Saturday 18 April 2015

The aliens in our midst

Those of us who were brought up in monolingual homes may feel rather unsettled about how to deal with little multilinguals in the family. This is the case even if we are multilinguals ourselves, because the key words here are bring up and home: it’s one thing to be multilingual, and quite another to nurture multilingual children.

One common reason driving parents to raise their children multilingually relates to the languages used by each parent, and so to the languages that are relevant to each side of the family. Parents are likely to want their children to be able to talk to grandparents, little cousins, and other big and small relatives and friends in those relatives and friends’ own language(s), which may well be a single one, thereby adding the benefit of engaging relatives and friends in the process of making the children theirs, too.

This means nurturing children to feel at home in distinct linguistic and cultural environments. Although there is no fundamental difference between doing this and raising children to become linguistically and culturally appropriate in distinct monolingual environments, as all parents do, many of us remain persuaded that we’re navigating uncharted waters as soon as we start using multi- (or bi-) prefixed words to refer to behaviours and uses of language, on the belief that only such words refer to ‘diversity’. On the related belief that multilingual/bilingual children must therefore remain forever partial strangers to each ‘mono-’ side of a mixed family, well-meaning relatives and friends will scrutinise the children’s linguistic and cultural behaviour for evidence supporting this belief – and will, naturally, find it.

Words that “all other children know” are missing, whereas the words that these children do know are used and pronounced in funny ways. The multilingual nature of the children’s linguistic creativity, language play, child-speak, or plain, typical, nonsensical child gibberish, turns to evidence of fluency in “other” languages, which “our” language conspicuously lacks. Whatever the children do, or do not do, in short, fails to match standard behaviour associated with the monolinguals in the family. And, of course, any perceived deviation in the children’s ways of expressing themselves is immediately attributed to their ‘multi-’ status: the children’s desired well-being (read: conformity to familiar mono-prefixed standards) is being threatened by their parents’ bizarre (read: multi-) linguistic choices.

The colourful variety of opinions on raising children in any family, pitting mums against dads, parents against grandparents, and so on, finds itself compounded in multilingual families, particularly where the languages and customs of each side are mutually unintelligible. Sharing a grandchild (or cousin, or friend) with ‘foreigners’ and their Foreign-Speak may feel like an intrusion on our territorial rights to people, spawning anything from bewilderment to mild conspiracy theories. In my family, for example, we had Swedish relatives gape in awe at their realisation that our toddlers could inflect Portuguese verbs (see Chapter 7 of my book Three is a Crowd? for more on this): “They must be so gifted for languages, everyone knows how difficult Portuguese inflections are!”, with no mention of the equally ‘difficult’ Swedish inflections that the children were also producing at the same ages. And we had Portuguese relatives frown at me when I failed to react to the children’s addressing, in English, a slice of bolo inglês (which translates properly as ‘fruit cake’, though literally as ‘English cake’) on their plate: “Why don’t you tell them to speak Portuguese in Portugal?”

Both sides of the family winced, in other words, at the suspicion that their own flesh and blood might well belong to alien hordes instead.

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“Do you really mean to force the poor things to speak so many languages?” or “Shouldn’t you have a doctor check out their gobbledygook?” became standard questions to us parents. They were asked with unmistakable signs of distress, often in the presence of the gobbledygook-speakers themselves, and apparently with no thought of how adult uneasiness might reflect on the children’s behaviour, thus self-fulfilling the expectation of ‘strangeness’.

Concerns such as these appear to me to draw on subtractive conceptions of multilingualism, where different languages compete in a zero-sum game, and where, therefore, more than one language doesn’t mean ‘more than one language’ but ‘many partial languages’. Multilingual children naturally mix both their languages and their cultures, but mixes are taken as evidence of gaps in particular languages, rather than the token of healthy multilingualism that they are.

Parents must of course use some language to rear their children. If we stop to think for a while that multilingualism is as typical as monolingualism, rather than a manifestation of linguistic ‘otherness’, we’re likely to conclude that, really, what could be more natural than using with our children the languages that matter to our respective families? There are no aliens descending on any of us after all: raising multilingual children in traditionally monolingual environments is simply a different way of being different in those environments. Differences of this kind may sometimes feel overwhelming, because so many of us have been persuaded that being multilingual is a headline-deserving novelty. But is it? That’s what I ask next time.

© MCF 2015

Next post: Multilingual novelties. Saturday 16th May 2015.

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