We recently published Twelve Lectures on Multilingualism edited by David Singleton and Larissa Aronin. In this post the editors reveal 10 things you might not have known about multilingualism…
Multilingualism is a specifically human feature. Other species generally use only their own communication systems. Interesting exceptions are domesticated animals which learn to understand human instructions like sit, stay and whoa, as well as apes who have been taught the rudiments of sign language!
The use of two or more languages by individuals almost certainly goes back to the very beginnings of humans’ experience of language and in today’s world is a feature of the profile of a majority of the world’s population.
This latter fact is unsurprising when we consider the number of human languages in the world. Despite the yearly extinction of languages, estimations of this number typically revolve around 6,000 but dramatically increase as soon as we take into account non-standardized language varieties popularly known as “dialects”.
Sometimes you do not even need to have learnt a language in order to understand it! “Receptive multilingualism” is a phenomenon which is common among speakers, of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, where mutual understanding is assured by the closeness of the languages in question. Within other language families too the phenomenon of language proximity facilitating understanding is fairly widespread.
Very often, everyday communication and language-based reflection depend largely on neither one single language nor a person’s entire language repertoire. Instead, small sets of languages (two, three or four), labelled as “Dominant Language Constellations”, provide the principal resources for language use and mainly underlie patterns of language use.
A multilingual may either acquire his/her languages together from infancy or may acquire them sequentially at different ages. A common cliché is that languages learnt beyond childhood will inevitably be condemned to remain at a low level of proficiency, but the reality is that very many adolescent and adult learners of additional languages do so well that they routinely pass for a native speakers of the languages in question.
On the question of age and language acquisition it is also necessary to say that such acquisition also does not stop at any point in life. Our capacity to go on learning languages, including learning aspects of our native language, continues until the very end of our lives.
Bilingualism and multilingualism (three +) are close, overlapping in many ways, but also seem to be significantly different from each other. There is little doubt that, with more experience in multilingual learning, additional language mechanisms develop that would not otherwise be there. These are important not only in language acquisition and teaching, but also in relation to dealing with multilingual communities.
Multilinguals who (because of e.g. stroke or brain surgery) lose their languages have various patterns of recovering them. Recovery patterns in bilingual speakers can be parallel (when all languages improve at similar rates), differential (when one of the languages shows recovery but the others show less recovery or none at all), or selective (when the recovery of some languages comes before the recovery of others). There is also sometimes an incidence of blended recovery – when speakers lose control of their ability to keep their languages apart, and unintentional mixing of elements from their languages ensues. Finally, in antagonistic recovery, the language most available to the patient may change every few days.
The question of whether there is – in a general sense – a “multilingual advantage” is a fraught one. It has been pointed out that the impressive linguistic skills possessed by polyglots sometimes coexist with inadequacies in other areas of life. It may be objected that such observations apply to a very small category of multilingual individuals. A better understanding of such cases may, however, contribute to a fuller and perhaps more broadly applicable sense of individual multilingual possibilities.
For more information about Twelve Lectures on Multilingualism please see our website.
This month we published The Multilingual Reality by Ajit K. Mohanty. In this post the author talks about the inspiration behind the book.
Pinky’s dreams had evaporated. She dreamt of touching the sky in her school; as her parents put her there, the glitter in their eyes was reassuring for Pinky. The Saora girl was an unstoppable chatterbox; her home language, Saora, was polka dotted by some Odia, Hindi, English and other languages as she grew up and moved out into her neighbourhood, the weekly market place and the tribal festivals. But a few days in school and she gradually lost her chatter. Her parents were sad that Pinky did not want to go to school. “I don’t understand the teacher, I don’t understand the books”, she told her mother.
I met Pinky’s father during a visit to set up our MLE Plus project in the local primary school selected by the Government of Odisha as a new multilingual education (MLE) school in Saora. He ventilated his agony over Pinky’s unwillingness to go to school, but, he said, he understood. As a child, he also ran way from his school because then he did not know Odia, the school language. I told him that the school will teach in Saora in Grade 1 from the next year. Pinky had lost a year but was happy to be back. During one of my visits to her class, when Pinky was in Grade 2, I was amazed to observe her telling a Saora story for nearly 11 minutes while her friends listened with attention. She was definitely enjoying her school in her own language, something that millions of children from indigenous, tribal, minor and minoritized (ITM) languages in the world are deprived of.
Despite large-scale international movement of people, languages are no longer considered a medley for an interesting colourful world – one full of cultural hues, diversity, linguistic rights and pride. Schools and states (and sometimes communities and parents) ensure that many native languages are not passed on to the next generation. In 1907, Roosevelt cautioned the immigrants into the US and said “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language”. Now the world seems to have limited room for languages except the few dominant ones.
The world seems to be losing its colour to the devouring supermarket culture with limited brands dominating – limited languages, limited cultures, limited varieties. The multitude of languages used by our ancestors are lost or are on the verge of extinction. It is a tough battle between “language hegemony and discrimination” and the promises of “the cultural and educational richness of living with languages”.
I grew up in a beautiful multilingual world where I had the freedom to move naturally and spontaneously between people and languages, unconcerned by any boundaries and infringements. I did not have to bother about my own inadequacies in the languages I encountered, nor did I have to count the languages I knew or did not know. I was taught in my mother tongue and was gradually introduced to other languages that I embraced. Levels of my competence in languages around me did not have to be judged.
I grew up with an understanding that, like our fingerprints and DNA, we are supposed to be unique and diverse – that one size fits all is an aberration and is limiting to our linguistic and cultural diversity. If that be the case, why should millions like Pinky be deprived of being educated through their Mother Tongue?
This book is an account of my journey as a researcher and a coparticipant in the multilingual world from the perspectives of the people and communities at the margins – people being forced into a less diverse and more insipid world. Through my book, I have sought to share the complexity, the agony and the beauty of living with languages in a multilingual world. My book handles concerns and issues that have confronted me and the questions prompted by my encounters with the ITM communities and their education. The issues necessarily go beyond the question of languages and transcend the borders of India, because they are tied to questions of power, the processes of domination and subordination in all societies. The specific themes in the book echo concerns from the ITM perspectives – both local and global. The themes reflect some interrelated aspects of what it means to live with languages in a multilingual society.
Multilingualism is not about languages; it is about life and living, about lifestyles, about world views. This is what I realised growing up with many languages around me. These languages made my lifestyle possible. They were not just part of my expressive and receptive experience as I moved across my social world, they combined to make this world for me. I certainly did and still do have a mother tongue but my total experience was never fragmented by my mother tongue and other tongues.
You can contact Ajit Mohanty with any questions and comments at the following email address: email@example.com.
For more information about this book please see our website.
Preparing this volume has been a work of encounters which gave way to layers of experiences and we hope is just one possible opening to a new way of thinking about how we make and interpret meaning. It started as a serendipitous encounter between the two of us, when we met once at a symposium on translanguaging and ethnography and later began conversations on the possibilities of crossing perspectives, in an attempt at starting a dialogue between social semiotics and complexity theory. The experiences of the volume’s contributors form additional layers at the core of this volume from ethnographic/documentary linguistics, sociolinguistics, linguistic landscape, and multimodality (broadly conceived). The volume is also a site of encounters among four theorists of what we envisage as among the most innovative and promising perspectives on research and activism across inclusive approaches to communication, language and education with a Bricolage piece asking Jan Blommaert, Ofelia García, Gunther Kress and Diane Larsen-Freeman to answer ten key questions and trace interrelations with each other’s viewpoints.
Besides the eye-opening preface by Jeff Bezemer and Gunther Kress, and the introduction written by us, the volume hosts seven chapters presenting empirical studies that relocate margins at the centre, through investigations of phenomena and settings that have been little explored so far, and by attempting various entanglements between approaches that have rarely been combined. Research of and through these uncharted entanglements allows the authors (and hopefully the readers) to show how observing and documenting domains of communication that are often neglected can not only problematize traditional ways of knowing, but also shed new light onto social interaction, meaning-making and human communication as a whole.
Finally, the volume attempts at stretching the boundaries of (the often too limiting) academic genres. It does so first and foremost in the Bricolage; the process of its making has been a wonderfully enriching enterprise, for us, the editors, and (we like to believe) for the four theorists too, who had never met on (screen and) paper before. Working with them at the Bricolage, we have not only had further proof of the immense intellectual value of Diane, Gunther, Jan and Ofelia, but also experienced the immensely humane, thoughtful and caring characters of the four. We hope that the Bricolage may be the first of a series opening a new genre enabling academic dialogue through joint forms of writing. A second genre innovation is in the final chapter of the book, in which we draw from the Talmudic tradition to construct commentaries to each of the empirical chapters that add additional layers, imagined next steps in meaning-making and interpretation. The commentaries ask themselves how these studies would be reframed and (re)investigated further by adopting a social semiotic and a complexity theory perspective. This, too, is an attempt to start a dialogue between two approaches that have good grounds for potential mutual integration and yet had not met until now. We hope this dialogue will continue further with those who read the book. We look forward to hearing from you!
This month we published English as a Lingua Franca for EFL Contexts edited by Nicos C. Sifakis and Natasha Tsantila. In this post the editors discuss the rise of English as a Lingua Franca and its impact on EFL teaching.
Thinking about the function and impact of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is not new. The fascination for the global character of English has been around for at least four decades. Scholars have been discussing and analysing the (mostly idiosyncratic) uses of English by so-called “non-native speakers”, predominantly people working in the field of banking and economics, since the late 1970s. Those were simpler times. As the 20th century gave its turn to the 21st, and as the internet took the world by storm, people, and not just businessmen, needed a quick and easy way to communicate, to exchange ideas, to become understood and to express themselves on a global level. English was the ideal vehicle for this. Everything happened so fast. Suddenly, there were millions and millions of instances where people (yes, mostly “non-native”) were using English without the least concern for established norms. When you want to communicate and be understood, you have to consider what the other person is able to understand and therefore you are bound to tailor your entire linguistic behaviour (i.e., choice of words, intonation, speed of delivery, etc.) to the communicational needs of the circumstance; you find that your interlocutors feel and act very much the same way.
This is fine, except that now it is suddenly happening everywhere and by everyone. Online and offline, in virtually all geographical latitudes, people use English when no other language is shared, and even when this is the case, English seems to be the “go-to” primary linguistic vehicle. All this makes the task of describing and making sense of what is happening fascinating but extremely taxing. There are simply countless contexts and situations where English may be used by the “non-native speaker”, and these contexts are now many many more than those demanding compliance to the native-speaker norms will ever be. Even native speakers have to buy into this ELF mindset if they want to successfully communicate with non-native speakers.
On top of everything, the critical perspective in applied linguistics, developed in the 1990s, shook scholars’ confidence in many of the perceptions and terms that had shaped the field for decades. Certain things that were considered fundamental in applied linguistics and foreign language teaching were fundamental no more, the very notion of the “native speaker” being one of the first in the fray. The cornerstone of modern linguistics, the native speaker, was deemed not useful and more a politically incorrect term that fails to describe reality and, to make matters worse, carries with it a string of convictions that are old-fashioned and, well, plainly wrong. Also consider the notion of “mistake” and that of “feedback provision” in the EFL classroom: what constitutes a mistake is arguably no longer a simple matter of looking up the grammar of English, and how the teacher will focus learners’ attention to different aspects of their use of the language is no longer straightforward.
Of course, we are not arguing that EFL, as we all understand it and have experienced (or are experiencing) it, is not still valid. Far from it. It’s just that it is now becoming clearer that so-called EFL-focused practices tend to be predominantly (some would say, exclusively) native-speaker-oriented, and this is the remit of a huge and highly profitable field in applied linguistics and teaching, called high-stakes testing. But the world is not the same as it was 30 or 20, or even 10 years ago and the point that we and the other authors make in the book is that this needs to be reflected in the way that English is taught.
In a nutshell, this book aims to present the case of ELF for EFL contexts. The colleagues that wrote the various chapters are top scholars in their respective fields and the cases they are presenting in each chapter are grounded in extensive research they have undertaken. What we are concerned with is making sense of the impact that ELF can have for teaching, and specifically EFL teaching. We have done our best to incorporate all aspects of EFL teaching, including pedagogy, materials evaluation, teacher education, policy, assessment and testing. Our ultimate aim is to kickstart a dialogue on the principles and processes of what we call ELF awareness in EFL teaching. ELF awareness is a lot more than awareness of ELF: it first and foremost incorporates an awareness of context and an appreciation of pedagogical style, learner needs and usage of English inside and outside the EFL classroom and, fundamentally, an awareness of our attitudes and convictions regarding English.
“Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe.”
It’s a long-standing wedding tradition that brides wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue on their wedding day for good luck. As technology and language learning have become an inseparable couple – at least in language education theory – I would like to donate some old, some new, some borrowed and some “blue” thoughts to support this relationship.
In her book The Importance of Media in the Classroom (2003), Donna Walker Tilestone offers a collection of good reasons for “why” media should be an essential element of classrooms. Some of them are:
Media in the classroom engage students in learning and provide a richer experience.
The great majority of learners prefer visual and tactile ways of learning.
The integration of media has a positive impact on behavior management.
Interactive learning that includes the use of various media requires little intrinsic motivation.
15 years later these arguments still hold true, yet we have certainly overcome the question “if” technology / media should play a role in classrooms. As Alice Armstrong explains in an article (Armstrong, Alice Technology in the Classroom: It’s Not a Matter of ‘If,’ but ‘When’ and ‘How’. Education Digest, Vol. 79, No. 5, Jan. 2014, pp. 39-46) it’s now more the question of “when” and “how” to integrate technology in the classroom.
The latest KIM Study (2016) of the German Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest (MPFS, or Pedagogical Media Research Center, Southwest) on the meaning of media and technology in the everyday life of children aged 6 to 13 shows that technology plays a significant role in the children’s private lives, however not yet in school contexts:
Every child has a television at home, 98% have access to a smartphone or mobile phone, 97% have a computer (desktop or laptop) at home and have access to the internet.
The majority of the children in this age group uses the available media at home at least once or twice a week, 42% of children say that they use a smartphone or mobile phone on a daily basis.
Their main activities online are: searching the internet for information; texting via WhatsApp; watching YouTube videos; visiting websites for kids or simply surfing the internet.
Yet, only 31% of children go online when they are in school.
In order to find out, if, how and why/why not primary school foreign language teachers make use of technology in their classrooms, the author of this blog article interviewed 12 German primary school teachers, all of them teaching English as a Foreign Language in classes 3 and 4.
Here are their answers:
Which kind of technology do you use most often in your language classrooms?
CDs; DVDs; Reading Pens (e.g., Ting or tiptoi)
Which media would you like to integrate more often into your classroom?
Smartboard, CD-Rom, iPad
Assumption that students will be more motivated to participate, autonomous learning, differentiation/individualized learning; method change
What hinders you from using these media more often?
Lack of knowledge with regard to how to integrate iPads, Smartboard, internet properly into the class; preparation time; technology doesn’t always work; lack of knowledge with regard to suitable apps or computer games/activities for language training.
Reading the endorsements of my newest book Multilingual Computer Assisted Language Learning, I believe that my colleague Judith Buendgens-Kosten and I have produced something blue – even though its cover is green and yellow – that will inspire and inform those who are searching for new ways of using technology in diverse language classrooms:
“This inspiring volume sets the stage for a radical shift in language learning pedagogy…” Janet Enever, University of Reading, UK; Umeå University, Sweden
“This inspirational and timely volume demonstrates that we have finally reached a tipping point with respect to the impact of digital technologies on education….” Jim Cummins, University of Toronto, Canada
This month we published What Teachers Need to Know About Language edited by Carolyn Temple Adger, Catherine E. Snow and Donna Christian. In this post Catherine explains how teachers can better support children learning language if they know more about language themselves.
Michael Halliday (1993) distinguished three dimensions of the language user’s challenge: learninglanguage, learningthroughlanguage, and learningabout language. Learning language is, of course, what almost every child manages to do – typically with considerable help from parents and adult caretakers. Children then go on to learning through language, again with lots of help from adults, including teachers, reading aloud to them, answering their questions, and explaining the world.
A basic premise of What Teachers Need to KnowAbout Language is that teachers can support children learning language and learning through language better if they know more about language – how languages work, how languages differ, why a language sounds different in different places, how spelling develops, and what aspects of a language pose the greatest challenges to young readers and writers.
Learning about language offers endless puzzles and amusements. For example, languages differ in how sounds can group together. With regard to English, consider the simple case of consonant clusters. Which sequences of consonants are allowed in English pronunciation? We can say words beginning with a [k] sound like clock and crock, but not cmock or csock or cnock. We English speakers don’t say the sounds of K and N together at the beginning of a word, but English has lots of words spelled with those two letters at the beginning: knock, knob, knee, know, knife, knight, knave, knapsack, knit, and knead, among others, where the [k] sound is not pronounced. German and Dutch speakers know there would be no difficulty in pronouncing the K and N in all these words, since their languages have words spelled with the K-N cluster and they pronounce both sounds. But English speakers just don’t do it.
Why should we care? Because knowing that K-N-initial words are Germanic in origin, and that both letters are pronounced together in other Germanic languages but not in English, explains something about English spelling. Teachers should know enough not to tell their students “English spelling is illogical. Just memorize it.” Instead, with a little knowledge ABOUT language, they are in a position not only to understand spelling patterns (and their students’ errors) but also to explain the origins of the correct spellings.
Similarly, with a little knowledge about how native speakers of Spanish hear English sounds, seemingly bizarre spellings like ‘warer’ for water and ‘ironker’ for I don’t care resolve themselves into students’ masterful attempts to use what they know about spelling in Spanish to represent words and phrases in English. The T in English water and the D in I don’t are pronounced exactly like the R in Spanish pero.
Supporting language learning and learning through language is a major goal for any teacher. A little bit of learning about language can help teachers work more effectively with their students in achieving that goal.
Catherine E. Snow, Harvard Graduate School of Education
My interest in research into multilingualism was sparked during a research visit at Newcastle University, where Vivian Cook familiarised me with his idea of linguistic multi-competence. The languages known by a speaker mutually influence each other and interact with other mental processes, leading to a unique way of language use? Seemed reasonable. The complexity and dynamics of linguistic multi-competence have fascinated me ever since, especially as at the time I was investigating Chinese, Japanese and Thai users of English which required thinking outside the box and familiarising myself with, among other things, new concepts of self and other.
It was then that I also experienced what multi-competence means regarding the communication of emotions: be it my participants not sharing my sense of humour, or me not being able to ‘translate’ jokes from my L1 (German) into English, or a friend from Austria uttering the f-word a million times when walking down a street in Newcastle, nearly giving an elderly British woman a heart attack. I also noticed that British tend to use “I love you” quite differently from Austrians and how easily you can get it wrong in a language other than your first (the consequences of which can be quite severe). All these experiences made me want to explore the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic verbalisation and perception of emotions more closely. A few years later, I collected my data during a research visit at Birkbeck College, University of London. Little did I know back then it would turn into this book.
In this book, I try to provide an exhaustive, up-to-date review of previous work in this field and also present the findings of two studies in which I investigated the topic on a meta-level of self-reflexivity and on the level of performance. Not only did my data show that emotions often do not go as deep in a foreign language (LX) as in one’s first but also that differences in emotionality (besides many other influential variables) have an effect on the frequency of verbalising emotions in an LX. This effect can be twofold: it can prevent us from expressing them in the LX, but it can also encourage us to express them more openly and frequently in the LX. Especially in the context of swearing, for instance, LX users often have difficulty judging the emotional force of swear words, which often leads to them using them differently from L1 users and also to conveying the intended meaning more or less drastically in the LX than in the L1. When comparing LX users from the Eastern world with those from the West, it was frequently shown that verbalising emotions in English (their LX) also allows the former to escape social constraints experienced in L1 contexts and it also seems to be the case that cross-linguistic and cross-cultural differences are greater in their case.
In a nutshell, the book not only shows that multilinguals tend to verbalise and perceive emotions differently in the L1 and LX but also that many variables simultaneously play a role in the verbal expression and understanding of emotions. Even though there is great individual variation, I believe that only taking a ‘Western’ perspective does not suffice and that insights into Eastern backgrounds are much needed too to ensure mutual understanding – also in typical ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) contexts, for instance.
Even though a vibrant field of study, much is still to be discovered due to the topic’s complexity. I hope that my contribution will generate ideas for future study designs and research directions and that researchers as well as anyone teaching or learning multiple languages finds it useful. After all, globalisation and, along with it, migration frequently require expressing emotions in an LX. Emotions are also the driving force underlying successful or unsuccessful LX acquisition and, besides language, they are what makes us fundamentally human – something worth investigating!
Pia Resnik, Department of English and American Studies, University of Vienna
While my colleagues were gallivanting off to AAAL and TESOL in Chicago, or holding the fort in the office, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the TLANG conference at the University of Birmingham at the end of March. TLANG is a big AHRC funded project that aims to understand how people communicate multilingually across diverse languages and cultures and the conference was the final event, bringing together work focused on the theme of communication in the city.
The conference offered a wealth of papers, colloquia and some excellent keynotes, by Betsy Rymes, Annalies Kusters, Tong-King Lee, Ana Deumert and Jan Blommaert (whose work was presented by Massimiliano Spotti). Betsy Rymes opened the conference and spoke on the topic of citizen linguistics, the work language users do to make sense of their surroundings, and illustrated her keynote with local examples, asking for example what a Brummie is and how they speak, as well as a discussion of the ghost emoji, which has always been a mystery to me!
Annalies Kusters introduced the audience to her work on multimodal interactions and the use of gestures by signing and non-signing interlocutors in India. She showed us wonderful examples from her film ‘Ishaare: Gestures and signs in Mumbai’, in which we saw fluent deaf and deafblind signers negotiating the marketplace and interacting with non-signing stallholders. Her keynote was an especially engaging end to the day as it was impressively and seamlessly presented in both sign language and spoken English.
The second day was opened by Tong-King Lee, who spoke of his own experiences with translanguaging and advanced the idea of translanguaging as an experiential phenomenon. I was interested in his example of how one might successfully communicate one’s order for Chinese tea in a Singapore coffee shop, by using the action of fishing to demonstrate the dunking of the teabag! In the following plenary, Ana Deumert took the audience away from her hopeful 2016 work and asked whether life is not always friendly and accepting, and questioned what the limits of conviviality are. She spoke about confrontation, violence, anger and the persistence and importance of identities, and accompanied her arguments with archival videos and photos, as well as a discussion of posts and comments on colonial nostalgia from social media and online communities.
Our author and series editor, Viv Edwards, recently found herself in hospital. To divert her mind from her own situation, she seized the opportunity to look and listen to the activity around her…
11 July 2017 started very much like any other day. It ended in admission to an acute stroke unit. The implications of this life changing event dawned only gradually, as did the realization that things could be much worse. For starters, the damage to my brain had manifested itself in left-sided weakness; communication – that most precious of human gifts, particularly for a linguist – was unaffected. And by the time I had transferred from the acute unit to Valley, a neuro rehabilitation ward, it had become clear that this new environment was nothing short of a playground for sociolinguists.
In this world of Brexit, one of the recurrent themes has been the status of the large numbers of nationals of other countries employed in the NHS and concern over what a ‘hard Brexit’ might mean for patient and social care. This concern is certainly well founded.
Thus, while the majority of NHS staff are British, a substantial minority are not – some 12% in fact of all staff for whom a nationality is known. Between them, they report 199 nationalities (Source).
As a patient, my interest focuses very firmly on the need to fight immigration policies which risk bringing the NHS to its knees. But my interest as a sociolinguist was on languages spoken rather than nationalities. And while discussion of language in the NHS tends to centre on proficiency in English, this topic forms no part of my own narrative: all medical staff I encountered were fully proficient English speakers. Too narrow a focus on English simply misses the broader picture. In addition, my interests lie in the wider hospital community – the domestic team (cleaners and controllers of the hot drinks trolley) and, of course, patients and their families – and not just the medical staff.
As I struggled with neurological fatigue and engaged with physio-terrorists – they who must be obeyed – in learning to walk again, my mission to establish which languages were spoken on Valley ward, and the attitudes towards them, was a valuable diversion. I was clearly dealing with an opportunity sample, not necessarily representative of the hospital as a whole, let alone the picture nationally. Nonetheless, there was potential to offer depth and light on bland official statistics. Ethically, this mission was open to question. I was hardly in a position to seek approval from an ethics committee but I comforted myself with the thought that ethics are rather more nuanced than sometimes suggested in research methodology textbooks. For instance, on hospital admission I have no recollection of having signed a consent form for participation in an international drugs trial so, strictly speaking, didn’t give informed consent. However, given that that the drug in question may have saved me from a catastrophic outcome, I have no desire to take the moral high ground.
In the absence of formal approval, I nonetheless attempted to behave as ethically as possible. The hospital has not been identified and the anonymity of participants respected. In cases such as Polish, the language spoken was transparent from people’s names, bypassing the need for consent. In other cases, I simply explained that, as a linguist, I was interested in which language(s) they spoke at home and, without exception, people were happy to share. I also mentioned what I was doing at a multidisciplinary case conference before I was discharged, where participants volunteered information on the languages spoken by colleagues I hadn’t been able to approach directly. Asking people what languages they speak is clearly a less sensitive issue than asking them where they come from.
Some 17 different languages were spoken on the ward (see Figure 1, left). In almost all staff roles, bilinguals outnumbered monolingual English speakers. The majority of patients, in contrast, were native speakers of English, no doubt reflecting the fact that most people in neuro-rehabilitation have suffered a stroke and are therefore more likely to be older rather than younger; the median age of immigrant communities in contrast, is lower than for the population at large.
Attitudes towards multilingualism
Multilingualism is normal condition
On a global scale, multilingualism is the norm, as captured by the slogan: ‘Monolingualism can be cured: learn another language’. By the same token, the multilingualism that lay just below the surface in Valley ward was, for the most part, taken for granted. Its ‘normalcy’ was neatly captured when a patient, who was admittedly suffering from intermittent confusion, asked Steven, a nurse born and brought up in Southampton, how many years he had been living in the UK.
Today, of course, we are all products of globalization and beneficiaries of the accompanying population movements. Speaking personally, I have two Polish daughters-in-law. One of the physiotherapists was engaged to a Peruvian; the partner of an HCA was also Peruvian; they had a Brussels-based granddaughter growing up with French, Flemish, Spanish and English. An occupational therapist was married to a Dane. The daughter of a Polish HCA was living in Greece and about to start studying in Malta.
Attitudes towards language learning
It is therefore not altogether surprising that many members of this multilingual community showed an interest in languages and language learning. There were many examples. A Spanish-speaking nurse who had volunteered to take part in a research project on bilingualism was happy to share her experience of an MRI scan of her brain. Some of us took a first tentative step in Twi, the language of my Ghanaian ‘roomie’, encouraged by her visitors who always warmly greeted other ‘residents’ with ‘Eti se?’ [How are you?]. When a physiotherapist learning Spanish in preparation for a trip to Peru discovered that I had a basic grasp of the language, she suggested we could conduct our therapy sessions in Spanish. When push came to shove, however, both activities required more concentration than either of us could muster and we rapidly reverted to English.
Language and laughter
The healing qualities of laughter are well attested. Increased endorphins facilitate feelings of well-being while higher levels of DHEA, a steroid produced by the adrenal glands, have been associated, among other things, with enhanced mental abilities. Improbable as it may seem, laughter was the hallmark of life on Valley ward. In such a multilingual environment, there were many opportunities to use other languages in unexpected contexts with the intent of making people laugh. One of the nurses quite often produced apparently random expressions in French and Italian. My own nursery Polish, acquired in my role as grandmother to a half Polish grandson, was surprisingly transferable to a clinical setting, given that Polish was the language with the largest number of speakers after English (tak [yes], nie [no] kupa [poo] koniec [finished], dobra noc [good night] and so on. When a member of staff was clearly tired at the end of a shift, the use of kochanie [darling] or miśu [sweetiepie] was usually successful in raising a smile. So, too, was the call from a doctor across the corridor of ‘Voulez-vous danser avec moi?’ [Do you want to dance with me?] as I practiced my first wobbly steps. The absurdity of this request in a setting where patients’ main challenge was to stay upright in the battle for forward propulsion certainly lightened the mood.
Language in the service of society
When requested, this hospital, like most others, routinely offers interpreters for outpatient appointments. Of course, this provision is not practicable in the context of longer term care. Here, multilingual staff are thus an asset, though staff repertoires aren’t necessarily a match for the languages of patients. I observed two cases of the value of multilingual staff but, for reasons of patient confidentiality, felt unable to probe further. The first concerned a Nepalese man, with extremely limited English, whose family members were unable to help. It isn’t difficult to imagine how reassuring he must have found it when a Nepalese member of the domestic team delivered hot drinks, or when the only Nepali-speaking nurse was on duty. The second case was a Polish woman, also with limited English, for whom access to Polish speakers was rather easier.
Languages – the secret weapon of the NHS
So, summing up, linguistic diversity is a fact of life in a globalized world. While wanting to avoid exaggerating its importance, it can be argued that it is a source of both hope and healing. In terms of hope, bilinguals are always pleasantly surprised to learn of evidence that speaking another language can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years (Bialystok et al, 2007); while the use of language-related humour has a potential role in creating feelings of well-being. Last but not least, multilingual staff are a valuable resource in the context of provision for multilingual patients.
In thinking about the nature and extent of diversity, however, it is important not to lose sight of the common humanity that underlies all difference. I find myself at one with Malcolm X on this:
I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead, I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land – every color, and class, and rank; high officials and the beggar alike – all snored in the same language (Wolfe, 1998).
Many thanks to Viv for sharing her experiences with us. We wish her all the best for her continued recovery.
Bialystok, E., Craik, F. & Freedman, M. (2007) Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia 45(2): 459-464.
Wolfe, M. (ed.)(1998) One thousand roads to Mecca: ten centuries of travelers writing about the Muslim pilgrimage. New York: Grove Press.
The Conrad Ferdinand Meyer Prize is a Swiss prize that is given annually to up to three recipients (an artist, a literary author and a scientist). Simone received the award for her work on the project “Beyond Age Effects”, which she conducted in Switzerland between 2008 and 2017. Parts of the results of this project were published in her 2017 book with David Singleton, Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning.
The large-scale longitudinal project, undertaken in Switzerland between 2008 and 2017, focused on the effects of age of onset (AO) vis-à-vis the learning of English that manifest themselves in the course of secondary schooling. The two main goals of the project were to identify factors that prevent young learners from profiting from their extended learning period, as documented in numerous classroom studies, as well as to understand the mechanisms that provide late starters with learning rates in the initial stages of learning which enable them to catch up relatively quickly with early starters. These are questions of considerable theoretical and practical significance, since they are at the heart of debates revolving around age – one of the most controversial variables in foreign language (FL) learning and teaching research.
Over 800 secondary school students (636 of them longitudinally over a period of five years) were tested, who had all learned Standard German and French in primary school, but only half of whom had had English (their third language, L3) from third grade (age 8) onwards, the remainder having started five years later in secondary school. This constellation provided a unique window into the benefits of early versus late FL learning.
Advanced quantitative methods in classroom research (e.g. multilevel modeling) were combined with individual-level qualitative data, rather than examining the relationship between well-defined variables in relative isolation (as in ANOVA-type analyses). The findings cast some doubt on the importance of maturational and strictly durative aspects of FL instructional learning: success mostly does not relate to AO or length of the exposure. Close analysis of the interplay of variables showed that a number of variables are much stronger than starting age for a range of FL proficiency dimensions, e.g. (1) effects of instruction-type, (2) literacy skills, (3) classroom effects, (4) extracurricular exposure and (5) socio-affective variables such as motivation. The findings also suggest that different learner populations (monolinguals, simultaneous bilinguals, sequential bilinguals) are differentially affected by L3 starting age effects, partly due to individual differences (e.g. (bi)literacy skills), partly due to contextual effects that mediate successful L3 outcomes (e.g. language environment at home, classroom effects and teaching approach).
Congratulations to Simone for this brilliant achievement!