Saturday, 9 January 2016

Being multilingual at home


Apportioning of linguistic space to the languages of a multilingual family is best viewed as a process rather than a final product, in that what once seemed like a sensible, natural choice may prove irrelevant or unnecessary later on. My family, for example, started off with two home languages and ended up with three, when the children realised that they, too, were entitled to decide who speaks what to whom. A transcript of a dinner table conversation involving all five family members documents this transition, in Chapter 10, section ‘Language dominance?’, of my book Three is a Crowd?, available online.

Multilingual home language policies, in other words, must serve all involved, and must evolve with them, independently from the linguistic landscape outside the home. This is also true of monolingual home language policies in same-language monolingual settings – whether we choose to call them by this or any other name. The point is that home uses of any language do not match the broader community’s, including school uses, because home is not the broader community: we don’t talk about the same things in the same way with the same people, at home and outside.

The fact that home and community environments are different, and therefore demand different linguistic expression, needs to be made very clear: a common misconception has it that ‘knowing a language’ means being able to use it in all possible ways. Nothing could be further from the truth, whether for native languages or for languages learned in school. Children nurtured in home Portuguese, say, won’t automatically develop ability to use school Portuguese, just like educated, literate adults may have no idea how to use their language(s) for academic publication or business purposes, for example. In The Ecology of Language, Einar Haugen further observed that linguistic knowledge is individual: “the competence [each child] acquires is different from that of every other child”.

Our children acquire the uses of language to which they are exposed, in those environments where their language(s) come to make sense. It follows that home uses of language serve home linguistic needs, developing their own norms out of daily interaction. Each home language will in addition serve those needs in different ways, say, mum’s language for playground outings or baking cakes, dad’s for story time or cooking pasta.

Language-related playground and pasta activities are probably as common in multilingual homes as in monolingual ones, but using stern-sounding words like ‘policy’ or ‘management’ to single out what goes on, linguistically, in multilingual homes, might explain why so many parents in multilingual families raise concerns about which languages to use at home with their children, and how. Policy and management discourses suggest that there are one-way roads, no-nos, accepted conventions, fatal errors, and best procedures that we parents ought to research in depth before we even think of opening our multilingual mouths at home. But are there, really? And who’s saying so?

I think that having to learn parenting, on the job, is enough to keep us quite busy, without the need to overburden ourselves structuring language plans to fit breastfeeding timetables, potty-training management and tantrum-dealing policies. Parents don’t write to me agonising over whether to wear a sari, or a cheongsam, or jeans, in front of their children, so why should the languages that go together with clothing, or food, or songs, or celebrations, or anything we do at home create a fuss? We just introduce our children to our (and their) languages in the same way that we introduce any other tenets of our (and their) cultural background.

Introducing languages to our children doesn’t mean ‘teaching’ them in any formal sense of this word: it means using our languages to serve our daily routines. In this way, we teach our children what matters to us and to them, our languages included. The children will learn much more from what we do and what we have them do with our languages, naturally, spontaneously, every day, than from what we think we can teach them about those languages in dedicated ‘language-learning’ sessions. Effective language lessons don’t target the languages themselves, because we learn best by using what we’re learning.

The number of home languages comes a close second among parents’ concerns, expressed in fears that there may be too few or too many languages around a child. On the too-few side, parents worry that their children may not become multilingual enough, soon enough, to corner the job market once they grow up, as I discussed before. Since we can’t predict job markets 20 or so years from now, I usually reassure parents that their babies aren’t likely to miss out on anything by not learning an extra language before they can walk.

On the too-many side, especially in connection with a move abroad, parents ask me about replacing one or more of their languages with the host country’s (usually) single language at home – sometimes monolingually –, on the grounds that what matters is their children’s swift integration in the new environment. This certainly resonates with globe-trotting parents, but I remain doubtful that this strategy may nurture a home away from home, for three main reasons. First, as said above, using a language at home won’t facilitate its use in a different environment. Second, children’s linguistic integration in a new community pretty much takes care of itself pretty quickly, as parents who have chosen to retain their languages at home find out, for better or for worse. And third, many of these parents (and sometimes their now grown-up children, too) later report to me regretting this decision: instead of ‘giving’ their children a language, as was their best intention, they’ve deprived them of another/others, and thereby of fluent bonding with the people and the culture using them.

I don’t think there can be too few or too many home languages around a child. There can only be the exact number of languages that matter for the family’s daily business. But homes aren’t isolated bubbles within a larger community, they’re functional parts of it. Two other environments, schools and clinics, are likely to claim entitlement to a say in multilingual home language policies, to which I turn in the next couple of posts.


© MCF 2016

Next post: Being multilingual in school. Saturday 6th February 2016.


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