Saturday, 9 August 2008

On being linguistically defeated

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.

23 comments:

Googly Eyes said...

Fascinating account. Thank you so much for writing about this. I wish I'd had the opportunity to study the same in my young trilingual cousin - father from Maine, USA, mother from China, little one born and raised in Japan. Child had to translate for father during extended visit to China. Mother very proud because daughter learned 600 pictographs during visit.

I really wish I'd had exposure to more languages during childhood. These days I can barely come up with English!

KateGladstone said...

So your grandson's tone of voice implied that he'd call you a "prat" -- which of his languages does that come from (presumably, not Spanish), and what does it mean? (In American English up to about forty or fifty years ago, it meant "buttocks" -- but in present-day American English it survives only in the word "pratfall.")

DC said...

Dutch, actually. Well, Middle Dutch, to be precise. The etymology of 'prat' is unclear, but I think it relates to prate 'chatter', which had such derivatives as prater and prattle. The notion of 'talking foolishly' would easily lead to prat 'fool', which is what the present-day British word means. It's been used in that way since the 1960s. It has nothing to do with the US usage meaning 'buttocks', nor with pratfall. a comedic fall on same.

berni said...

My daughter is nine and totally fluent in Catalan (local lang), Spanish (Mum's L1) and English (Dad's L1). It is so wonderful to have experienced how she "absorbed" the three languages.
I had to "learn" my foreign languages as an adult and know just how much effort was required. Jana did indeed pass through the phase you mention at about three and did perhaps take a little longer to sort it out than a monolingual child might have, but by five she was fluent in all three.

She now reads fleuntly in all three too! It really was a privelege to see this happen before my eyes.

Nadine said...

Yes 'praten' is chatting, to chat. This is also a common word in current Dutch, not only in middle Dutch.

Stratford Girl said...

Thank you for this post. As an SLT I found it very, very interesting. I haven't come across a trilingual child in my clinic as yet, but many bilinguals.

Re bilingualism: It always saddens me how many bilingual parents I meet choose to speak only English (parent's L2!) to their child. So many parents have said to me that they think using two languages will somehow hold the child back/ confuse them etc. I try to persuade them otherwise but often to no avail. Such a wasted opportunity!

Andrew in the Suncoast said...

Well, you have another new fan in America. I was perusing the new titles in my local library (here in Florida) and saw the title "By Hook or by Crook". The title caught my attention and now I am about half-way through the book. This book about the English language is fascinating and has resurrected a memory I must share. When I was a teenager around 1983 or so, my grandfather "made" me watch the film version of "My Fair Lady" on HBO. I thought I would fall asleep after the opening scene, but it was really fascinating to me and this book reminds me of that movie - and you even mention an interesting little-known fact about the movie in your book! Your book brought back nice memories of watching that movie with my late grandfather. (That brings up an interesting question: Why are dead people considered "late"? See, you have me doing it now!) Anyway, thanks for a great book and exploring a subject that certainly doesn't get the attention it deserves. I love reading, and I'll be exploring your other books. I hope my library has the one about texting. I personally don't "text" very much, but it sounds interesting to read about it and since my young daughter will no doubt be in on it soon enough, I better learn all I can.

DC said...

Yes, there's a parent-awareness issue, certainly. One of the reasons is that people think that bilingualism is all about translation, which it isn't. Bilingualism is having languages that are used in particular situations, and often these do not overlap. Around the world, one sees Language 1 used at home, Language 2 in the market-place, Language 3 in school, and so on. Or, Language 1 to mummy and Language 2 to daddy. There'd always a period of mixing, of course, and this has to be carefully managed in the SLT context. But the overall gains from bilingualism far outweigh any temporary confusions. I talk about this a bit in my Listen to your child, but it's a big topic in its own right, really.

Ishouldapologise - Phil Hall said...

Stephen Pinker wrote an article last year about lexical gaps. What happens when you get blocking between words of different languages? The point is that a part of the childs effort must be devoted to keeping liguistic systems seperate. In fact this is quite hard to do.

If you look at the way children brought up in Britain from other cultures only manage to partially acquire the "DNA"of a language then you realise that its not really a question of three languages being learned instinctively at the same time.

In the case of my children, we decided to return to the UK from Mexico about 6 years ago. By then they were already all older than 6.

So Piaget - Vygotsky shed some light on this from another paradigm.

I just got my son's results for his Spanish AS level and they are nearly 100%, but I teach students with Venezuelan parents and Peruvian parents and so on who do not do so well. Why is this. Some of them came over at the age of 16 and my son came over at the age of 12. What's going on?

It was Valerie Adams who mentioned this linguistic blocking effect to me. But she had no explanation for it. Not even a speculative one.

Do you have any ideas on this David?

Athel Cornish-Bowden said...

As others have said, a fascinating account, and especially interesting for me, as my daughter, now 25, has a linguistic background comparable with that of Mateo (and Berni's daughter): English father, Chilean mother, most of her life in France. She has been fully trilingual since the age of five (not earlier, because we didn't come to France until she was three and a half). Unlike Mateo, however, she would never translate from one to another when she was very young, and if asked, for example, what was the French for a word like "bicycle" she would always say she didn't know. I always had the impression that she genuinely didn't know: she could say anything she wanted to say in any of the three languages, but translation played no part in the process and didn't form part of her thinking until she started having English lessons at school when she was about ten. By the time she was three and a half she had worked out for herself that English was appropriate for speaking to me, and Spanish for her mother -- while we were crossing France on our way to where we live now, she said something to my wife in Spanish, and then immediately repeated the same thing to me in English. I only wish I had acquired a little knowledge of linguistics 25 years ago, so that I could give a less impressionistic account.

DC said...

Interesting. The ability of the child to name the languages in question is certainly important. That's something that normally comes at around three and a half. But it's important to distinguish comprehension from production. Being asked 'Is he speaking Spanish?' is different from the production task of 'Can you translate into Spanish?' Sounds as if your daughter was well up to speed in comprehension, at that time.

DC said...

Phil's comment points to the desperate need for case studies. It's impossible to generalize, as learning situations are so diverse, as the comments relating to this post have illustrated. The bilingualism child language literature has had quite a lot to say about vocabulary mixing, but there seems to be hardly anything on trilingual situations.

Athel Cornish-Bowden said...

phil hall wrote:

Stephen Pinker wrote an article last year about lexical gaps. What happens when you get blocking between words of different languages? The point is that a part of the childs effort must be devoted to keeping liguistic systems seperate. In fact this is quite hard to do.

For some reason I missed this previously, though it was (apparently) posted before my own earlier posting. I don't doubt that what Phil says may be true of some children but I don't believe it's true of all.

My daughter when she was four or five never showed the least indication of effort in keeping her three languages separate. Later on, when French came to be the language she spoke most of the time (at school and with her friends) she would sometimes need a word in English or Spanish for which she only knew the French. When this happened she would insert a French word into the middle of an English or Spanish sentence, but she never gave the impression of being confused or thinking it was the right word. There were always slight (0.1 s) pauses before and after the inserted words that I interpreted as quotation marks -- "I know perfectly well that this isn't the right word, but it's the one I know".

DC said...

The bilingualism literature suggests that your experience is by far the more usual one.

E. Spark said...

The cases all described are interesting, but now I must ask some questions about a child I new when I was four, who was fluent in 4 languages (Is "Quadlingual" a standardised lexeme?). At the time, the child was living in Kiribati, a pacific nation which is essentially bilingual (The vast majority of the population know both I-Kiribati and English), but the child in question had a German father and a mother from a Spanish-speaking country in one of the continents beginning with "A" in the southern hemisphere (My memory is unclear - I was only four). This child would tend to speak German to her father, Spanish to her mother, English to other Europeans, and I-Kiribati to locals; even if it was all in the context of the one conversation. From the comments made here, it seems this is fairly standard with bi- and trilingual children. Has anyone ever reported on a case of "Quadlingualism"?

DC said...

Quadrilingual, it would be. I don't know about case studies, but the general phenomenon is well attested, especially in many African countries, where a command of four or five languages is perfectly normal. Note that, to understand such situations, one has to forget the notion of multilingualism as mutual translation. These are languages used for specific situations, and they don't overlap much. In South Africa a few years ago, I met someone who could speak in all eleven of the country's official languages, though not equally fluently in all. He didn't think it was especially unusual.

Basak said...

dc: "....so diverse, as the comments relating to this post have illustrated..."
---------------------------------


I am so sorry for writing my comments under the article "on nominalisations". But when I have watched you on documentary I could not stop myself to write to you..

You are so kind to answer it and publish it. You may cancel it so it doesn't make a chaos there.

I guess instead of the richness of culture of my family sometimes I feel a bit desperate about my situation. I do understand and speak "Romanic" Languages(speak Italian, French and understand Spanish, Portuguese), "West German" Languages (English, a bit German an Swiss German) and an "Altaic" one (perfect Turkish)! Of course without mixing them. I think no one (as an adult) can confuse.

The construction of these "3" is different. That must be something with my thinking too. I really do not know in which language I'm thinking... And you are right there is no translation. Just thinking directly in that language and speaking.

I am surrounded by trilingual children ("mam", dad", "babysitter or different country" triangle). First they mix languages, but then most of the problems disappear... This is what has happened as I've observed.

DC said...

By way of context: Basak's original comment will be found at the post 'On nominalizations'.

maxqnz said...

Most of the Punjabi children I know are trilingual in Punjabi, Hindi and English. I also know a yound Nepali boy who was trilingual in Nepali, Hindi and English before he went to school, and became effectively quadrilingual when he started attending a school with a large Punjabi roll. The code-switching is fun to observe, even if it does leave me seeting with envy.

rosamund said...

I live in NZ (and missed seeing/hearing you here, David, in 20006?). I am so relieved to hear some real 'conversation' and anecdotes about multilingualism. People here would have no concept at all of it, and certainly, as it would relate to immigrant people, there seems to be no open discussion of anything more than 'bi-culturalism' or possibly bi-lingualism. It's a depressing scene. I wonder what you think of the hypothesis that people who can interpret (and produce?) several or even two languages are more likely to be literate in the broadest sense? I'm working for the Tertiary Ed Commission as a linguist. We're desperately trying to improve lit and numeracy here in tutors (ergo students). All the best from an ageing groupie. I met you in Oxford years ago and am only in this work because of your Applied Linguistics book that I read in 85! Ros Wilson

maxqnz said...

live in NZ ... I am so relieved to hear some real 'conversation' and anecdotes about multilingualism. People here would have no concept at all of it

All generalisations are dangerous, and the above is a great example of that aphorism. I too live in NZ, in a small provincial city, and multilingualism is spreading even here. In addition to the South Asian kids I mentioned in previous reply, I once knew a couple of kids trilingual in English, Māori and Basque, which must be a very rare set. Even among those who are monolingual, awareness and understanding of multilingualism is slowly rising, as encountering it becomes much less uncommon. Please don't let your pessimism lead you to making sweeping disparagements of the sort quoted above.

DC said...

Would people reacting to comments please make sure they identify the addressee. So, maxqnz, it's misleading to say 'your pessimism', in sending a message to my site, as if the opinion was mine. I can't comment, not being up to speed with what is obviously a mixed and developing situation.

maxqnz said...

My apologies, Professor Crystal. I wrote too quickly and mistakenly thought that quoting the comment to which I was referring was sufficient. I regret the error.