Mother Tongue – The Most Beautiful Gift We Have

Today is International Mother Language Day. To celebrate it, we have a blog post from one of the editors of our book, New Perspectives on Translanguaging and Education, Boglárka Straszer. In this post she reflects on the importance of our mother tongues.

Many years ago, I took the bus every morning to my office at the university in my home town Uppsala. One sunny spring morning I noticed unusual graffiti on the ground in front of my feet at the bus stop. It was a mysterious statement in Swedish: “Jag gav den orden” – “I gave words to it”. I was mesmerized. After that day, I found myself studying this graffiti on the concrete every morning for a long time, enormously fascinated. My thoughts always seemed to roam wildly when I stood there at the bus stop waiting for my bus. What did the scribbler mean? What was he/she thinking? What were the words? A linguistic act was suggested; and it was something that made me reflect on the power of words and language, the strength of this short sentence in front of my feet in this public space. A little graffiti that we can interpret in many ways. Words we give to each other, words we get and take from each other, and words we use are significant. They transform people into thinking and communicating beings.

Language deserves attention and especially today on International Mother Language Day.

30 years ago I got the opportunity to learn Finnish. In this picture I am with my host and good friend Ilpo in Riihimäki, Finland, in July 1992 at the end of my year as Rotary Exchange Student.

Many writers have tried to describe mother tongue with beautiful words and emotional expressions. Therefore, there is no point for me to try to describe mother tongue more exquisitely. Instead, I will simply allow myself to state that for me, the mother tongue is intimate – one of the most beautiful gifts an individual can have, and also the most important tool for communication and the way to the soul. Our mother tongues and languages are our treasures that no one can take away from us, as long as we care about and use them. But, is the mother tongue really the most important tool for communication and the most important key to the soul for everyone and in every circumstance?

I think that there is no one truth about languages and there is no single way to define mother tongue, although in my own case it is quite simple to argue that I have Hungarian as my mother tongue. Hungarian was the only language that my family used during my childhood and it was the only language that everybody used in my surroundings. It was also the majority language in Hungary, even though some other languages were visible in various contexts in Hungarian society.

Today, however, I can and want to add that happily enough I have two other named languages with me in my everyday life as well as in my heart. These two languages, my first second language Finnish and my second second language Swedish, which I learned later on in my life, are as equally close to my mind and heart as my Hungarian. I love them each just as much and they are equally important for me for to be able to express all my thoughts and all my feelings. In some situations it can be easier to choose and use one of my languages. Sometimes I benefit more from using one, while in other situations I benefit more from another one. And this is the joy with multilingualism! Also, these three languages – Hungarian, Finnish and Swedish – are my children’s first languages, which they have been socialized in since birth. I hope with all my heart that they feel that all three languages are their own mother tongue.

Most of the people around the world use more than one named language in their everyday life and many of them have more than one mother tongue, making them all the richer. In my research, I have met, among others, many second generation Hungarians in Finland and Sweden, people who were born and grew up in another country and in another linguistic environment than their parents did. I also have friends with Sámi origin, who speak or have connections with South, North or another Sámi language. All these people have varied attitudes towards languages, defining mother tongue not only as a language they know best in all kinds of situations and not either as the language of their childhood. Instead, many of them argue that Sámi is their mother tongue, regardless if only their parents or grandparents used it and they themselves do not have skills in the language at all. They do so because of strong emotional ties to the language and the associated culture. Their relationships to their parents, relatives and roots play an important role.

Today Boglárka has a multilingual repertoire and is Assistant Professor in Swedish as a Second Language at Dalarna University in Sweden

Roots, however, are not always the most crucial aspect when you define mother tongue, as every individual who has some kind of connection to one or more languages has the right to determine what to call that language or these languages. For example, some years ago I carried out a study where I interviewed elderly Hungarians who had moved to Finland or Sweden as young adults more than 40 years ago. Some of them have a purist view of language and have clear opinions on mother tongue, such as “the mother tongue is the language you are born with” or “the language you use without any obstacles in all domains”. However, these people could also contradict themselves and say that Finnish or Swedish was already or “almost” like their mother tongue – despite the fact that they had not learned these languages since birth nor did they use these languages in every situation. Many of these people do not draw boundaries between their languages. Rather, their languages are natural parts of their life and they use them unhindered in different situations and in different contexts. All of their languages are integrated in their repertoire.

I share the same feelings with them. I want to emphasise that it is wonderful to celebrate mother tongues and every mother tongue today, delighting in the fact that we all have right to determine which languages we want to celebrate as our own mother tongues. I personally do not want to only celebrate my Hungarian, but also my Finnish and my Swedish, too.

Finally, these words are for my beloved, old, and always wise close friend in Finland, who unfortunately does not have much time left to share with us in this life. This is for you who opened a way for me to find new linguistic and cultural spaces and gave me many wonderful years to speak about languages and enjoy the bilingual and, nowadays, multilingual lifestyle. With you, I started to understand the meaning with my mother tongue. And with you, I learned to love both Hungarian and Finnish deep in my heart. With more languages than one mother tongue, I am stronger and have more self-confidence than ever before. This happiness with languages is the most valuable thing individuals can give to each other. Your work, my friend, to give me a new language gives pleasure and joy forever. Mitä lämpimimmät kiitokseni siitä! / Thank you with all my love!

Boglárka Straszer, Uppsala, Sweden

What’s It Like Growing Up With Three Languages?

Last month we had a work experience student with us from Germany. Loïc grew up speaking three languages (his father is one of our authors and you can read about his multilingual journey in our book Raising Multilingual Children), so we wanted to ask him about his experience of being multilingual.

How many languages do you speak?

Loïc (left) and Laura on a tour of our distributor’s warehouse with our account manager, Matt

I would say that I fluently speak three languages: German, Dutch and English.

Did you grow up learning all those or did you learn any later in life?

The first language I learnt was Dutch, as my mom is a Dutch native speaker. Shortly after that, through my father speaking English with me, I became proficient in English as well. Then lastly by living in a German environment, going to German kindergarten and having mostly German friends, German was the third language I learnt.

Do you think of any one language as your ‘mother tongue’ or do you count them all?

I would count all of them as my ‘mother tongue’ even though I speak some better than others and also feel more comfortable depending on the language I speak.

Do you feel your personality changes depending on the language you’re speaking?

I personally can only refer to me feeling most comfortable whilst speaking English. From my friends and family I have heard that I get annoyed a lot faster, and on account of that, curse a lot more, when I speak German.

Which language do you find most difficult and why?

It is most difficult for me to speak Dutch, because I don’t often have the opportunity to speak it. My mom and I stopped speaking Dutch to each other about five years ago as I usually just responded in German. The reason for that I still haven`t figured out (ultimate act of teenage defiance?) I must say that I do regret that, but if I stay with my Dutch family for more than 3 days I usually get the hang of it again.

Which is your favourite language to speak and why?

Loïc on a visit to Sarah’s new house in Dawlish with Tommi and Laura

My favourite language to speak depends a lot on who I’m talking to – with my friends I feel the best speaking German, with my family English or Dutch (depending on what they would rather speak). Overall I must say though that English is my favourite language and usually that is the language I go with when I am emotional.

You live in Germany – how do you maintain your other languages?

I do live in Germany, yes. Maintaining my German is understandably easy and my English also mainly easy, as I practice in school, with foreign friends, online, with media and with my father most of all. My Dutch on the other hand is somewhat more difficult to maintain, but I recently starting speaking more Dutch with my mom and some of my Dutch friends. Mainly I practice my Dutch though when I am in the Netherlands or in Belgium.

What are the advantages of being multilingual?

The range of people I can speak to is a lot bigger. In general, all the benefits you gain from speaking other languages, just that I didn’t have to undergo the time-consuming process of learning a different language… which is supremely helpful. I think every person who has tried to learn a language knows the frustration of not being able to express yourself correctly in that language, because of a lack of proficiency. So I am very happy and lucky that my parents brought me up to be trilingual.

There are also some disadvantages of being multilingual. These disadvantages for me would be that I often switch words in languages or sometimes forget to address a person in the correct language. Generally speaking though I think the cons are strongly outweighed by the pros.

 

Raising Multilingual Children is available on our website.

The Fascinating World of Linguistic Landscapes

We recently published Expanding the Linguistic Landscape edited by Martin Pütz and Neele Mundt. In this post the editors talk about the International LAUD Symposium that inspired the book.

This edited collection entitled Expanding the Linguistic Landscape is the result of the 37th International LAUD Symposium held in the spring of 2016. The book focuses on linguistic landscapes in public spaces and the emplacement of multimodal signs (visual, auditory, haptic, olfactory) in multilingual inscriptions as they are represented in diverse societies around the world, such as in Europe, Africa, Australia/Oceania and Asia. The symposium, hosted by LAUD (Linguistic Agency University of Duisburg), represented a biennial international event which took place for the 9th time at the University of Koblenz-Landau (Landau Campus). In the past, LAUD was instrumental in organizing numerous conferences on various facets of multilingualism and the sociology of language, such as language contact and conflict, language choices, ideologies and language policies, multilingual cognition and language use, endangered languages and now, in 2016,  Linguistic Landscapes (henceforth LL). Therefore, in retrospect and for the purpose of this blog, a few remarks about the beginnings of LAUD and its further development and expansion are in order.

The Symposium on LL (LAUD 2016) was posthumously devoted to the founder of LAUD, Professor René Dirven, the great scholar and spiritual mentor of cognitive linguistics who died in August 2016. Back in 1973, together with his colleague Günter Radden (University of Hamburg), René Dirven established a linguistic clearing-house, the Linguistic Agency at the University of Trier (LAUT). The Linguistic Agency provided an institutionalized forum that allowed René to organize an impressive series of international linguistic symposia. The world’s most distinguished scholars were invited to present their work at the newly founded University of Trier, which overnight became known as a destination of pilgrimage in modern linguistics. The series of symposia was opened in 1977 with papers by Charles Fillmore, followed by John Searle, William Labov, Michael Halliday, George Lakoff, Ronald Langacker, Joshua Fishman, Suzanne Romaine and many other well-known scholars of linguistics. By now LAUD is internationally known and its acronym is strongly associated with linguistic innovation, a wide scope and the name of its founder, René Dirven. He leaves behind numerous students and colleagues throughout the academic world who have learned much from him about language and linguistics.

An example of linguistic landscape in Cameroon

What motivated the editors of this volume to organize a symposium on linguistic and semiotic landscapes was first of all their common research interest in the cultural, ideological and multimodal spaces of the African continent with special reference to multilingual Cameroon. Having spent and enjoyed somewhat longer research stays in the country we were fascinated by the sheer array of linguistic and semiotic tokens which characterize its urban and rural areas in public spaces. Certainly, the linguistic landscapes of Asian megacities such as Hong Kong have much more to offer semiotically especially when it comes to a glittering, world-class commercial center where Chinese culture, British colonial influences and modern day high-technology blend together. Still, the diversity of languages we are confronted with in politically unstable and tense societies like Cameroon and other African nations likewise arouses interest in LL analyses and interpretations. Leaving the Africa-based LL discussions and debates aside, the remaining chapters are likewise testimony of a rich array of new findings on methodology, translanguaging, semiotic assemblages and multimodality in or outside the city, be it in Australia/Micronesia, Germany, Taiwan, or Lithuania. We are hopeful that the reader will enjoy diving into this fascinating world of linguistic and semiotic landscapes just as we did during the somewhat longer, but efficient, process of conceptualizing and editing this volume.

Martin Pütz
Puetz@uni-landau.de

Neele Mundt
Mundt@uni-landau.de

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Engaging Superdiversity edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert.

10 Things You Might Not Have Known About Multilingualism

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…

  1. Are dogs multilingual?

    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!

  1. 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.
  1. 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”.
  1. “Thank you!” in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish

    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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Living with Languages in a Multilingual World

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: ajitmohanty@gmail.com.

For  more information about this book please see our website.

The Amazing Mind of the Multilingual Language User

We recently published Mind Matters in SLA edited by Clare Wright, Thorsten Piske and Martha Young-Scholten. In this post the editors discuss what is unique about the book.

“I really love the cover of Mind Matters in SLA, but why do you have jugglers and acrobats?” – this was one of the most frequent comments we heard around the Multilingual Matters stands at conferences this autumn. This book is the companion volume to Input Matters in SLA, published by Multilingual Matters in 2009, with a similar cover by the wonderful artist Ellen Harris. The beauty but also the hard work that underpins successful acrobatics seems to us an ideal way of picturing the complex and amazing processes in the mind of the multilingual language user.

We wanted our volume to go to the heart of the debates that still go on around what the nature of language knowledge is, and – more importantly for us – how that knowledge develops and can be used. So we invited authors who are an eclectic mix of established leaders in their field and rising star researchers to create a well-rounded resource, which we hope will inspire readers, particularly those new to language acquisition, to think in new and exciting ways about second language teaching and learning.

The book is unique in some ways providing a bridge between formalism and functionalism, allowing the reader to explore points of convergence between Minimalist accounts and emergentist/processing accounts, and providing access to cutting-edge research on how learners make transitions during linguistic development. The book is also unique in being committed to being accessible to non-experts. We’ve ensured the volume is easily readable by those who will benefit from it most, i.e. students training to be language teachers, students on postgraduate programmes and professionals keen to reflect on their language teaching practice.

Another unusual aspect of the book is its historical range over what may lie behind modern theories and debates. We highlight just how long some of these questions have taxed scholars – we specifically include a chapter on language evolution, and other chapters make reference to the centuries of thinking about language, dating back to antiquity. The first section of the book focuses on issues that relate to our current understanding of language in general, to acquisition and to second language acquisition, including why human language (particularly syntax) is special, from both generative and non-generative perspectives. The second section includes work on issues currently debated in property-theoretic work in SLA on L2 morpho-syntax, phonology and speech perception, the lexicon and attrition. The third section, focusing on transition research, covers psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research impacting L2 development, including models of L2 acquisition in and out of the classroom. As with Input Matters in SLA, we’ve included a glossary to define complex terms, and we have ensured chapters can be related to real-world settings to help the reader understand at least some of the possible reasons behind of the old mystery of “why don’t learners learn what the teacher teaches?” (Allwright 1984).

As with all edited volumes, there can be unexpected delays along the way, and we are grateful to Multilingual Matters for their support during the long process of finally getting this one out – to the delight (and relief) of contributors and editors when they saw it on the conference stand!

References:

Allwright, R. (1984) Why don’t learners learn what teachers teach?  The interaction hypothesis. In D.M Singleton and D.G. Little (eds) Language Learning in Formal and Informal Contexts (pp 3–18). Dublin: IRAAL

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Working Memory and Second Language Learning by Zhisheng (Edward) Wen.

Emotion Research in Multilingual Contexts: Why it Interests Me and What my Research Shows

We recently published Multilinguals’ Verbalisation and Perception of Emotions by Pia Resnik. In this post Pia explains how she came to be interested in researching emotion in multilingual contexts.

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

pia.resnik@univie.ac.at

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Emerging Self-Identities and Emotion in Foreign Language Learning by Masuko Miyahara.

Laura’s Trip to the Irish Research Network in Childhood Bilingualism and Multilingualism Meeting

Last month I was invited to give a talk on publishing with Multilingual Matters at the Irish Research Network in Childhood Bilingualism and Multilingualism. The one-day meeting was organised by Francesca La Morgia and took place at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The research network aims to ‘establish links among researchers, policy makers, teachers, early childhood educators, educational psychologists, speech and language therapists and anyone who could benefit from gaining knowledge and sharing experiences that can advance the understanding and improve practices in the area of childhood bilingualism’.

Dr Enlli Thomas introducing her presentation

The day began with a keynote speech from Prof. Enlli Môn Thomas who is the co-editor, together with Ineke Mennen, of our book Advances in the Study of Bilingualism. Enlli talked us through research being undertaken on bilingualism in Wales and discussed what has been done and has, or has not, worked in some areas. It seems that often the attitudes toward Welsh are relatively positive, in that people understand why it’s important and what the benefits of being bilingual are, yet their linguistic behaviour does not always reflect these views.

Laura giving her talk on publishing with Multilingual Matters

The next part of the morning comprised presentations from Prof. Nóirín Hayes from the Children’s Research Network for Ireland and Northern Ireland and Maureen Burgess of TCD who spoke about funding sources and opportunities. Making up that trio of presentations was mine on publishing, which I hope was of interest to those who are looking to publish the outcomes of their work and want to learn more about the publication process and what it entails.

One of the key aims of the network is to connect those working in different spheres but with similar interests or goals, to share knowledge and to think about useful collaborations. As such, the afternoon began with short presentations by delegates so that we could get an idea of who was working in which specific areas. We then split off into workshops and I sat in on one led by Ciara O’Toole on language disorders in bilingual children and bilingual education. In the group were speech language therapists, teachers and researchers and it was interesting to hear everyone pooling their ideas and expertise to come up with some aims for the group and goals to achieve before the next meeting.

The day then drew to a close with each working group reporting back to everyone else and it was nearly time for me to return to Bristol. But not before I took a moment to visit two of TCD’s most famous things: The Book of Kells and Old Library – absolute ‘musts’ for a publisher on a trip to Dublin!

Laura

The Multilingual Hospital: Confessions of a Sociolinguist

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.

Graph
These figures vary substantially across England. In London, 114 of every 1,000 staff (11.4%) are from the EU Source

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.

Finding out

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.

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Figure 1: Languages spoken on the ward

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.

Advancing the Research on Heritage Language Speakers

This month we published Heritage and School Language Literacy Development in Migrant Children edited by Raphael Berthele and Amelia Lambelet. In this post Raphael introduces the book and reveals how it came about.

The investigation of transfer phenomena is a classic topic in multilingualism research. Scholars have developed useful tools and frameworks for investigating crosslinguistic influence on linguistic structure and meaning: when patterns in an individual’s speech or writing can be compared to patterns known from dialects or languages that are in contact, positive or negative transfer can be identified. By contrast, the transfer of literacy skills, for example in the form of reading skills or knowledge about text genres, is trickier to investigate. Heritage and School Language Literacy Development in Migrant Children addresses this unsolved problem. Several studies focusing on different language pairs are presented; they deploy diverse methods, but all attempt to measure the impact of skills developed in one or more languages on the development of those same skills in another language. Languages investigated include – among others – Albanian, Turkish, Portuguese, French, German and Russian.

A considerable part of this book is devoted to a longitudinal study of primary school children who are heritage language speakers of Portuguese in Switzerland. This is the fruit of a project that was directed by the book’s two editors. Intrigued by some rather unexpected findings and questions that arose during this project, we contacted colleagues who had been investigating similar issues but with different methods and tasks. We realized that our work was complementary, and that they were able to fill some of the gaps we had identified in our data and in our thinking. That is how this book project was born. We are confident that it is a new and different contribution to the field, that puts into question some – at least in our view – rather problematic assumptions about the interdependence of heritage languages and school languages. We therefore hope that our contribution will nurture future thinking about research on heritage language speakers.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning edited by Anne Golden, Scott Jarvis and Kari Tenfjord.