Saturday, 27 November 2010

Multilingual woes and joys

Opinions have divided rather neatly about what being multilingual does to you, ever since multilingualism became worthy of attention in Western(-like) parts of the world.

Early views about multilingualism took it as only marginally less noxious than the plague. Today’s views market it as wholesale cure for all human woes, from dissolving cognitive rust to ensuring world peace. Few of us seem willing to agree that multilingualism is about as exciting as monolingualism: you go about your daily business using whatever linguistic resources happen to be relevant for going about your daily business.

Multilingualism is currently good for you: we should pop a couple of tablets of it every day, to keep us healthy. It triggers assorted enhancements, which leads to the interesting conclusion that most of the world’s population must be enhanced. But – there’s always a but – we should also beware of side effects.

Trendy headlines first extol unqualified “benefits” of multilingualism. Then the small print reveals that the research which is invoked to support trendy claims uses very, very careful language: possible correlations are suggested in specific areas, according to experimental investigation of a restricted number of informants of a particular age in particular settings, depending on how the data are analysed. The small print also reveals that there are “costs”.

Benefits and costs are, as usual, calculated against monolingual benchmarks. We are told, for example, that multilinguals are more gifted socially than monolinguals, but take a few milliseconds longer to retrieve names of objects from memory. The reason is attributed to the milli-time that a multilingual brain takes to decide which language is the relevant one to provide the required answer in. Although I am not aware of research showing the impact of millisecond lags on everyday communication, the message is that we trade off instant brain responses for more elaborate social skills, or vice versa. Milliseconds, incidentally, were also found of relevance when comparing the achievements of “late” multilinguals and “native speakers”, an issue to which I will come back in due time.

We are also told that multilingualism vitalises the mind, but results in poorer vocabulary in each language. I confess that I’m not entirely clear about what reports like these are meant to mean. Is it that monolinguals have astonishing vocabularies and dull minds? By the same reasoning, that would be the benefit and the cost of being monolingual, respectively. I also have some difficulty with the labels that are used to announce these reports. Speaking of multilingual response delays and poor vocabulary is, to me, a little too close for comfort to the terminology of suspected language disorder.

The decisive argument pro-multilingualism is usually said to be that, despite any costs, it rewires the brain. But so does motherhood, as reported in studies that, to the best of my knowledge, investigated monolingual pregnancies, and so does driving taxis, including monolingually, in London.

In short, the arguments about multilingual “benefits”, today, strangely remind of those about monolingual “benefits”, almost one century ago. Small print and costs included. We don’t seem to have learned our lesson, because our current beliefs and our current drive are the same as one century ago, only the other way around: everyone should become multilingual. I’ll have more to say about this next time.

© MCF 2010

Next post: “We shall overcome monolingualism.” Wednesday 1st December 2010.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

There are multilinguals and multilinguals

If you are a linguist, you’ve probably been asked the same old question over and over again: “So how many languages do you speak?” True, the word linguist can mean ‘polyglot’, a user of several languages, in some varieties of English. But in other varieties and in other languages it doesn’t, and the question never fails. If you are a multilingual, on the other hand, the questions are different: “But which one is your first language?”

Now I happen to be both, and I’m usually at a loss about how to deal with these questions. The linguist-questions appear to want to elicit a quantity. Numbers are usually seen as factual, aseptic, although I have yet to test this assumption if I answer something like “73, and counting”. Whatever the answer, the next question never fails either: “But (these questions usually start with “but”) can you understand and speak and read and write all of them?”, followed by: “But in exactly the same way?”, followed by frowns of disbelief or smug grins depending on what you say. So both the linguist-questions and the multilingual-questions in fact attempt to elicit qualitative judgements about your languages from you. A multilingual is therefore not someone who uses several languages, but one who does so properly, fluently and in other adverbially commendable ways. Some of us are more multilingual than others, it appears. George Orwell’s pigs would be pleased.

There seems to be no way out of this multilingual trap. You may be fluent in all your languages, but there is some vocabulary missing from each one. You may write in all your languages like a goddess, but your accent in one of them is not up to (someone’s) par. You may be multilingual from birth, but you may become more, or less, or more or less multilingual by retirement age. You may speak Portuguese and Spanish and Italian and Rumanian, but that’s not being as multilingual as speaking Arabic and Icelandic, or Arabic and Icelandic and Hungarian. Or conversely. Whatever you say, you lose. You are not worthy of the label “multilingual”, but you may well be worthy of labels like “unbalanced” or “semilingual”. Not conversely.

I wonder what makes a monolingual worthy of the label “monolingual”, and I also wonder whether the virtual absence of this label from language discussions reflects similar difficulties in defining monolinguals, or has some other profound significance that thoroughly escapes me. The fundamental insecurity about what multilingualism is comes from multilinguals too. “Are we OK?”, we question ourselves. “Are we entitled to say that we are what we are?”, “Hadn’t we better agree that we have one “good” language, just to save face?” Unless the querier is, say, a head-hunter, I never understood the probing purpose of questions about language quality which, if you are head-hunting, you also ask of monolinguals. But for employment purposes, qualitative competence in your language(s) is as much an asset as qualitative competence in the job you’re seeking. You won’t get employed without either of them.

Questions like these assume that damage is being done to languages: bits and pieces are missing from them, or being pasted onto them, or both, unlawfully. And we cannot assume injury to languages if we don’t also assume that languages are the idealised, confined, boxed-up objects that have shaped thinking about them for (too) many years. Languages have been confused with what some people take to be their building blocks, words and sounds and phrases, that reside in stable edifices somewhere within us. Refreshing our thought pathways along the languaging lines that I suggested earlier might help: languages are ongoing human interaction. Roy Harris makes this clear, with his insight that linguistic practices are necessarily integrated with other human practices. As he puts it, all communication demands “continuously monitored creative activity”.

We can choose to use language, or a language, to communicate; we create tools and words to serve our needs; we turn nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, just like we can use a stone as a hammer and toothpicks as cocktail decorations, as and when we see it fit, which means fit for our purposes. Languages are what we all do with them, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual: we shape them to our needs because we need them in order to make them work for us.

Assuming that languages have definable contents, and therefore definable boundaries, and that they therefore exist in definable numbers, is what baffles us about the “many languages” of multilinguals. No wonder, then, that we find mind-boggling fluctuations in the appraisal of the “effects of multilingualism”, to use a popular expression. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Multilingual woes and joys. Saturday 27th November 2010.


Saturday, 20 November 2010

Brains and fears

Brain matters tend to become profoundly distorted in popular convictions, and sometimes in less popular ones too. This could well be because we haven’t yet found a way of dealing with brains without using our brains. Here, for example, is a common representation of the human brain:

The human encephalon, according to some human encephalons.
Photo: Sheila Thomson (Wikimedia Commons)

In what concerns languages, this view matches the misconception that languages are boxed up into brain compartments, that I mentioned before. The same view has led to the belief that each language takes up (precious) brain space from other languages (read: from your single “main” language), or even from other intellectual abilities.

It is true that specific regions of the brain are in charge of certain functions, as we’re learning from research using functional neuroimaging and/or research on brain damage: certain areas of the cortex, and lesions in those areas, correlate with certain effects. But the same research also shows two other findings that somehow have failed to meet (or please) the popular imagination: that brain power also means recovery power, in that healthy cortex can take over functions of damaged cortex, and that the brain monitors itself in order to keep itself usable.

Speaking of misrepresentations, I must take this chance to set the record straight on my fellow countryman, neurologist and Nobel laureate Egas Moniz. He became less known for his own work than for the misuse that others made of his leucotomy procedure (*not* lobotomy). In addition, he is seldom credited with his other major discovery, angiography, a clinical imaging technique which has been in widespread use ever since he first introduced it in the 1920’s. Perhaps another example of how fact-starved discussions tend to mangle brain reputations?

Keeping themselves usable appears indeed to be the core job of brains. They are there to evolve, because they adapt to whatever uses they are called on to serve, throughout life. They die when we die, not before. One example has been reported for London cab drivers in 2000, and updated in 2008. The view that brains develop up to certain stages in the life of their users, to then inexorably decay, characterises last century’s thought, and cannot hold against the inherent plasticity of the human brain that current research keeps unveiling. As far as I understand, London cabbies do not exercise their functions during early childhood.

Multilinguals may be unaware that they are living proof of lively brain social networking, as it were. I have one example, about an email exchange I once had with a colleague. We are both multilingual with Swedish, and we met in Sweden, so it was only natural to continue our business, and start our correspondence, in this language. Later on, I had to look for a message, where I knew a crucial matter had been discussed. So I scanned my inbox using Swedish search words. Nothing. The message was gone. After two days of despair, my colleague wrote back to me asking why I was taking so long to fix the crucial matter. She wrote in English. She had switched language during a trip to the UK a few weeks before, and so had I, in natural response to her first message in that language. You don’t need to ask: the message had been there all the time, safely in my inbox, and in English.

To me, this is further proof that our brain doesn’t work like an inbox. When we search for things in it, we don’t need to search in languages, because the brain doesn’t seem to pay special attention to languages: it gathers knowledge and, in doing so, discards the tools that we happened to use to encode it.

Moral of the story: if you think you’re losing your usual neat control over where and how you’ve stored things around your brain, you’re not. You’re just being multilingual. Which is an interesting thing to be, in light of another quite popular issue: the lack of agreement about what a multilingual actually might be. I’ll leave it for next time.

© MCF 2010

Next post: There are multilinguals and multilinguals. Wednesday 24th November 2010.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Age, decay, and missed opportunities

Let’s talk about real-life tales, for a change. If the title of this post sounds gloomy, please note that it is no gloomier than popular views about language learning. The early bird gets the languages, it appears. If you’re late, you won’t just learn languages in a defective way: the full message is that you won’t be able to learn them at all. “I’m too old to learn languages” is probably second only to “Multilinguals are special people”, on the scale of linguistic urban myths. The myth of the early bird has spawned the unsettling twin beliefs that you need to gorge small children with languages before it’s too late, and that doing so provides them with an unquestionable head start in life. I will come back to both in future.

The facts are that we simply don’t know whether age is a factor in language learning at all. The reason for our ignorance is that we have no hard evidence to either prove or disprove this claim. In fair investigations, if you suspect that some X may be correlating with some Y, you do all you can to isolate X in interaction with Y. That is, you remove anything else that may also interact with Y. If you don’t do this, you’ll have no way of telling whether it was X or something else that affected Y. This is step number one. If a correlation is indeed found, step number two involves proving that X causes an effect on Y. A correlation is different from a cause: in the monsoon season, in Singapore, torrential rains are regularly preceded by wind squalls. So wind correlates with rain, but this doesn’t mean that wind causes rain.

If you claim that (advanced) age is a factor, or perhaps even the factor, affecting language learning, age is your X and Y is language learning. Everything else that might have some effect on language learning, and that you are fairly aware of, should be controlled. Below is a summary of what I think is a fair sample of everyday observations about language learning. I leave it to you to supply the header row in the table, with appropriate “early language learning” and “later language learning” labels.


Saying that ageing stymies language learning is saying that you lose an ability that you once had. Some conditions are certainly degenerative: you are more likely to suffer from gout and hair loss later than earlier in life. But saying that the human brain refuses entry to languages (and why languages, of all things??) after a certain unspecified age, because it shuts down for languages at an unspecified age, is like saying that when we die, which we all will at an unspecified age, we will all be dead after an unspecified age. Nobody knows either, by the way, at what age the brain is supposed to lock its doors – or was it windows? –, including those of us who claim that there are doors and that they close.

I hope I’m making myself clear. I’m not saying that age is, or is not, the cause of differences in language learning. I’m saying that we don’t know. I am also saying that I find brain-shutdown theories of language learning quite disturbing: what they tell us is that whatever you do as a learner, you won’t succeed in learning, because your brain can’t cope with it. It certainly makes me wonder why this message doesn’t seem to have got across to the zillion-dollar language teaching and language learning corporations which, from their side, show no signs of imminent shutdown.

I’ll have more to say about brains in my next post, but let me leave you on a cheerful note. Two, actually. First, I know a few reasonably-brained individuals who, after three years of “later” Spanish-learning, were only able to say El perro está bajo la mesa, which I always thought was quite funny. But I didn’t know that there is a wonderful parody, in song format, of the same kind of communicative competence that you find yourself acquiring as a late learner. I came across it at Multilingual Mania (thank you, Melanie!). The only problem I have with this song is that it is so catchy it will stick to your mind instantly, and stay there – if your decaying musical brain is wired like mine, that is. You have been warned: it’s the One Semester of Spanish - Love Song.

The second good news is that even the brain of the dog who got sentenced to life under a table doesn’t shut down. Have a look here, in Spanish, for the sake of the dog, or here, in English, for the sake of my Spanish-learning friends.

Disclaimer: Any similarities with characters and/or goings-on in the fairy tale of my previous post are purely coincidental. This is, as said, a real-life tale.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Brains and fears. Saturday 20th November 2010.


Saturday, 13 November 2010

Little Perfect-lingual and the Big Bad Funny-lingual

I thought of treating you to a fairy tale today. This is a fitting post for the day: I’ll be talking about children and about growing up, and I’m celebrating an anniversary – or rather a mensiversary. It is exactly one month today since this blog came to be.

My tale is a cautionary one. It is about what happens to language skills when disobedient little children insist on turning into adults, and so get punished by having language gifts turned into language handicaps. Here it is.


Little Perfect-lingual and the Big Bad Funny-lingual
Once upon a time, we were all children. Our minds were like wide-open windows, the windows of opportunity, through which languages flew in and about in droves, unfettered, unencumbered, free to imprint our avid synapses with perfect grammar, vocabulary and, not least, accent. Pragmatic, discoursal, social and other generally functional uses of language, which have no business in traditional assumptions about what languages are all about, have no business in this traditional tale either.
The windows fluttered ever so gently at the gentle touch of ever more languages, whose gentle glide itself kept them opening wider and wider. Languages were growing within us. We could make ourselves understood to anyone around us, about anything that mattered to us. We were praised on our linguistic accomplishments. Life was good.
But we were not content, little rascals that we were. We had to go and grow up. For sure, we couldn’t have known, because nobody told us, that the windows had sneaky inbuilt switches that would seal them shut forever as soon as we gave signs of wanting to get rid of childhood. Even if someone had tried to tell us, how could we seriously believe that human brains suffer from scheduled power outages? We didn’t know either when the short circuit would strike. Then again, neither did those who subscribe to brain shutdown. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the windows would be gone and, alas!, the opportunity with them. We had missed the boat. We would never again be able to learn languages.
To prove that we were indeed past the best-before date, and that the people who say so always know best, jealous adults then stuffed us in square rooms with square furniture, crammed us in square rows of other hapless waifs, facing a square whiteboard. To add to our torment, they forced pens and paper and books into our small hands, that had hardly outgrown nursery toys. And then they told us: “You are going to learn a new language!” Or: “Open your book and read!” Or: “Now look at what I’ll write on the board and copy it onto your exercise books!” Or: “Now memorise this list of words and this list of grammar rules for next time!” Or: “Now translate these words into your old languages, so you learn what they mean in your new language!” Or: “You are going to be tested in your new language!”, over and over again.
We did try, meek and vanquished that we now were. We wanted to be grown-ups, good grown-ups. But no matter what we did, the shocking realisation struck us, over and over again: we sounded funny, we couldn’t speak those new languages at all. We couldn’t in fact do anything with them except recite from our textbooks, to compare sizes of dollhouses that were drawn there, or to talk about cartoon dogs that were lying under tables. Some of us didn’t even know what a dollhouse was, and some of us had never, ever, seen a cartoon dog under a table. We had no idea what we were talking about, and we had no idea why we should be talking about what we were talking about. Life was not good any more.
We did remember, sometimes, but the memories grew faint. Languages were not like that, we longed for mum and dad and grandpa and sister and auntie cuddling us, and friends and neighbours and everyone being nice and good-humoured around us and talking to us all the time, talking all the time about things that we cared about and they cared about, all the time in those old languages that we didn’t even notice we were learning.
Our bewilderment eventually gave way to insight: that’s what growing up is all about too. They were right, of course. Language classes are there to teach you languages, or they wouldn’t be there. Adults know best: we couldn’t learn new languages because we ourselves were not new any longer. The blackout was come, the windows were no more, and this is why we all came to use our new languages
pitifully,
miserably,
forever after.


Disclaimer: Any similarities with characters and/or goings-on in real life are purely coincidental. This is, as said, a fairy tale.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Age, decay, and missed opportunities. Wednesday 17th November 2010.



Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Outsourcing language products

The question of why we should wish to adopt standards of linguistic behaviour becomes doubly interesting in the context of imported standards of language. This refers to situations where a language is used in countries other than its country of birth, so to speak. Through continued use, the language naturally acquires new features, and so a new descriptive standard. This is what happened to English in America and Singapore, among other places, whereby we now talk about Singapore English, Australian English, Indian English and so on.

All of these are geographical varieties, duly identified by labels that refer to locations. But there is a difference, in that some of these varieties seem to be more standard than others, in the Instructions Manual sense of the word standard that I mentioned in my previous post. Japanese or Portuguese school learners of English, say, will seldom be presented with Nigerian English, say, as a possible linguistic role model. That some language standards indeed appear as more desirable than others is probably why we qualify the word standard when we talk about Kenyan or Malaysian English standards: we call them “local standards”, whereas we do not call “local” other local standards like British or American English. (In case you’re wondering why I’ve been talking so much about English, the reason is that this is the language that you and I have in common for purposes of this blog. I also use it as a handy source of examples of what goes on in other languages.)

Singapore and its English are quite familiar to me. By Singapore English I mean the Singaporean equivalent of Nigerian English and Indian English, in their respective locations. I do not mean Singlish, the other English used in the country, of whose vocabulary and other richness you can get a glimpse at the Coxford Singlish Dictionary. Singapore is an officially multilingual country in four languages, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, where individual multilingualism is also the norm. 

This is a sign commonly found around building sites in Singapore.
It is not an injunction against multilingualism.
Photo: MCF

Multilingual Singapore is well known for exporting academic standards in maths and science, among other things. Singaporean standards of these and other kinds must obviously be expressed by Singaporeans but, as obviously, they must be expressed in English, in order to become exportable. So, given the excellence of local academic standards expressed in English, I’ve often wondered why local Singapore English is not the preferential standard of English in Singapore.

I think I may have found a reason. Users of “non-local” standards of language are often represented, in the specialised literature and in the popular imaginary, as belonging to a special category which has acquired a prestigious status of its own, “native speakers”. I will have quite a lot to say about natives some other day, but what I want to say here is that native speakers are implicitly, but consistently, portrayed as monolinguals. Native speakers are those of us who don’t use local languages used by other natives, whereas speakers of “local” standards do. This may well be what makes these local standards both less desirable and un-exportable: their users are multilinguals. Makes one also wonder whether striving to achieve “native” standards, a goal shared by many foreign language learners and teachers, doesn’t in fact mean striving to achieve monolingual standards. Just a thought.

Contrary to my habits, I won’t tell you this time what I will talk about next time. Perhaps I don’t need to, either.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Little Perfect-lingual and the Big Bad Funny-lingual. Saturday 13th November 2010.


Saturday, 6 November 2010

Code makers and code breakers

Standardised languages are tamed varieties of language. Standards do not exist, in nature: there are no standard trees, standard crystals or standard human beings occurring naturally. Which means that standards must be constructed by someone, somewhere, sometime. Which already tells us quite a lot about the nature of standards.

Descriptive language standards, those showing us what is going on among language uses, draw on real language data, collected from real people, who speak their languages in different ways because they live in specific real times and places. Prescriptive standards, those showing us what should be going on, draw on choice samples of language to establish a code of recommended linguistic behaviour. The code makers, those in charge of standardisation procedures, are of course real people too, in all the above senses. Which tells us why standards of language tend to bear uncanny resemblance to the linguistic habits of people in charge.

Like most institutions, standards are conservative, but need to evolve in order to preserve themselves. Opinions about standards evolve too, and we may sometimes come to surprise ourselves with what we (think we) take as standard. One example is in the replies to this question to Ask-a-Linguist. A coming exhibition at the British Library concerns itself with these matters, including an online collection of samples of current uses of English, to add to their repository of past uses: Evolving English

A standard of language functions like an Operating Instructions Manual. We go through it before use, taking due notice of any actions that may damage the product, and we go through it after use, apologising politely for any unwitting misdemeanours. By doing this, we are also providing evidence that the standard code we’re using doesn’t come naturally to us. Most of us are in fact multi-coded in this way, and switch among codes. If we don’t use the standard, because we don’t want to or because we don’t know it, we’re not breaking a code: we’re following the rules of a different one. We have our everyday language habits, like we have our lounge-about clothes, and we change into formal wear when required. Which leads to the question of why we should be required to wear language uses.

One core reason why standards are necessary is schooling, and the reason for that is that schooling is also a standardisation. What I mean by this is explained, better than I ever could, in a recent post by A Cuban in London. Schooling opens up access to lifestyles that associate with prestige, where you can feed back into peer circuits the good standards of language that you’ve learned to use. Standards cannot survive except through consensual nurturing of this kind. George Philip Krapp put it clearly in his 1909 book, Modern English. Its growth and present use: “Standard English is the customary use of a community when it is recognized and accepted as the customary use of the community.” So you follow the consensual standard not only to prove that you’ve learned (about) it, but also to show what you can afford to wear, language-wise.

Even if you prefer not to show off your possessions, you may one day find yourself doing just that: your own version of your languages may have become standard. Put another way, you can always “wait till your brand of bad becomes acceptable”. This is what we gather from a video clip that a VASTA colleague tipped me about (thank you, Michael, and the student who tipped you!): Whachawdano.

The ability to change language uses, or clothes, according to what particular situations require of us, is an acquired habit. It shows our skills at adapting to our environment, something that we sometimes may have to do instantly. Imagine yourself having a good romp with friends, and suddenly having to answer a phone call from a prospective employer, if you’re of employable age, or a knock on the door from your parents, if you aren’t yet. Imagine the different “yous” before and after, and imagine the codes of language that define each one.

Codeswitching doesn’t seem to be an exclusively multilingual privilege, in other words. I’ll come back to this matter some other day, but next time I would like to say a few things about partiality towards foreign codes of language.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Outsourcing language products. Wednesday 10th November 2010.


Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The fight for a fair deal

We spend a lot of our time and energy assessing, ourselves and others. We look and re-look in the mirror for the perfect fit to the image we wish to project. We slot objects, people and attitudes into the mental rating boxes that guide our opinions, and we sometimes do this at first sight. Less benign emotions than love can take root in this way too.

Assessment experts, among them teachers, medical doctors and other clinicians, rely on professional rating boxes. Whether lay or specialist, our expectations appear to carry a surprisingly significant weight in how we gather information. Surprisingly, because they’re often based on nothing more substantial than hearsay; and significant, because they mean that we already know the answers to the questions that we nevertheless keep asking: we need not look any further.

I can give one example. I was once taking my regular walk in a nature reserve, in Singapore, where I live, and I heard a group of tourists heatedly debating whether they would be lucky enough to see a crocodile. One of them had read it somewhere that crocodiles are a common sight in Southeast Asian cities. A glimpse of an unmistakably reptile tail, which suddenly scrambled away from us, made his day: “There it is! I just saw one!!” What this visitor actually saw was a (large) monitor lizard. I took a picture of his (her?) friend, or perhaps of her-/himself, on another occasion. 

A (rare) specimen of Crocodillus Singaporeanus.
Photo: MCF

But he (the visitor, not the lizard) will swear he never, ever, laid eyes on a monitor lizard, because he “knew” that crocodiles might be around, not lizards. He will tell all his friends that he saw a crocodile in Singapore, who will tell all their friends, who will then all “know” that there are crocodiles in Singapore. Their source is the indisputable affidavit of an eyewitness.

On a rather more serious level, the way in which expectations affect observations was studied in a school, in the late 1960’s. The findings became known as the Rosenthal Effect. Like the children in this school, multilinguals get labelled before observation, and are therefore expected to be the special case, as mentioned earlier. One common expectation, for example, is that being multilingual is a self-explanatory “diagnosis”. Expectations, incidentally, are also what lies behind national and other stereotypes. If you “know” that an X will provide evidence of W properties, you’ll both see W and disregard all evidence of non-W. The same effect can explain, for example, successful therapies with placebos. And superstition.

Multilinguals, their caregivers, school teachers and speech-language therapists are all in the same boat. Awareness of multilingual behaviour is not required for teaching or clinical certification, even of multilinguals, and language assessment tools are standardised for monolingual users. All too often, teachers and clinicians thus have no reliable tools to guide their assessments. Adapting or translating tests works only partially and often badly, for the reasons we saw before: each language is unique. If dismissing adaptation and translation as a handy solution sounds far-fetched, have a look at what is involved in the mammoth task of making speech-language assessment usable, in this ASHA Directory (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association).

To top it all, there are speech-language assessment instruments for only a tiny fraction of the world’s languages, which of course raises problems for the assessment of monolingual children too. For multilinguals, yet another issue arises, paradoxically, where assessment instruments do exist for one of their languages. This is usually the mainstream language, which may not coincide with the “main” language of a multilingual. On the (monolingual-based) assumption that testing one language is enough to assess the overall linguistic ability of a multilingual, two things can happen. First, that underachievement in that one language may lead to suspicion of language delay. Children may be referred to further therapy, when what they would need is a language tutor. Second, that monolingual assessment naturally misses features of typical mixing, whose regular patterns in fact aid in the diagnosis of language disorder among multilingual children.

Other typical characteristics of multilinguals may go undetected, or pass as atypical. We don’t just mix languages, but also gestures, posture, attitude. A speech-language assessment, despite its name, crucially involves observation of body language, including body and eye contact. The absence (or presence) of standard signals of this kind may be culture-bound. For example, falling silent with a lowered gaze may be interpreted in some cultures as the absence of a response, whereas in others it is the presence of a mark of respect.

The problem is not so much that children (and the rest of us) are not usually socialised in speech-language clinics. The problem is that clinics and clinical tools belong to specific cultures too. What, many of us may wonder, can be a more striking image of childhood well-being than cuddling a teddy-bear? Many of us may indeed wonder, but not all. Perhaps not even most of us. Some of us may wonder instead why someone would want a child to engage in close bodily contact with a miniature representation of a beast of prey. 

Cuddly toys are part of the extensive array of clinical aids routinely used to elicit linguistic and other behaviour from children. One common test involves having several toys made available to a child, and then ask the child to grab, in turn, the ones named by the clinician. Children may fail this apparently straightforward test of vocabulary and object recognition, not because of a language problem, but because their culture forbids them to touch objects that do not belong to them. The child wouldn’t have either the sophisticated social and linguistic awareness that is needed to explain, preferably politely, this “non-compliant” behaviour to an adult. Perhaps the child’s culture doesn’t allow children to address adults, or question their demands. Or perhaps the culture does allow this, but not in the language that the child happens to share with the clinician. If you’re interested in research, reviews and reports on these issues, have a look in my recent collection, Multilingual Norms.

School teachers and school kids don’t have it much easier, whether in monolingual or multilingual settings. The language tests that they have to set and sit may also misrepresent their own uses. Here’s one example, taken from a real-life paper in a real-life English school subject:


And here’s one suggestion for you: a) First, answer according to your own use of English, without thinking much – the more one thinks about language uses, especially when they come robed in correctness, the worse it gets, I find; b) Then ask friends, relatives, schoolchildren, teachers of English, to answer too, in the same way; c) Then compare your results; d) Then come back to us on this blog with what you found out.

I won’t tell you (yet) what the test creator took as the right answer. I’ll do it in a comment to this post a few days after publishing it. Your little survey will provide you with a database of actual uses of English, for this particular example, that we can also discuss here. On a suitably large scale and with suitable statistical treatment, this is how norms of usage are established.

To round up my thoughts for today: the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, in his 1986 book The man who mistook his wife for a hat, that “Our tests, our approaches [...] our ‘evaluations’, are ridiculously inadequate. They only show us deficits, they do not show us powers.” Granted, he was talking about severely disordered patients, but my point is that we all come out as more or less severely disordered if there are no means of assessing our “normality”. Sacks’ plea concerned a woman with severe mental decomposition, who nevertheless found ways to integrate her world with nature and music, for example. Engaging with nature and music was not part of standard neurological assessment tools.

This is why I mean the word fight in the title of this post quite literally. We may lack the tools that do justice to whoever we’re assessing, but we must at least realise that we do lack them. If we insist on fitting everyone’s feet into Cinderella slippers (another cultural stereotype, I know), which were fashioned for Cinderella’s feet, there is no way we can provide ourselves with the means to offer a fair deal in assessment: we’ll keep finding Ugly Sisters. Or crocodiles.

I have one last thing to say, a confession to make. You may have noticed that I had some difficulty trimming all that I wanted to say about assessment, particularly child assessment, into a post of reasonable dimensions. I had tremendous difficulty. This is an issue that lies very, very close to my heart, but I also know that no one has time to read blogs that just go on scrolling down and down forever. I will come back to these matters. Standardisation, not of tests but of the languages that are used in tests, is in line next but, until then, I hope you will let me know of your own concerns about assessment of multilinguals, here or privately. We need to learn from one another. I also meant quite literally what I said in my welcome message: this blog is for you.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Code makers and code breakers. Saturday 6th November 2010.


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