Someone (presumably a daily blogger) with a sharp eye has noticed the absence of posts on this site during most of July, and wondered why. I've talked about this before (see an earlier post on bloglessness). This is a reactive blog, and July seems not to be a good month for raising questions about language - presumably the beach beckons. Also, when I'm travelling, blogging goes into abeyance.
But I have another reason, this time, which actually brought to light a point of (to me) fresh linguistic interest. A 3-week visit from Mateo, an energetic 3-year-old grandson, destroyed any chance of doing anything by way of serious writing or thinking, but it didn't give me a linguistic holiday, because this young man is trilingual. His mother is English, father Venezuelan, and they live in the Netherlands, where he attends a daily creche. So he is learning all three languages at once. I have, incidentally, as a result discovered the depressing side of child multilingualism: this is the fact that the child assumes you know the same languages as he does! Now Spanish I can handle, but the amount of Dutch I know would fill a thimble. And it is mildly embarrassing for a linguist (of all people) to be at such a loss when this scrap informs you, in 3-yr-old fluent Dutch, about the state of the world, and you have to beg him to translate. Which he does! While looking at you in a pitying way.
This has been my first close encounter with child trilingualism. Trilingual children are by no means unusual, of course. Some people estimate that maybe a third of the kids in the world grow up trilingually. And certainly it's the normal human condition to be bilingual. But it's one thing reading about trilingualism in books and articles, and quite another to hear it around you in daily practice. As a result, I heard something I'd not noticed before.
Three is an age where monolingual children first display serious 'normal non-fluency' (as the speech pathology world calls it). This is a phenomenon which sometimes causes parents anxiety, because with its pauses and repeated attempts at words it sounds like stammering, but in fact it's nothing like stammering at all. In particular, it lacks the tension one associates with that condition. What the child is doing is processing more complex language (notably, coordinate and subordinate clauses), and needing extra time to do it. So we hear such narratives as 'Daddy went in the garden and he - and he - and he - and he did kick the big ball'. There might be a dozen or more repetitions before the child sorts out what is needed to make a successful coordinate clause.
I've talked about all this before, in several clinical linguistic books and articles, but one thing I'd never thought of was the way normal non-fluency would be a sign of code-switching at this age. Mateo is at the stage now where he is realizing he speaks different languages. He has learnt the names 'English', 'Spanish', and 'Dutch', and is using them appropriately. Evidence? When watching Handy Manny on Play Disney - a repairman who switches between Spanish and English - Mateo shouts out 'Spanish' whenever he hears some Spanish words. And on the way back from the beach one day, as we passed a boy with a big bike, he looked at it, then at me, and said 'bicycle'. I didn't know he knew that word, so I must have appeared to be taken aback, because he then said - as if I hadn't understood - 'bicicleta' (the vocative 'prat' was in his intonation). He then added, for my benefit, 'Spanish'. 'I don't suppose you know it in Dutch as well?', I said, in a sceptical tone. He made a noise which sounded like a rude dismissal, so I queried it, and he said 'bike'. His mother told me later that he had probably said fiets, and that bike was common as a loan word in everyday Dutch. All this in a kid who's been on this earth for only just over a thousand days.
For single-word sentences, there was no non-fluency. But when attempting longer sentences, there was. A typical situation was where he would start a sentence in English, then half-way through realize that the word he needed was only available to him in Dutch. Previously he would have simply said the Dutch word without pause, in a mixing phenomenon well recognized in child bilingualism. But now, aware that this was a different language, his developing pragmatic sense of appropriateness made him pause - but (as is typical of normal non-fluency) he kept on jerkily talking. Occasionally he found the English word himself, but often he fell back on the Dutch one, or simply looked at me appealingly for help - which I was usually able to provide, as the context made it clear which word he was looking for.
Normal non-fluency doesn't last for very long - usually, less than six months. So you have to be in the right place at the right time to experience it - which is presumably why it has had so little study in the language acquisition literature. What I don't know is whether, in a multilingual context, it takes longer to resolve. We'll see.