Saturday, 25 February 2012

Making a home for new languages

My family ended up trilingual instead of bilingual, as we parents had taken it for granted, not because we one day decided that it would be fun (or “beneficial”) to add a third language to our home, but because this thing about agreeing on family language policies has more to it than just adult know-how.

When the children came along, our home was built around our two languages, Portuguese and Swedish. Each of them was a foreign language to the speaker of the other, but both nevertheless carried within them home flavours that our former common language, English, never did. We went on building our home in the same way for a number of years, rejoicing, not least, in the added goodie that hearing our new languages spoken to our children turned out to be a very effective (and inexpensive) way of learning them ourselves. But home, of course, is only one part of a child’s world.

Our children attended preschool in both Swedish and German, although it was English that became their real language of schooling. It did so in the best possible way. Their first experience of an English-medium school was in Hong Kong. As it happened, the principal had in place what he called a “buddy programme”, something that we parents had never heard of before, to cater for children whose command of English was for some reason below par. Each new child became the ward of a veteran monolingual English-speaking child in the same class. It was the veteran child’s responsibility to make sure that the new child integrated, from knowing where the toilets were located and how to use them (Asian toilets included), through making new friends, to sorting out difficulties with class assignments. It was the new child’s responsibility to show active goodwill in integrating. There were no rewards for any of the children. They took their teamwork as part and parcel of school activities, on the awareness that if someone in some class is struggling, then the whole class is struggling.

It worked very well. One of our children had a hearing disorder which up to then had stymied integration in other schools, including monolingual schools in the children’s home languages, and this was the first time that not hearing well didn’t mean not feeling well in school. What I learned from this was that school well-being, and therefore learning, is best taken care of through assigning responsibility to the children themselves.

It worked so well, in fact, that English, the “foreign” language that we parents had once banished from our home, found its way back in through the backdoor, the children’s door. We came to realise two things: first, that we parents needed to use English to assist with homework, because homework comes in tongues; and second, that English was turning from our children’s school language into their sibling language – which it still is, by the way, now that the children are no longer children. And no, neither of these novelties lost their novelty in any smooth way. The children found it funny, to put it mildly, to hear us parents use their language to them; and we parents found it even funnier, ditto, to watch our own flesh and blood build a cubbyhole of their own around Foreign-Speak. You can read all about the negotiation of our respective toils and tribulations in Chapter 10, ‘Language input and language management in a multilingual environment’, of my book Three is a Crowd?

The title of this post, in short, reflects what multilingualism is all about: each of the languages of a multilingual serves a dedicated niche. It also reflects the dynamics of language use. Whether we use one language or more, our children cannot become replicas of ourselves, including in the niche that we assign to each of our languages, because cloning fits sheep better than human beings. Like everything that matters to us, languages matter more or matter less to different people, or matter in different ways along our lives. The next post has more to say about this.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Languages lost and languages regained. Wednesday 7th March 2012.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Parental adventures in Multilingual-Land

In my family, both parents come from monolingual households and from (officially) monolingual countries, Sweden and Portugal. Both of us knew about other languages and other cultures long before we met, including from daily contact through schooling and more or less extended stays in other countries. Foreign sound and video bites were also routine on radio and TV. Adapting to a “foreigner” through marriage might then have looked like a straightforward addition to a seasoned roll of experiences.

Well, not really. Whatever experiences we’d had, of other countries and speakers of other languages, didn’t count as home. Home-bound Swedishness and Portugueseness turned out to be all-new to us – including to the natives of each culture. Puzzlements expressed by Why are you doing that, that way? ended up a distant second to Why am I doing this, this way? We confronted, daily, the simple truth that you can’t see yourself for what you are unless you become “foreign” to yourself.

The exotic feeling of otherness was first compounded by our use of English with each other. A few months into our marriage we realised that that wasn’t working at all: English was neither “ours” nor allowing us to be us. It was a language of work for both of us, and so a stilted, rather unwelcome guest to our home – more on which in a coming post. Neither did our lingua franca come complete with some cultura franca, to which either of us cold relate.

So we built our home around Swedish and Portuguese. This had an interesting side effect, by the way: as soon as we began understanding each other’s languages, we came to realise that we had in fact married quite different people than we had imagined. There is, as the saying goes, no place like home.

With our languages came our licences to use them as we were used to, in the ways that identified us and “our” people. Suddenly, there were no foreigners any longer in our respective family gatherings, because everyone could speak the same language. Granted, there were a few glitches along the way. When mingling with Portuguese relatives and friends, for example, Dad never ceased to be baffled at why he continuously got asked questions which were as continuously answered by the same or other relatives and friends, who all then reported to him that he was a marvellous conversationalist. He never got the time or the chance to even attempt to open his mouth. Mum, in turn, became unsettled at the long silences which come up in cosy Swedish family gatherings, suspecting that the lack of uninterrupted chattering at the dinner table was due to her presence. And what to say of where to place the male Swedish guest of honour to a dinner party in Portugal, or vice versa, who sits to the right of the hostess in a Portuguese home, but to her left in a Swedish one?

Small stuff, perhaps. But nevertheless the stuff of everyday habits which suddenly turn into daily surprises. You tend to want to blame someone, something, yourself, the others, your languages, their languages, for what fails to match your habits, forgetting that habits are just more or less tribal rituals which appear to be set in stone only through continued practice – more on which in a later post too. There is cultural novelty (or cultural clash, if we choose to honour the war metaphors which are favoured to discuss these things) whenever our necessarily local habits meet with other local habits.

So, question: did we become multicultural? It might be tempting to say that we did, also honouring the current fashionable aura surrounding multi-words. But that would be as meaningless as claiming that we had once been monocultural. I’d rather say that we adapted, as much as we did when we moved from kindergarten to high school, or from single to married life, or from Europe to Asia. We knew we were different (who isn’t, really?), and we didn’t mind either being so or being seen as such.

So, question: what happened when our children came along? The choice to use each of our languages with our little ones was not so much a deliberate choice as what we felt would come to feel natural to us. Baby talk, nursery rhymes, child-rearing practices, had first come to each of us in a single language, and so we did as we had had done to us. But we also played it by ear. We soon realised that it’s probably wise to avoid setting yourself the kind of New Year resolutions that you know you won’t keep and you know will give you a guilty conscience for that, when you embark on new adventures like becoming a parent. The next post explains what kind of surprises were waiting for us there too.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Making a home for new languages. Saturday 25th February 2012.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Speaking like mummy, and speaking like daddy

Being a good child can sometimes have its drawbacks. My children were good children (still are), who readily followed suit on our home-made OPOLicy, whereby Portuguese and Swedish are mum’s and dad’s default languages, respectively, to be used if there is no reason to use another language.

During the children’s first few years, these were the other ingredients to the language-use recipe that I would like to discuss in this post:
  1. I was a stay-at-home parent. Mum and dad therefore chose to speak Swedish to each other when the children were around, to compensate for the children’s greater daily exposure to Portuguese;
  2. In those years, Portuguese was the children’s sibling language;
  3. The children had only very sporadic contact with other speakers of their (then) two languages, because we kept moving from and to countries where these languages were not used;
  4. The children are, in order of appearance, two girls and one boy.
Because the children were good and because there was nothing amiss with their linguistic development, they naturally spoke Portuguese and Swedish like mum and dad, respectively. That they would do so was predictable, of course, in hindsight. But hindsight is hindsight because you miss the sight when the sight is in plain sight: we parents didn’t predict anything of the kind. Whatever linguistic habits we noticed in our children’s speech were good habits, because the children were speaking our languages and that was all that mattered.

Those users of our languages with whom the children had on-and-off contact, however, did notice a number of things. Namely, the children’s replication, in their speech, of the parents’ respective male and female identities, evident through the parents’ linguistic behaviour. Dad spoke boy-Swedish and mum spoke girl-Portuguese, so we had all three children using female Portuguese and male Swedish, each version of the languages complete with vocabulary, grammatical devices, expletives and prosody. A previous post mentions a forerunner to these language uses by the children, also out of sight at the time.

Here’s one example of what was going on. Both Swedish and Portuguese are gendered languages, where noun words fall into distinct categories which are characterised by grammatical features both of the nouns themselves, and of the words which pattern with them, e.g. adjectives. With Swedish adjectives, we use the same gender for males and females, whereas in Portuguese we use one of the two genders of the language for males, and the other one for females. If a Swedish-speaking child says Jag är snabbt for Jag är snabb (‘I’m fast’), the child is making a grammatical mistake, by using the wrong gender on the adjective. If a Portuguese-speaking boy says of himself that he is rápida for rápido (‘fast’), by using the female-bound gender for the male-bound one on the adjective, he’s projecting a mismatched identity. The thought that he’s (also) making a similar grammatical mistake comes second.

My children had other baffling encounters with gender. We were once cosily watching our brand new animated video of The Little Mermaid, dubbed in Portuguese, and all went hunky-dory until Ursula the octopus made his/her/its appearance. The Portuguese word for ‘octopus’, polvo, well known to the children, belongs to the masculine gender, so its association with a clearly female character resulted in hasty pausing of the viewing delight, to initiate a lively Q+A session about things like (un)sexed beings, (un)gendered languages and, not least, the sex of octopuses and of people named Ursula.

More Q than A, actually. It’s not easy to explain these things, or to attempt to correct child uses of them, in child-digestible language. What do you say? “You are a boy, so you should say that you are rápido, not rápida” or “You are a girl, so stop using dad’s tones of voice”? Talking about language doesn’t make sense to children – and doesn’t make anyone learn how to use a language. To me, my children’s uses became plain evidence that you crack a language through real-life input from real-life people. Our boy had no male-Portuguese models available to him at the time, surrounded as he was by all-female users of the language, and conversely for our girls’ Swedish. In case you’re wondering about what I say in point 1 above, the answer is yes: I also spoke Swedish like dad, at the time.

My children’s budding uses of their languages also made clear, to me, the importance of taking into account a child’s language-learning conditions, where school or clinical assessment becomes relevant. We all tend to judge people by their uses of language, taking those uses as a faithful reflection of what people are, or are developing into, an issue that I will come back to some other day. Inadequate uses of language, however, may well reflect inadequate input, instead of developmental or learning deficiencies.

Speaking of which, if you think that children hold the copyright to glitches, false starts and dead-ends on the road to multilingualism, the next post may have some news for you.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Parental adventures in Multilingual-Land. Wednesday 15th February 2012.


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