shows from their early linguistic practices, in interactions involving, say, me and Swedish relatives or friends: they would use Portuguese to me, as usual, but they would translate the gist of our exchanges for those whom they knew didn’t understand Portuguese.

Translating and switching languages as needed, for the sake of fellow participants in linguistic exchanges, are part and parcel of being multilingual, though often misconstrued as ‘special’ skills. Next time, I’ll have a look at other feelings of ‘strangeness’ that little multilinguals tend to arouse.

© MCF 2015

Next post: The aliens in our midst. Saturday 18th April 2015.

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