Saturday, 13 December 2014

The multilingual scapegoat

Scapegoating has historically been instrumental in alleviating consciences. The fact that scapegoating, as historically, has had no effect whatsoever on what caused those consciences to become burdened in the first place doesn’t seem to deter its continued practice.

Multilingualism has served as a handy goat candidate for a good while now. In typically recurrent scenarios, if a child presents with a (suspected) language-related disorder, and that child is multilingual, then the child’s multilingualism is to blame for the disorder. It happened in my family, too. A few weeks into one of my children’s first preschool experience, her teachers reported to me their concern about her behavioural issues. Among other things, she preferred to entertain herself on her own rather than seeking group play, she grabbed at the faces of both children and adults who addressed her, and she was disruptive at story time, when everyone sat on the floor around the reader. The teachers completed their report by sternly advising me that the burden, as they put it, of dealing with two languages from birth might well have started taking its toll on her.

You may have guessed what was really going on: the specialist test that I requested at the next paediatric check-up showed that my girl had 40% deafness. If you can’t hear in an environment meant for typical hearing, if you need to have other people face you when they talk to you in order to lip-read and, likewise, if you can’t see their lowered faces when they’re reading to you, my child’s behaviour becomes no issue after all.

Throughout my children’s early schooling years, other rounds of this Blame Multilingualism game only served to confirm that the multilingual scapegoat, like its predecessors, didn’t arise out of inherent goat properties but out of our propensity to explain what we don’t understand by means of what we understand even less. In the words of David L. Rosenhan’s report On being sane in insane places: “Whenever the ratio of what is known to what needs to be known approaches zero, we tend to invent ‘knowledge’ and assume that we understand more than we actually do. We seem unable to acknowledge that we simply don’t know.”

The reason we don’t understand multilingualism is that we refuse to deal with it as multilingualism: we prefer to check it out as an indicator of (in)conformity to other linguistic behaviours, as is evident from the profuse academic and lay literature reporting findings about multilingualism through the bias of monolingual lenses. Taking other-than-multilingual as a norm expectedly results in assessments of multilingualism as ‘special’, whether special-bad or special-good. Special things demand explanations which depart from the ‘ordinary’ explanatory norms which made them special, and thus self-fulfil their special status. Add to this our readiness to explain things by means of causality, and we’re ready to conclude that some of us are special because we’re multilinguals.

Blaming multilingualism for a (suspected) problem is equivalent in practice to diagnosing people with multilingualism. Multilingualism is a problem and must therefore be banished: that’s why so many of us, parents, educators, clinicians, advise monolingualism as a cure. Proclaiming that we’ve found an answer to a problem has an immediate effect, which is to stop asking questions, our own and especially others’: our quest is ended and we may sleep with a clear conscience. Anything, in other words, feels and looks better than simply acknowledging our ignorance. This is why typically developing multilingual children continue to be over-referred to specialist care, wasting precious time as well as human and financial resources. Not to speak of the stigma attached to those diagnosed as ‘special’, of course. As Rosenhan’s unsettling study crucially found, simply entering the special care circle is enough to confirm that special care was needed in the first place, and so that the special diagnosis was warranted: once a special label sticks to you, whatever you do will serve as proof that you deserved to be labelled.

Mythologies typically generate their own evidence in this way. This is why scapegoating goes on saving both our faces and our prejudices. Is it so that we care more for upholding our ingrained beliefs than for the people who come to us for help? What seems to matter is to make the stray sheep return to the normality fold of our collective imaginary: what matters is conformity to an illusionary norm. As Thomas Szasz compellingly shows in The Manufacture of Madness, “Safety lies in similarity”.

Believing that multilingualism is the problem further prevents us from accepting it as a norm in itself, blinding us to disordered multilingualism. As Annick De Houwer, Marc H. Bornstein and Diane L. Putnick argue in A bilingual-monolingual comparison of young children’s vocabulary size, if there are any concerns about bi-/multilingual children’s language development, “reasons other than their bilingualism should be investigated.”

Next time, I’ll keep to matters of gathering knowledge about multilingualism.

DE HOUWER, A., BORNSTEIN, M., & PUTNICK, D. (2013). A bilingual–monolingual comparison of young children's vocabulary size: Evidence from comprehension and production Applied Psycholinguistics, 35 (06), 1189-1211 DOI: 10.1017/S0142716412000744

Rosenhan, D. (1973). On Being Sane in Insane Places Science, 179 (4070), 250-258 DOI: 10.1126/science.179.4070.250

© MCF 2014

Next post: Multilingual neuromyths. Saturday 24th January 2015.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Nativeness: The curse and blessings of genes, geography and cadence
=Guest post=

by Ng Wan Qing Jessie

I am of Chinese descent, with dark hair and eyes. I was born in Singapore, raised in a trilingual family. My parents spoke to each other in their respective ‘dialects’ – Teochew and Hokkien, and spoke to us in Mandarin. A large part of my childhood revolved around these three languages, and it was not until I started attending kindergarten that I had to learn English. Boy, was it a struggle! I distinctly remember how, at the age of 5, I could not even tell the teacher that I wanted to go to the bathroom. It took the aid of a Mandarin-speaking teacher to do the appropriate translation before I could avoid the embarrassment of wetting my underwear.

Fast forward to 2014. I am now working as an English language teacher in a local secondary school, having completed the Singapore-Cambridge GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ level examinations, a Bachelor degree, a postgraduate diploma in Education, and a Master degree, entirely in English. Admittedly, I have not had the need to sit for IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), so I cannot tell you about my language proficiency in those terms, but I would think that it is sufficiently high for you to be able to understand what I am rambling on about here. However, I am disgruntled that as a trained and experienced teacher of English, I regularly face the discrimination that I am not a competent one.

Competence in a language, for reasons unbeknownst to enlightened scholars, appears to be defined by DNA, accent or citizenship. My dark hair and eyes, as well as my Singaporean accent and, to some extent, the red passport I hold, seem to label me as a second-rate English language teacher. In my own country, the prejudice is not that bad, although once we had a Science teacher from mainland China joining our school and I overheard people gushing about how good she must be, because she has an ‘American accent’. Occasionally, I do hear random and, dare I say, ill-informed people on the streets making comments on how their child’s teacher is ‘better’ (presumably than typical, Asian-looking local teachers) because he is ‘ang moh’ – which literally translates to ‘red hair’ and is a popular local term used to describe Caucasians –, but that has, mercifully, decreased over the years. Ironically, this is probably aided in part by the rise of xenophobia among the young in recent years, which led to the sudden realisation that ‘non ang mohs’ could also be competent English teachers.

Or maybe I have just gone selectively deaf. In any case, when I started looking for opportunities to diversify my teaching experience overseas, I fell victim once again to the curse of my chromosomal makeup. I have read quite a few ESL/EFL (English as a Second/Foreign Language) teaching position descriptions with much enthusiasm, only to have my hopes shattered at the end when I realise that they were looking only for ‘native speakers’ or ‘native-sounding speakers’. In some instances, they would list the countries where the potential candidate’s academic certificates were obtained from as pre-requisites. So far, the only success I have had is in countries where schools offering the Singapore curriculum have been set up.

Recently, I have been harbouring suicidal thoughts. No, not of the literal sort, but the semi-literal kind. I have been feeling restless after completing my Master of Arts degree in June 2013, and slowly but surely, the fatal thought of enrolling in a PhD programme has been creeping up on me. Understanding the importance of casting my academic net far and wide, I pored over my options. It was to my dismay to discover that many institutions require me to submit either IELTS or TOEFL scores, even though I had completed both my undergraduate and graduate studies in English. It was even categorically stated by one particular institution, and I quote, 
All applicants whose native language is NOT English or who have NOT received their undergraduate education in a country where the native language is English MUST submit scores from one of two internationally recognised assessments of English language proficiency, IELTS or TOEFL. Receiving your bachelor’s degree in a country that lists English as an official language such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Nigeria, or Singapore does not exempt you from the English language proficiency requirement.

I guess many of the young Singaporeans who are raised in English-speaking homes, and hence would logically qualify as ‘native speakers’, would now be quite confused about their ‘native language’. I can hardly blame them, because I am confused too. Instead of being defined by the language spoken from birth, native language users seem to be defined by the country they took their first breath in.

All hope is not lost, however. Recently, I was invited to attend an interview for an English language teaching position in Japan. They were looking for Singapore-trained teachers. My interest was automatically piqued because this seemed to be in such contrast to what I have known all along. At the interview, I asked my interviewer why his company was specifically looking for English teachers in Singapore. After all, I probed, would it not be far ‘better’ to look for candidates from ‘native-speaking countries’? His response revived the dying flame in me that, with my profile, I could actually be considered as being on par with the traditional perception of a ‘native speaker’ as having certain skin pigments, accent or nationality. He spoke of his admiration for our education system, our working language as English, and our teachers having to go through rigorous training in a world-renowned teacher training institution. The parting line left a smile on my face: “I do think you are a native speaker, never mind if your accent is different!”

Ng Wan Qing Jessie is a Science-turned-English language teacher. She graduated from the National Institute of Education (Singapore) in 2013 with a Master of Arts (Applied Linguistics) degree, with a focus on multimodal discourse analysis. A copy of her dissertation may be requested from the NIE Digital Repository. She is currently working as an adjunct teacher in a secondary school in Singapore, while considering graduate school options.

© Ng Wan Qing Jessie 2014

Next post: The multilingual scapegoat. Saturday 13th December 2014.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Native multilinguals

Some of my language teaching students sometimes express out loud their heartfelt desire to become native speakers. I was quite baffled the first time I heard this: we’re all native speakers, surely, and we can’t become natives, if we take the word “native” to mean what I supposed it is meant to mean, ‘from birth’. But does it? It turned out that my students’ previous teacher training had included the mantra that “native” means ‘flawless’ in this collocation, and flawless, whatever we take this word to mean, is certainly something that all of us can at least aspire to become.

This latter meaning of the word “native” has in fact been made quite explicit in the literature about “second” (or “foreign”) languages – with my profuse apologies for the scare quotes that will crop up all over this post: I’ve no idea what the scared words might mean, in this literature. This meaning explains, for example, why some of us think it a worthwhile endeavour to compare school language learners to “native speakers”, for purposes of language quality assessment. But there is a snag: if learning languages from birth entails flawless use of those languages, how come multilinguals across the board, including simultaneous multilinguals who learn more than one language from Day One, go on being compared to “native speakers”?

The thing is that “native speaker” has yet a third meaning, ‘monolingual’, this time a covert one, which nevertheless heeds the overt, systematic practice of comparing any multilinguals to monolinguals. This meaning explains, for example, the virtual absence of acknowledgement that multilinguals can be “native” users of their languages. If we accept that multilingual proficiency should be assessed through comparison with “native” proficiency, then we’re saying that multilinguals and natives are two distinct kinds of language users, since we can’t compare a thing to itself.

But there is another snag. If multilinguals aren’t native users of their languages, then they must be “non-native”, by the logic of the assumedly useful labels which populate research on language uses. However, they aren’t, because multilinguals get compared to non-natives, too. In addition, simultaneous multilinguals can’t be “non-native”, if their languages are there for them from Day One, which is one of the meanings of “native”. Multilinguals, in sum, appear to inhabit a Linguistic No Man’s Land.

“Day One”, unfortunately, may not be what clinches the issue either. If the language(s) in which we’re brought up from birth happen to be imported languages, then those languages aren’t “ours”. And if we learn a new language in early childhood, though not exactly from Day One, how many days should we count to count as a native user of it? Can I, for example, claim French as native language, having lived with it from just before age 3? Or was I then already way past my native learning prime, as I must have been when I learned my other languages several years later? If you’re interested in the mysteries of “critical periods” which snipe at “native” language learning abilities, Carmen Muñoz and David Singleton’s state of the art discussion, A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment, is a must-read.

Scare-quoted terminological acrobatics about multilingualism would be hilarious, of course, if it didn’t appear in “serious” research, thereby proving that we’ve no idea what we’re talking about. Have a look in my article First language acquisition and teaching, to see what I mean. The muddle got compounded when researchers developed a preference for labelling the languages of a multilingual by means of numbers, possibly on the belief that identifying things by numbers makes them look scientifically unquestionable. There’s always some “L1” lurking in there somewhere, which means that there must be rankings of L2, ... Ln, where the numbers apparently serve the purpose of showing that languages either politely follow one another or should do so.

But what do these numbers mean when, say, simultaneous multilinguals learn one or more new languages in school? Not much, it seems, because we prefer to stick to labels rather than acknowledge their undefinable uselessness. Since “L1” represents an inherently singular concept (in more than one sense of “singular”), the logic of cardinal and ordinal numbering requires that L1 = “first language”, whereby everyone must have a single “first” language, endowed with rights of primogeniture associated with other firstborns. If there’s no single chronological first language, no problem: we just assign one to children, for reasons of administrative expediency, and call it their “mother tongue”. Finally, by the logic that first = “best”, we end up talking about “dominant” and “balanced” languages, and about all the other hopeless labels which do no more than betray our hopeless beliefs that multilinguals are, in fact, funny monolinguals.

This state of affairs may well explain why multilingualism goes on being blamed for anything that deviates from monolingualism, to which I’ll return some other day. Meanwhile, the next post, a guest post, goes back to where this post started, to report vivid encounters with “nativeness” from a language teacher who’s also had plenty of reasons to wonder about the meaning of this word.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (2011). First language acquisition and teaching. AILA Review, 24, 78-87 DOI: 10.1075/aila.24.06cru

Muñoz, C., & Singleton, D. (2010). A critical review of age-related research on L2 ultimate attainment. Language Teaching, 44 (01), 1-35 DOI: 10.1017/S0261444810000327

© MCF 2014 

Next post: =Guest post= Nativeness: The curse and blessings of genes, geography and cadence, by Ng Wan Qing Jessie. Saturday 15th November 2014.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Sign-speech multilinguals

Opinions and decisions about multilingualism involving sign languages suffer from the same resilient fantasies which have plagued multilingualism in general over the past 100 years or so. With sign languages, however, there’s the aggravating factor that fantasies about them join the chorus. Only the other week, for example, I had a couple of (speech-speech) multilingual friends wonder why all the fuss about sign languages among linguists like me, since these languages are but a set of universal gestural primitives, like rubbing your tummy to indicate you’re hungry, as they put it. Aren’t they?, they nevertheless asked at the end of their reasoning. No, I replied. This would be roughly equivalent to saying that spoken languages are but a set of universal groany primitives to indicate your mood, as I put it.

I took this chance to dispel their other illusion, that sign languages are straightforward fingerspelling systems, which draws on the interesting assumption that all signers must be literate. Many sign languages do include fingerspelling components, but the fact that, say, BSL (British Sign Language) and ASL (American Sign Language) use two-handed and one-handed spelling, respectively, for the same printed language, should help reassess the presumed straightforwardness of fingerspelling. In addition, BSL and ASL are as mutually unintelligible as other sign languages around the world.

My friends are well educated, cosmopolitan professionals. Their take reflects the overarching myth that sign languages really aren’t languages at all, which goes on shaping policies devised by other professionals, those who have been empowered to deal with language education and who therefore aren’t in the habit of asking questions at the end of their reasonings. In a book chapter discussing The British Sign Language community up to the early 1990s, Paddy Ladd gives a distressing review of the ignorance and associated prejudice which, among other rulings, sanctioned physical violence to ‘cure’ deaf children of their signing ‘compulsion’. Just like, as I reported elsewhere, multilingualism came to be beaten out of hearing schoolchildren, the hands of deaf schoolchildren were tied behind their backs in order to force them to use spoken language. Just like, as I also reported elsewhere, multilingualism came to be medicalised, the language of deaf people was “pathologised” (Ladd’s word). Small wonder, then, that sign-speech multilinguals came to be viewed as doubly ‘handicapped’.

When sign languages finally became legitimised, as it were, as objects of linguistic enquiry, sign multilingualism turned out, unsurprisingly, to match speech multilingualism. It comes complete with mixes, as David Quinto-Pozos reports for LSM (Lengua de Señas Mexicana) and ASL in Sign language contact and interference, for example, and with a lingua franca, International Sign, which Anja Hiddinga and Onno Crasborn discuss in Signed languages and globalization. But sign multilingualism remained the business of signers, so hearing communities needn’t bother with the eccentricities of deaf communities. Dealing with sign-speech multilingualism, however, appears to invite regression to hand-tied Fantasy Land: sign languages may be languages after all, but they are less so than spoken ones and should therefore not take priority in (so-called) multilingual education.

It may help to understand that we’re talking about difference here, not winner-takes-it-all competition of gradable merits. It is as useful to compare the contexts of use of distinct linguistic modes as it’s useful to compare multilinguals and monolinguals. Insisting on doing so fails to recognise one of the many paradoxes reflecting our perennial difficulty in defining what languages are: do we want to say that speech beats sign, hands down, because we’re persuaded that auditory resources rank higher than visual ones in linguistic sophistication? Or should we rank those resources the other way around, because we believe that spoken languages are subsidiary to spelt ones?

Language is as independent of the modes we’ve found to represent it – whether natural, sense-bound ones like sight, hearing, touch, or artificial ones like print – as music is independent of the instruments (our voice included) through which we produce it. What’s more, our senses seldom serve us to the exclusion of other senses. Manual gestures, for example, are intrinsic to spoken interaction, where attention to both visual and sound clues necessarily assists (de)coding. There’s even evidence that adequate gesturing enhances learning, as Martha W. Alibali and colleagues showed for a speech-based maths class in Students learn more when their teacher has learned to gesture effectively. In this sense, speakers and signers alike are multimodal users of language, and so are all of us, speakers or signers, who are literate.

There may be some overlap between gestural uses in spoken and signed interaction, as Trevor Johnston argued for pointing gestures in Towards a comparative semiotics of pointing actions in signed and spoken languages, but the fundamental issue is that signs and speech belong to two different linguistic modes, each with their rules, standards and practices. Precisely for this reason, sign-speech multilinguals can avail themselves of means of linguistic expression which monomodal interaction lacks, in that “distinct modalities allow for simultaneous production of two languages”, as Karen Emmorey and colleagues discuss in Bimodal bilingualism.

This means that sign-speech multilinguals, like any language users, must draw on the whole of their linguistic resources in order to be able to develop as human beings. The Position Statement on Early Cognitive and Language Development and Education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children, adopted by the NAD (National Association of the Deaf, USA) in June this year, makes for as engrossing reading as Paddy Ladd’s chapter – with many thanks to Beppie van den Bogaerde, who brought this publication to my attention on Twitter, @HU_DeafStudies. The document examines the relationship between sign, speech and print modes, debunking the usual myths about minority languages causing delayed development of mainstream languages (why never the other way around, one wonders?), about the primacy of spoken languages over signed ones, about reading abilities presupposing phonological awareness”, and about multilingualism itself. This is the specialist side of the sign-speech tandem. From a personal side, Jenny Froude’s book Making Sense in Sign. A Lifeline for a Deaf Child is a gripping account of her family’s journey as hearing caregivers of a deaf child.

Deaf children must be allowed to acquire a language which is meant for deaf people, because they are not hearing people in (temporary) disguise. Why should we deprive our children of their languages? Would hearing people wish to be raised in monomodal sign language? Evidence that sign is the mode that best serves deaf children from the outset lies in their spontaneous creation of languages such as the Nicaraguan Sign Language (Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua), which made headlines in the 1970s. And evidence that we all resort to whatever language modes best serve our needs comes from adults, too.

Next time, I’ll have some more to say about depriving people of entitlement to their languages.

Alibali, M., Young, A., Crooks, N., Yeo, A., Wolfgram, M., Ledesma, I., Nathan, M., Breckinridge Church, R., & Knuth, E. (2013). Students learn more when their teacher has learned to gesture effectively Gesture, 13 (2), 210-233 DOI: 10.1075/gest.13.2.05ali

EMMOREY, K., BORINSTEIN, H., THOMPSON, R., & GOLLAN, T. (2008). Bimodal bilingualism. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11 (01) DOI: 10.1017/S1366728907003203

Hiddinga, A., & Crasborn, O. (2011). Signed languages and globalization Language in Society, 40 (04), 483-505 DOI: 10.1017/S0047404511000480

Johnston, T. (2013). Towards a comparative semiotics of pointing actions in signed and spoken languages Gesture, 13 (2), 109-142 DOI: 10.1075/gest.13.2.01joh

Ladd, P. (1991). The British Sign Language community. In S. Alladina & V. Edwards (Eds.), Multilingualism in the British Isles. 1. The older mother tongues and Europe (pp. 35-48). London: Longman.

QUINTO-POZOS, D. (2008). Sign language contact and interference: ASL and LSM Language in Society, 37 (02) DOI: 10.1017/S0047404508080251

© MCF 2014

Next post: Native multilinguals. Saturday 18th October 2014.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The languages that matter

Regular messages that I get from parents who have decided to bring up their children multilingually often have “Which languages should I use with my child?” in the subject line. The body of the messages, as often, nevertheless ends up answering this question: the parents say things like “my wife speaks X and Y, I speak X and W, and my mother, who will babysit the child most of the time, speaks only W”. That’s three languages, and choosing at least two of them, in this case dad’s languages, seems straightforward: use X, mum and dad’s shared language, I write back, and W, for granny’s sake. And, I go on, if mum feels that Y matters, too, by all means go ahead and use it, too.

Most of these messages, however, do not stop here. Those parents who don’t write to me in English, or for whom this isn’t one of “their” languages, as they put it, hasten to clarify in the next sentences that they also speak English (let’s call it Z, and use this symbol to refer to any of the “big” languages currently looming above us), as if not being a Z user were somehow unnatural, or mortifying. The real question then comes towards the end of the message: “So which languages should I use with my baby in order to give her a good head start in life?”

Mentions of Z invariably carry a Z-must undertone, even (especially?) when parents explain that this is a very non-native and very non-family language to them, while at the same time asserting their belief that early home exposure to any Z, rather than to no Z, will trigger the desired lifelong edge. There’s no undertone when parents add that Z will have to replace one of the family languages that might otherwise have been a good candidate for home nurturing, because “I don’t want to burden my child with too many languages”.

Which gets me wondering: why don’t the subject lines ask about “Which languages should I not use with my child?” instead, since the questions are about discarding languages? If X, Y and W matter, not least monolingually, because they’re family languages, how do we decide which one of them will mean a waste of child time and cognitive potential, as some parents see it fit to argue, because Z matters no matter what? Which arguments, I also wonder, can ease parental consciences about the burdensome language(s) that must cease to matter?

I confess my mixed feelings about all this. The good news is that agonising over whether to bring up children multilingually is becoming old hat. I also get fewer and fewer questions from, for example, multilingual parents wishing to bring up their children monolingually in the foreign, global and mainstream language used where they’ll move to, and where, their reasoning goes, no other language can possibly matter. But the questions that bloom in their stead are no less disquieting. What matters now is being multilingual-with-Z, in the sense that if I’m multilingual in, say, Icelandic and Bhutanese, I certainly lack the edge of fellow multilinguals in, say, Mandarin and Spanish – or in one of the former languages with one of the latter.

What “edge” are we talking about, and when do we reckon it will deploy its effects? These questions about choice of home languages have two things in common. First, they ask, here and now, about how we can make or break our children’s adult welfare against the competition by talking to them in the right or wrong languages. Which leaves open (closed, actually) the question of what we should talk to our little ones until they’re big ones, including for granny’s sake, since she will share the children’s here and now for a while yet. Planning home language policies has started to look a lot like investing in futures, in other words. Do we know which languages will matter to our children where and how, when they’re no longer children? Or are we attempting to create their future ourselves, by opening certain doors for them and shutting down others as soon as they’re born?

Second, these questions reflect parents’ persuasion (or helplessness, or guilt) that their non-Z languages may be expendable because they’re non-Z. Ever since it became fashionable to talk about multilingualism as an investment, nobody dares follow their parental instincts any more (or plain commonsense) about deciding which languages actually matter to the family. We’re urged to follow the crowd, whether at home, in school or in clinic. Maybe this is why I feel strangely refreshed when I read about what matters to organisations like OLCA (Office pour la Langue et la Culture d’Alsace) or to people like Aaron Carapella.

Worrying about our children’s future is of course part and parcel of being a parent. But I find it exceedingly difficult to plan that future, not least linguistically and not least because the children will also have their say about what matters to them, often much earlier than we suspect. In my family, for example, we parents started off communicating with one another in English, then learned one another’s languages because English didn’t feel to us like a family language at all, to later have our children make English not only a family language but the one which they use among themselves, still today. Which made me realise that I should stick to worrying about investing in parenting instead, in whatever language.

The belief that some languages are more entitled to life than others is particularly insidious where sign languages, as opposed to spoken ones, enter the fray. The next post offers a few thoughts on this.

© MCF 2014

Next post: Sign-speech multilinguals. Saturday 20th September 2014.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Some languages are more languages than others

Our ways of speaking and signing naturally evolved to serve our needs. This means first, that such ways must be bound in time and space, because so are we. This is why we use different languages and why we use the same languages differently. And second, that there must be agreement about how we speak and sign, because random sounds and gestures don’t make sense. In other words, there must be standard ways of sounding and gesturing, shared among those who share our times and spaces.

But there is a problem. Two, actually: what do we mean by “standard” and what do we mean by “same/different language”? Let’s see.

A standard, loosely defined, is a set of rules. Rules, in turn, are of two kinds: descriptive rules, which emerge from our observations, for example the rule that water boils at 100 degrees C given constant pressure; and prescriptive rules, which impose a specific conduct, for example the rule that you should stop your vehicle when a traffic light shows red. Descriptive standards, those mentioned in the first paragraph, tell us what goes on, whereas prescriptive standards tell us what (someone thinks) should go on. ‘What goes on’, however, does not readily associate with the word standard, as far as linguistic uses are concerned, because this word’s own everyday use has come to evoke mostly what someone has decided is meritorious and/or worth adopting: the word standard signals prescription rather than description. Would you say that colloquialisms, or slang, or dialect, or similar instances of actual language use are “standards”? Linguists would, because the job of linguists is to observe and describe how we use our languages. If you’re curious about how linguists go about doing this, by the way, have a look at Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff’s book, Linguistic Fieldwork, which gathers together a set of the most lucid (and entertaining!) reports I’ve read on this topic.

A language, in contrast, doesn’t have a definition, loose or tight. When we talk about languages, we’re likely to have no idea that we’re talking about figments of a collective imagination. Attempting to define “a language” is about as straightforward as attempting to define “a nation” – which, incidentally, might explain why these two labels keep each other such good company. But this hasn’t deterred some of us from claiming that certain uses of speech and sign *are* languages, which is equivalent to claiming that other uses are not.

Bestowing (non-)language status to linguistic uses results in identifying “languages” with specific varieties of them, those that (someone thinks) should be used. The process consists of two steps. Step 1 puts together the word standard and the names we give to languages, to get things like, say, Standard English – capitalised and all, for added effect. A Standard Language is a set of prescriptions of “good” use, where the word good can mean whatever we wish it to mean, including prestigious, respectable, correct, desirable, or even pretty, as Kellie Rolstad notes in Rethinking Academic Language in Second Language Instruction: we’re heirs to “centuries of an approach to language study which has been largely of an esthetic nature.”

Step 2 then omits the qualifier as redundant, to get things like, say, English. This is why those of us who enrol in, say, English learning courses aren’t told which English we’re going to be taught, or whether that English will serve the purposes for which we enrolled. This bit of information is deemed irrelevant, because only the Standard Language *is* a language. So much so that we have different names, in all of our languages, to refer to those languages which (someone thinks) should not be called languages, like patois, Mundart, gíria, argot, vernacular, calão, dialect, all disparaging in various degrees: just look up the meanings and synonyms of these words in any standard dictionary. Disparaging to their users, of course: I’ve argued before, for example here and here, that labels about language uses are labels about people. As if only “good” (or pretty) people deserved to be called people?

Since we know that there is a difference between the rules of physics and traffic rules, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be told that the same difference applies to the rules of our languages. We could then start seeking answers to a number of very interesting questions. For example, which criteria select a linguistic use as a language, when and where? Such criteria can’t be linguistic, because linguistics has no say in winnowing practices of this kind. So what are they, and how are they evaluated? Why are these criteria used for selection and why should there be a selection in the first place? And, not least, who mandates language spokespeople to champion language causes?

Understanding why there are standards and standards, and why all linguistic uses have standards would also allay disquiet about language policies, at home and in school. Our language choices matter, don’t they? That’s the next question I ask.
Rolstad, K. (2005). Rethinking Academic Language in Second Language Instruction In J. Cohen, K. T. McAlister, K. Rolstad, & J. MacSwan (Eds.), ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism (pp. 1993-1999). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

© MCF 2014

Next post: The languages that matter. Saturday 23rd August 2014.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?
=Guest post=

by Jean-Jacques Weber

Mother tongue education is often advocated as the ideal system of education for all children in our late-modern, globalized world. However, in this blog post I provide a critique of mother tongue education, arguing that it is not always the panacea it is frequently made out to be. This is also the theme of my new book, Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First, where I criticize mother tongue education programmes for being too rigidly fixed upon a particular language (the ‘mother tongue’), and explore more flexible and more child-focused forms of multilingual education.

A first problem with mother tongue education is what could be referred to as ‘the challenge of superdiverse classrooms’. Indeed, in many classrooms of today’s globalized world, there may be students with a wide range of different home languages, which makes mother tongue education increasingly difficult to implement. This allows governments to opt out of their responsibilities, by means of the commonsensical argument that in any case it would be impossible to organize mother tongue education for each individual child.

A second problem with the call for mother tongue education is that it can involve a kind of arrogance on the part of the (frequently white, Western European or US American) ‘expert’ who tells people what is good for them – e.g. that they should keep up their minority language. It has been too easy for researchers to take an attitude of superiority and to look upon (e.g.) South African parents who prefer their children to be educated through English rather than an indigenous African language as ‘victims of false consciousness’ or as ‘afflicted by an attitudinal malaise or syndrome’.

A third problem is that mother tongue education tends to lead to rather fixed multilingual education systems, because politicians, policy-makers and teachers often rely on a discourse of ethnolinguistic essentialism in attributing a ‘mother tongue’ to the schoolchildren. In many cases, however, attribution of a single mother tongue involves at least a simplification of an increasingly complex multilingual reality. The problem is that ‘mother tongue’ is a politicized concept, and hence not the best one for a pedagogical approach to be based upon.

There is therefore a need to move from rather fixed mother tongue education programmes to more flexible multilingual education. While mother tongue education tends to be focused on the standard variety (the ‘mother tongue’) ascribed on the basis of children’s perceived ethnicity, flexible multilingual education builds upon children’s actual home linguistic varieties, upon the whole of their multilingual repertoires including non-standard varieties, urban vernaculars, etc. Moreover, while mother tongue education tends to provide delayed access to a global language such as English, flexible multilingual education prefers very gradual shifts between local and global languages from an early stage (at least for children with multilingual repertoires).

Furthermore, there is a key difference in the primary aims of flexible multilingual education, as opposed to mother tongue education. The latter is often concerned with the revitalization of a particular local language, which is to be achieved through a struggle against the hegemonic encroachment of (usually) English. In the process, it sometimes overlooks the needs of particular groups of students such as migrant students. On the other hand, the primary concern of flexible multilingual education is to include all schoolchildren and to provide them with high-quality access to the languages that they need for educational and professional success. Take, for example, the mother tongue education systems in francophone Canada or Catalonia. The fact that the system may impede migrant students’ access to a global language such as English is ignored by the mother tongue education advocates, in whose eyes the maintenance of French or the revitalization of Catalan is the overarching goal, in front of which everything else pales in significance.

Finally, with its focus on the standard variety of the assumed ‘mother tongue’, mother tongue education frequently erases non-standard varieties or ‘dialects’, which as a result are not seen as worth preserving. This has happened in Singapore, where the focus on the ‘official’ mother tongue – Mandarin in the case of the Chinese community – involves the deliberate eradication of all other varieties of Chinese. Somewhat surprisingly, even academics tend to look upon this as a highly successful language policy to the extent that it has managed to supplant the different varieties – Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, etc. – with the standard variety, Mandarin. The same is happening in China, where nation-building efforts involve the imposition of standard Chinese – here referred to as Putonghua – and the marginalization of the other varieties of Chinese. In light of the political nature of the distinction between language and dialect, these are very disturbing policies and attitudes that seem to be encouraged by mother tongue education: only the standard variety is perceived as being in need of protection and preservation, whereas non-standard varieties are largely erased and considered to be worthless. Another example of this can be found in parts of South Africa, where some mother tongue advocates object to the use of mixed Xhosa-English varieties in the classroom – though these correspond to many urban children’s actual home linguistic resources – and aim to enforce instead the use of a ‘pure’, standard variety of Xhosa, even though this may seem like a foreign language to many students.

In my book, I explore these and numerous other case studies from around the world and show that flexible and child-centred multilingual education programmes would be preferable to mother tongue education, in that they would allow a full acknowledgement of the hybrid and transnational linguistic repertoires that people actually deploy in our late-modern, superdiverse societies.

Jean-Jacques Weber is Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg. He has published widely in the areas of discourse analysis, multilingualism and education, including Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First (2014), Multilingualism and Mobility in Europe (2014), Multilingualism and Multimodality (2013) and Introducing Multilingualism: A Social Approach (2012).

© Jean-Jacques Weber 2014

Next post: Some languages are more languages than others. Saturday 26th July 2014.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Translators and multilinguals

You speak so many languages! You should be a translator.” 
What do you mean you can’t translate this memo into English? You speak both languages, don’t you?”

I don’t speak your other language, I’m afraid. Can you translate what your child is saying, so I can assess her language development?”

Sounds familiar?

There seems to be this deeply ingrained conviction that the words multilingual and translator are synonymous. This is like assuming that those of us who intone ‘La donna è mobile’ while scrubbing our backs in the shower are professional singers, which is quite funny. Translators are indeed professionals, but being multilingual is not a job description.

The reasoning that multilinguals are translators because translators are multilinguals would be just laughable, too, but for the common practices which derive from it. Some of these may be rather harmless, like encouraging multilinguals to choose jobs because they are multilinguals, as in my first example above. Do monolinguals choose their careers because they use one language? The reasoning draws on two misconceptions, one about translators and one about multilinguals.

Translators aren’t people who can say the same things in different languages, and multilinguals aren’t multi-monolinguals who use their languages in order to be able to repeat themselves in them. Languages, whatever they may be, aren’t different containers into which the “same things” can be poured. If they were, we wouldn’t need borrowings, for example, and translators wouldn’t need dedicated training to do their job. Assuming that they don’t explains my second example. Chapters 1, 2 and 12 of my book The Language of Language have some more about why such misconceptions about multilingualism and translation came to be.

Multilinguals use different languages because those languages serve different purposes, but translations make one language serve the purposes of another. This is also why I don’t think that translation is a useful method of learning a new language.

Image © Tsunajima Kamekichi (Wikimedia Commons)

My objections relate to my persuasion that learning languages must mean learning to think in them (or we wouldn’t need to learn them), whereas translation teaches you to manage one language through another. I made this point in an online discussion on this topic, at the academic site ResearchGate. What I didn’t say there was that I’ve never forgotten the pleasure I felt when I first dared to buy monolingual dictionaries of the languages I was learning in school, and found that just reading those dictionaries as you might read a novel taught me more about how to use the languages than I had ever learned before.

Ability to translate demands a degree of awareness of each of the languages involved that multilinguals simply do not posses, as multilinguals. This applies to interpreters too, of course. The main differences between the two concern mode and timing: translators usually deal with printed texts and may be lucky enough to take time to enjoy a nice cuppa once in a while when inspiration lags, whereas interpreters, sometimes called simultaneous translators, usually translate speech or sign on the spot. I happen to have worked as both but, when off-duty, I’m quite like my fellow multilinguals in often having no idea even which language(s) I’m using at any one time.

My third example above illustrates an unfortunate practice in school and in clinic. Relatives (or friends, or neighbours) are co-opted to assist in assessment processes for which they obviously lack qualification, just because they know the language of the child under assessment. It’s like asking common mortals to take screwdrivers and soldering irons to the innards of their laptop, just because they use it every day. My example is actually mild, because children are also asked to translate for the sake of their elders. These two blog posts, authored by speech-language experts, say it all, concerning the effects of translation on assessment procedures and instruments: Brian A. Goldstein’s ‘Providing clinical services to bilingual children: Stop Doing That! and Elizabeth D. Peña’s aptly titled ‘Stupid translation’. It is true that little and big multilinguals do translate spontaneously, when they suspect that misunderstandings may arise among users of their languages. But this is much like 7-year-old big sister explaining to baby brother that mum came home in a rotten mood today and it is therefore advisable to tone down the usual level of mum-is-home mischief: we want people to understand what’s going on. Big sister is not a cognitive scientist for that.

Sisterly efforts to generate intelligibility by means of assorted translations must be a good thing: human beings have spent quite a lot of their time as human beings translating their languages for the benefit of fellow human beings. Sometimes, however, it’s not entirely clear whether the purported ability of multilinguals to translate makes them good guys or bad guys. If you can make sense of unfamiliar (linguistic) behaviour, then you must be privy to someone else’s secrets, which makes you not-really-one-of-us. Multilinguals who confess their inability (or unwillingness) to translate may, in addition, seem reluctant to share those secrets with “us”, as my second example illustrates. This may well be why multilinguals appear to have the status of permanent guests in all of their linguistic communities: I often get the uncanny impression that the Traduttore, tradittore quip, which is meant to apply to “disloyalty” to languages, keeps clinging to the multilingual users of those languages and applying to people.

How “disloyal” to whom, then, are those of us who insist that being multilingual means precisely that, being multilingual? The next post, by a guest with whom I’ve had the privilege of working before, argues that a lucid understanding of multilingualism has yet to impact decisions about language education policies.

© MCF 2014

Next post: =Guest post= Mother tongue education or flexible multilingual education?, by Jean-Jacques Weber. Saturday 28th June 2014.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Singing to learn pronunciation in a foreign language
=Guest post=

by Karen M. Ludke

When I started volunteering to teach English as a Second Language and literacy skills at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library in 2004, I soon began using songs in my lessons. In part, I wanted to enable my students to practice with authentic English language materials outside of class in an enjoyable way. But I also thought songs might help them better hear the pronunciation, rhythm and stress patterns of English, which they often struggled with when speaking. Based on my observations over time, singing English songs did seem to help. This experience inspired me to pursue this question further and in 2005 I went to the University of Edinburgh to conduct research on the effects of listening to songs and singing in foreign language learning.

Of course, many teachers believe that listening to songs in a new language can support a range of linguistic skills, but at present there isn’t a great deal of strong research evidence to support the many claims that have been put forward. A few reasons to include songs in the foreign language classroom include cognitive effects, such as improved long-term recognition and recall, which has been shown for verbal memory in the native language (Tillmann and Dowling, 2007; Calvert and Tart, 1993), as well as positive effects on mood (Schön et al., 2008) and potential overlaps in the neural processing of music and language (Patel, 2011).

What do we know about whether singing songs can improve pronunciation in a new language? Research has shown that musical training leads to better imitation of phrases in a new language (Christiner and Reiterer, 2013; Pastuszek-Lipinska, 2008) and that people who have stronger musical skills also tend to have more native-like pronunciation abilities in their non-native languages, as shown by Slevc and Miyake (2006) for learners of English.

Moving beyond studies showing correlations between musical skills and foreign language skills, how does hearing new words and phrases through songs affect the language learning process? One interesting conference paper (Fomina, 2000) reported the finding that adult English learners who were taught songs over a period of several weeks tended to transfer the melody of the song lyrics they had heard to their spoken intonation of the same phrases. My own recent paper with Fernanda Ferreira and Katie Overy showed that a “listen-and-repeat” singing method to learn Hungarian phrases was more effective than a “listen-and-repeat” speaking or rhythmic speaking method, particularly for performance on tasks that required learners to say entire phrases in the new language. Another study (Milovanov et al., 2010) investigated Finnish adults’ English pronunciation skills and found that those with musical training (choir members) had improved English phoneme production compared to a non-musical and an English specialist group, but perceptual discrimination abilities were similar for all three groups.

Although imitation is an important aspect of learning a new language, it can be difficult to directly transfer the sounds you hear in a listening comprehension task to your speaking skills. If you try to learn a spoken dialogue through a listen-and-repeat method and read the words at the same time as attempting to say them, it may change the way in which you listen to the pronunciation and imitate it. The reason is that, when reading, there’s a natural tendency to pronounce new sounds in a way similar to your native pronunciation, or to use an intermediate vowel or consonant sound that falls in between your native and non-native languages, which can lead to having a noticeable “accent” in the new language. For example, for the Spanish word le – even if you’re hearing /le/ spoken at the same time, reading the spelling of that word might result in an English speaker approximating the sound more like [leɪ] or [lε].

For this reason, some music teachers and choir directors will teach a foreign language song using a call-and-response technique, rather than hand out the written words, until the group is able to sing it through with correct pronunciation. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the written words will be encoded into memory more like the group’s native language sounds, rather than as they should be sung in that language.

In the language classroom, songs can provide an excellent opportunity to practice pronunciation, intonation, and fluent, connected speech. Song lyrics generally present words at half the pace of spoken material (Murphey, 1990). Combining this slower pace with the fact that many song melodies follow the natural intonation pattern of the language, well chosen songs can teach foreign language prosody and pronunciation without any “repeat after me” drills.

For the purposes of pronunciation practice, I believe it’s important to choose songs which do not have a very difficult melody or rhythm and in which the lyrics aren’t presented too quickly. While it can be a fun challenge to sing a more complex or linguistically advanced song with certain groups of students, it’s important not to choose songs that are so difficult they cause frustration. Start with easy songs and build up to more challenging materials if the group is enthusiastic. Some students (especially younger learners) may enjoy moving and dancing to the song, and some teachers have found it helpful to coordinate movements and gestures with the words of a song or story. If learners are particularly keen, small groups can be asked to create a simple song-and-dance routine for homework, which they can present to the class or even teach to the rest of the students. In addition, Wendy Maxwell has created a method called AIM Language Learning, after she found that coordinating gestures with words in a song or story dramatically improved her students’ memory for the words and their ability to express themselves in the new language.

If you’re curious about this topic, these online resources and books have more information.

Online resources:


Karen M. Ludke is currently working at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, as a Postdoctoral Fellow on the Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing collaboration led by Annabel J. Cohen. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenMLudke, to hear about other upcoming articles about singing and language learning, or visit her website for educational resources that are available for download.

Calvert, S., & Tart, M. (1993). Song versus verbal forms for very-long-term, long-term, and short-term verbatim recall. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 14 (2), 245-260 DOI: 10.1016/0193-3973(93)90035-T

Christiner, M., & Reiterer, S. (2013). Song and speech: examining the link between singing talent and speech imitation ability. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00874

Ludke, K., Ferreira, F., & Overy, K. (2013). Singing can facilitate foreign language learning Memory & Cognition, 42 (1), 41-52 DOI: 10.3758/s13421-013-0342-5

Milovanov, R., Pietilä, P., Tervaniemi, M., & Esquef, P. (2010). Foreign language pronunciation skills and musical aptitude: A study of Finnish adults with higher education Learning and Individual Differences, 20 (1), 56-60 DOI: 10.1016/j.lindif.2009.11.003

Murphey, T. (1990). The song stuck in my head phenomenon: A melodic din in the lad? System, 18 (1), 53-64 DOI: 10.1016/0346-251X(90)90028-4

Pastuszek-Lipinska, B. (2008). Musicians Outperform Nonmusicians in Speech
Imitation. Lecture Notes in Computer Science DOI: 10.1007/978-3-540-85035-9_4

Patel, A. (2011). Why would Musical Training Benefit the Neural Encoding of Speech? The OPERA Hypothesis. Frontiers in Psychology, 2 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00142

Schön, D., Boyer, M., Moreno, S., Besson, M., Peretz, I., & Kolinsky, R. (2008). Songs as an aid for language acquisition. Cognition, 106 (2), 975-983 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.03.005

Slevc LR, & Miyake A (2006). Individual differences in second-language proficiency: does musical ability matter? Psychological science, 17 (8), 675-81 PMID: 16913949

Tillmann B, & Dowling WJ (2007). Memory decreases for prose, but not for poetry. Memory & cognition, 35 (4), 628-39 PMID: 17848021

© Karen M. Ludke 2014

Next post: Translators and multilinguals. Saturday 31st May 2014.


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