Saturday, 26 January 2013

Language dominance: A one-way street with oncoming traffic
=Guest post=


by Brian A. Goldstein


“I live on a one-way street that’s also a dead end. I’m not sure how I got there.”
(Steven Wright)


At the recent 2012 convention of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, I attended many talks focusing on multilingual speakers. Overall, the presentations were of high quality, and I learned a great deal. I noticed, however, that many of the presenters mentioned, and sometimes measured, the children’s language “dominance.” Yes, I purposely put that word in quotes.

Although “dominance” is an intuitively pleasing word/notion, it is ultimately unsatisfying. I am not sure the word “dominant” is an appropriate one to use because, as a unit of measure, it neither describes nor explains. It puts us down a one-way road on which there is oncoming traffic and that is a road we don’t want to travel. To continue the metaphor, the oncoming traffic is the non-“dominant” language. That is, when we aim our headlights at the “dominant” language, then that is the only language that gets the attention. The “other” language ends up in our blind spot, and thus, we might focus only on the one language that is considered “dominant.” Such blinded attention serves to view the bilingual as two monolinguals in one, a notion against which Grosjean (e.g. 1989) has repeatedly, vigorously, and convincingly argued. 

“Dominance” is suspect for a variety of reasons, some of which were addressed in this blog before. First, there is not a singular definition. It has been used to describe proficiency, age of acquisition, range of levels, functional strength, scores on standardized tests, etc. (Butler and Hakuta, 2006). Second, it is notoriously difficult to measure (Valdés and Figueroa, 1994). For example, to even attempt to measure it, Valdés and Figueroa indicate that the examiner must measure performance in each of the two languages across tasks, contexts, settings, modalities, and functions and then compare the individual’s total performance for each language. This set of tasks necessitates parallel and equivalent instruments in the two languages. Needless to say, few of these types of instruments exist. Finally, such tests of dominance have been criticized roundly for their relatively poor psychometric properties (e.g. MacSwan, 2005, see item 112 in the Contents; MacSwan and Rolstad, 2006; Mahoney and MacSwan, 2005). Example criticisms include:

  • lack of a theoretical foundation
  • weak validity and reliability
  • lack of adequate operational definitions or norms
  • use of arbitrary cut-off scores
  • assuming “dominance” is stable over time
  • poor classification rates

The result of such relatively poor psychometrics properties is an over-representation of bi-/multilinguals in special education programs, which renders these tests, “...at best arbitrary, at worst, dangerous” (p. 376, Shuy, R. (1978). Problems in Assessing Language Ability in Bilingual Education Programs. In H. La Fontaine et al. (eds.), Bilingual Education. (pp. 376-381). Wayne, NJ: Avery Publishing.).

These concerns provide the backdrop in terms of one of my apprehensions about language “dominance”. I am concerned that once, and if, “dominance” is determined, it will never be re-evaluated, especially for multilingual children who have communication disorders and are enrolled in intervention. That is, once the child is determined to be “dominant” in Language A, she will always be seen as “dominant” in Language A. Language B will not be merely the road less taken but will be the road never taken (my deepest apologies to Robert Frost). Children’s language skills change significantly over time, especially for multilingual children whose input and output vary based on a host of factors including age, community, parents, siblings, educational status, etc. (e.g. Rojas and Iglesias, in press).

Thus, “dominance,” even if it is psychologically responsible (Menn, 1992), is a moving target in the same way that one adjusts their driving based on the type of road, driving conditions, and make of car. We would be better off examining, and re-examining, multilingual children’s language use (i.e. how often they use each language) and language proficiency (i.e. how well they use each language). By better off, I mean examining constructs that are reliable and valid and aid us in understanding the variables that impinge on language acquisition in multilingual children. As Valdés and Figueroa (1994, pp. 66-67) said, “[m]easuring bilingual ability and bilingual proficiency is both complex and problematic...the best we can do is use a series of measures that together might provide guidance for describing an individual as more like or unlike other bilingual individuals...” 

Furthermore, examining language skills in multilinguals needs to be specific to each language domain (i.e. phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, lexicon, and pragmatics). That is, an omnibus notion of “dominance” is equivocal at best and simply does not seem to be supported by the available evidence, at worst, as I have alluded to in a previous post. For example, Ball, Müller, and Munro (2001) examined the production of the trill /r/ in 44 Welsh-dominant and 39 English-dominant children aged 2;6-5;0. They found that production of the trill /r/ differed depending on language “dominance” (quotes mine). Welsh-dominant children acquired the trill earlier than English-dominant peers. 

There are other studies that indicate that “dominance” is not a critical factor in accounting for language skills (phonological, in this case). Law and So (2006) examined 100 Cantonese- and Putonghua-speaking bilingual children, aged 2;6-4;11. The children were grouped as either “Cantonese dominant” or “Putonghua dominant” (again, quotes are mine). They found that irrespective of language dominance, Cantonese phonology was acquired earlier than Putonghua phonology. Such equivocal results indicate that labeling a child as “dominant in English” or “dominant in Amharic” simply does not seem warranted as it neither describes nor explains. Finally, Paradis (2001) examined syllable omissions in French-English bilingual 2-year-olds. In 4-syllable target words, English-dominant bilinguals preserved higher frequency of 2nd syllables than did French-dominant bilinguals, but French-dominant bilinguals preserved a higher frequency of 3rd syllables than did English-dominant bilinguals.

Going forward, the picture might even be more complicated than this. Take phonology, for example, a multilingual child could have a superior ability in producing long words in Language A compared to Language B but superior ability in producing complex syllables in Language B than in Language A. If that is the case, then in what language is the child “dominant?” The point is that even defining “dominance” is more complicated than it seems. What is seemingly intuitive is actually quite difficult and nuanced. I am suggesting that we need to examine the child’s skills across each domain in all of their languages and relate those outcomes to their language use and language proficiency. That way, regardless of the car you drive, you will not be traveling down a one-way street with oncoming traffic. Just remember:

Understanding is a two-way street.”
(Eleanor Roosevelt)
 
Brian A. Goldstein is Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences and Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

© Brian A. Goldstein 2013

Next post: Speech-language clinics: cultural meeting places? Saturday 9th February 2013.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate are “the dreadful words” inscribed at the gates of Hell, in Dante Alighieri’s ‘Inferno’ of his Divina Commedia.

Teacher trainer Leni Dam doesn’t use these exact words, when discussing learners’ prospects at the gates of language classrooms, but her message is as grim:

You are now entering a foreign language classroom.
Forget that you are normal.”

Image: William Blake (1757-1827), Dante’s Inferno – Wikimedia Commons

To start off with, “foreign language” is a learner-unfriendly term, as I’ve noted before. In addition, Leni Dam believes, like I do, that the traditional tormenting techniques which are in widespread use in language classrooms are all but conducive to eliciting proficient language from learners.

This is because such techniques treat learners like hapless morons. Language syllabuses attempt to persuade thinking and speaking adults and older children that using, for example, the relative positions of pictorial representations of dogs and tables, or of actual classroom pens and pencil holders, is relevant for their everyday uses of the prepositions under and in, respectively. Or that recasting in the past tense sentences like She is my friend or I eat oranges satisfies the learners’ communicative and vocabulary needs out there in the wide, wild world where their new language is used.

Traditional fire-and-brimstone language teaching philosophies of this kind range all the way from the object, through the method, to the purposes of teaching. What is taught is not language, but linguistics; how languages are taught feeds you first what matters least; and why all of this should be taught draws on emulation of impossible and/or irrelevant standards of language proficiency. Such philosophies share a commitment to stifling learner autonomy, whose fostering is, in stark contrast, a core tenet of Leni Dam’s teaching philosophy. No wonder that such teaching results in the pathetic outcomes of “late” language learning, with which we’ve become familiar. You cannot do what you are not taught to do, which is to engage with your new language as a thinking and speaking individual. The learner is nowhere in sight, except to be chastised for the capital sin of having been born too long ago.

To my mind, there is only one way we can claim that learners’ ages are relevant to their language learning, under these teaching conditions: learners’ mental ages are certainly above the performance levels which are expected from syllabus contents, methods and purposes. I do understand why the too-old-to-learn-languages myth took shape and bulk. Since we cannot isolate age as a testable variable in any fair experiment that might (dis)prove its “effects” on language learning, age remains a conveniently murky scapegoat, one which is in addition easy to sell in its crudest form: were all getting older, not younger, so there’s not much you can do about ageing. It is also far easier to blame the learners’ age than to have traditional language teaching patriarchs, matriarchs and associated money-making corporate tribes listen to reason.

The age myth spawns sub-myths, as mature mythologies will: if you believe in language dunces, you’ll believe in language geniuses, too. These beliefs are textbook examples of bad science: you disregard all those “old” learners who do acquire proficiency in their new languages, to go on blaming mysterious degeneration for bad outcomes, and invoking mysterious giftedness for good outcomes. Stefka H. Marinova-Todd, D. Bradford Marshall and Catherine E. Snow, in an article titled ‘Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning’, address precisely this issue, in a review of the (lack of) evidence for claims which correlate language learning proficiency with learners’ ages, let alone attribute the former to the latter.

I can understand, as said, the genesis and propagation of the age myth, but I have no sympathy. In the language teaching marketplace, it seems that customers are never right. Instead of serving learners’ needs, whether learners wish to learn languages or the ways of teaching them, what we’re telling them is to abandon all hope of ever using or teaching their new languages like normal human beings. In the pithy words of one of my students, a qualified English language teacher: “Teachers and syllabus writers know what they want students to learn, but they never learn what the students want to learn from them.” (Thank you for your insight, Sopha!)

Other mythical beings and practices abound, where the use of more than one language is in question. The next couple of posts discuss these matters, starting with a guest contribution from a speech-language expert, whose wisdom I’ve had the privilege of featuring at this blog before.


© MCF 2013

Next post: =Guest post= Language dominance: A one-way street with oncoming traffic, by Brian A. Goldstein. Saturday 26th January 2013.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

What causes what?

Deciding that something causes something else is not easy. Just look at big current puzzlements about what causes global warming, Alzheimer’s, or youth unemployment, to see what I mean.

Part of the problem seems to be that we like to settle for straightforward answers to questions about causality: things like coffee keeps you awake, or exercise makes you lose weight, have become accepted truths. But complex concepts, of which we lack understanding, such as those we designate by the simple labels global warming, Alzheimer’s and youth unemployment cannot be attributed to simple causes. Conversely, in fact, what do we mean by coffee, or exercise – or multilingualism –, that can have this or that effect, and on whom?

Another part of the problem is that in order to establish that some X causes some Y, we need to make sure that X correlates with Y at all, as I’ve discussed before, and make double sure that we’re not mistaking correlations between X and Y for causality relationships between them. Deciding what correlates with what is not easy either, for two main reasons. First, because correlations between observables do not exist as correlations: we make them. David Hume had this to say about “connexions”, in a section titled ‘Of miracles’ of his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

“It being a general maxim, that no objects have any discoverable connexion together, and that all the inferences, which we can draw from one to another, are founded merely on our experience of their constant and regular conjunction; it is evident, that we ought not to make an exception to this maxim in favour of human testimony, whose connexion with any event seems, in itself, as little necessary as any other.”

Second, because we do not experience first-hand most of the correlations we come to make: we inherit them. The cultural expectations which nurture us, from the day that nurturing starts taking effect on us, shape our ways of thinking about things. We “know” that things are as they are because others, before us, “knew” that they are so, and told us that they are so. Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger put it aptly, in their book Jews and Words: “Your ideas are not your ideas. They are the progeny of the bookshelf on your wall and of the language that you inhabit.” (Thank you for the tip, Judy!) I’ll leave the matter of our thinking in languages for some other day.

An additional, crucial part of the problem is that once we settle for whatever answers appeal to us, we stop asking questions. We stop thinking. Our expectations shape the range of the questions that we feel entitled (or are allowed) to ask. Ready-made answers to the questions that we do (not) ask, in turn, make up the theories to which we hold as explanation for our observations. We do not only rest happily with that “knowledge”, but propagate it, too, as it was propagated to us. This is why it takes such a long time, and such a lot of work, to dismiss urban myths: once we satisfy ourselves that a question is answered, we close the door to it, forgetting that we are the ones closing it.

Not seeking answers beyond “the” answer is what leads to superstition: some of us stopped asking why it should make sense to remove, as it were, 4th or 13th floors from high-rises in order to avoid the negative karma caused, as it were, by these numbers. We stopped thinking that high-rises still have 4th or 13th floors, whatever we choose to call them, and that negative karma is negative only because we trained ourselves to ignore any positive correlations, or any absence of correlations, that these numbers may have. Knowledge (without scare quotes) builds on something else altogether: some of us get hit on the head by a rotting apple falling from a tree and, instead of blaming our karma, wonder about what may have made the apple fall.

There are solid causality relationships that we can safely rely on – at least until new questions displace old answers. For example, that polio vaccination successfully causes the poliovirus to lose its virulence. But I think it’s always good to keep questioning what we think we know about solid and less solid causes and effects. Do we really know that multilingualism “causes” this and that, for example? And can it make sense that the “effects” of multilingualism turn out to be both negative and positive? Or do we keep asking the wrong questions? I find it quite interesting to try to understand what causes such beliefs to endure.

Next time, I’ll return to another popular example of simple causality, which is as entrenched as it is misguided: the one holding that ageing causes language learning abilities to decay.


© MCF 2013

Next post: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Wednesday 16th January 2013.

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