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.

Untitled-1
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.

How does multilingual interaction help people with dementia maintain a sense of self?

Last month we published Multilingual Interaction and Dementia edited by Charlotta Plejert, Camilla Lindholm and Robert W. Schrauf. In this post the editors reveal what inspired them to put the book together and discuss the under-researched subject of multilingualism and dementia. 

In the year 2011, we started a research programme at Linköping University in Sweden, called Dementia: Agency, Personhood and Everyday Life, the aim of which was to highlight, from interdisciplinary perspectives, a range of aspects of what it is like to receive a dementia diagnosis, and to live with the disease on a day-to-day basis. Within the programme, we ran a sub-project with linguists and anthropologists working on ethnocultural and linguistic diversity in relation to dementia; a project that rapidly grew from having played a rather minor role in the original planning, to becoming one of the more significant projects overall, during the six years that the programme lasted. In some respects, the project was a sign of its time, with massive migration to Europe and the North due to instabilities in the Middle East, but also due to earlier streams of migration, and multilingual populations growing old, requiring the provision of health care services within societies that had previously been rather ethnoculturally and linguistically homogeneous (like the Nordic countries).

Surveying the field, we discovered that a fair amount of work on ethnicity, language and ageing had been conducted, but that work within linguistics on multilingualism and dementia, and particularly that which took an interest in social interaction in mundane settings, was very limited. This took us somewhat by surprise, considering the fact that multilingual and multicultural encounters in care and health care services in countries worldwide is a rule rather than an exception. Getting our acts together, Camilla, Bob (Robert), and I (Charlotta) therefore decided to collect contributions from the few scholars who already focused on this topic, eventually resulting in the volume Multilingual Interaction and Dementia.

In contrast to what few studies there are on multilingualism and dementia, which primarily have contributed with important insights into neurocognitive aspects of the disease, the contributions to the volume all share a focus on the role of social interaction, and discourse processes involving multilingual people with dementia and significant others, for leading everyday life with as high a quality as possible, despite their condition. Many of the chapters depict life in residential care settings, in which not only residents may be of linguistically and ethnoculturally diverse backgrounds, but also staff, who may, or may not match in language and culture with residents. What is experienced is thus a highly dynamic setting, in which spoken language use, but even more significantly, bodily resources, play an important role for the ways in which residents and care providing staff manage to build rapport, and succeed in carrying out various tasks (like showering, feeding, but also amusements such as playing bingo, and the like). It is also demonstrated that the choice and use of different languages matter – and contribute to the achievement and maintenance of people’s identities and sense of self. Insights into multilingual and multicultural interaction in residential care, serve to inform care practices and can hopefully develop them further in terms of making them more linguistically and culturally sensitive. As is already known, culturally derived conceptualizations of a disease, such as dementia, affect help-seeking behaviours, and they also affect dementia evaluations and diagnostic processes. All of this, and more, is addressed in the book Multilingual Interaction and Dementia.

Charlotta, Camilla and Bob

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like the other books in our Communication Disorders Across Languages series.

The Pleasure of Raising Multilingual Children

Last month we published Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In this post, Jean-Marc discusses his own experience of bringing up a multilingual daughter and explains what inspired him and his co-authors to write the book.  

Parents everywhere in the world want the best for their children. It means looking after their physical and psychological health as well as their education. I remember reading books with my wife when she was pregnant with Livia about the best ways to raise children. We felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of information and the occasionally contradictory suggestions on how to be good parents. We were also struck by the strong opinions people had about early multilingualism. Many expressed doubts about it being beneficial for the child “before a first language” settled in: wasn’t there a risk of the child ending up with a “muddled” linguistic system, unable to distinguish between the languages? Others wondered whether growing up with multiple languages might lead to an absence of clear linguistic and cultural roots for the child.

Having read my former PhD supervisor, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore’s (1982) book, Bilingualism: Basic Principles, my wife and I decided that the potential benefits of early multilingualism outweighed the potential drawbacks, and when Livia was born in London in 1996, my wife used Dutch with her, I used French, with English spoken all around us. She picked up Urdu from her Pakistani child-minder, who spoke English and Urdu with the English-speaking children. We were a bit concerned that the introduction of a fourth first language might be too much for Livia, but this fear turned out to be unfounded and her languages developed at a normal pace – though Urdu faded away after the age of two and a half when she moved to an English nursery school. From the moment she started speaking, she was perfectly capable of separating her languages, and switching from one to another effortlessly depending on the linguistic repertoire of her interlocutor. She still sounds like a native speaker in her three languages and consistently got some of the highest marks for English during her primary and secondary education. The brain of a baby is like a sponge: sufficient and regular linguistic input will allow it to absorb the languages in its environment. There is no danger of the brain ‘overheating’ because of exposure to too many languages.

Livia’s case is the first story in the book Raising Multilingual Children that has just come out. It includes Livia’s own view on her multilingualism at the age of ten and sixteen. My co-authors Greg Poarch and Julia Festman tell the story of their trilingual children. Greg’s son, Loïc, speaks two minority languages (English and Dutch) at home and uses German outside of his home. Julia’s daughter and son, Aya and Noam, grew up as trilinguals from birth, with two minority languages (English and Hebrew) at home and German outside. The situation changed when Julia’s husband passed away and the input in Hebrew dried up. Now German is the majority language spoken inside and outside of their home and English is the language used at school. Greg, Julia and I decided to pool our family experiences with three languages to produce a book for the general public informed by the academic research. We adopted an issue-related approach and agreed that we would present tips based on examples from our daily lives to highlight things that worked, and strategies that backfired with our children. The book contains concrete and practical ideas to implement multilingualism in the household.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker, Language Strategies for Trilingual Families by Andreas Braun and Tony Cline, and Xiao-lei Wang’s books, Growing up with Three Languages and Maintaining Three Languages.

 

The Multilingual Nature of Higher Education

This month we published Academic Biliteracies edited by David M. Palfreyman and Christa van der Walt. In this post, David and Christa discuss their experience of coediting the book. 

Christa: There were some initial signs that this book was not meant to be. Firstly, David’s e-mails to me disappeared in cyberspace and it was only when Nancy Hornberger contacted me to enquire very diplomatically whether I had received the e-mails, that we found out his institutional e-mails were not delivered, for some unfathomable reason. Secondly, this was an under-researched topic and we were not sure that we would get any contributions; and thirdly, both of us dealt with serious interruptions of a personal and professional nature. And yet, here we are, three years later, with chapters that showcase the multilingual nature of higher education in all its complexity.

Our first (academic) challenge was to agree on what we understand ‘literacy’ to mean, so that we can evaluate contributions on ‘biliteracy’. Going through our Skype notes, I’m struck by the terminology issues in every conversation. Is there a difference between ‘translanguaging’ and ‘translingual’; between ‘multiliteracies’ and ‘multilingual literacies’? Is ‘translanguaging’ the overarching concept in which ‘biliteracy’ needs to find its place, or should they be seen as separate phenomena in multilingual contexts? We still do not have a definite answer; or maybe it is better to say that we have many answers!

David: Yes, the email bug almost put a subtle end to the project before it started, and I’m very glad that Nancy intervened! I was keen to work with Christa on this book because her previous publications had focused on multilingual higher education in a way that I hadn’t come across before: questioning assumptions about English as the medium of instruction in so many universities worldwide.

Christa: We both wanted a variety of chapters from all corners of the world, but of course we had to be selective within the scope of one book.  We aimed to cover both majority and minority languages in contexts where language is a medium for developing knowledge rather than necessarily a focus of the course; in the end, the chapters highlight the use at university of literacy in Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, isiXhosa and other African languages, Korean, Maori, Polish, Spanish and Welsh.

David: Some of the contributors had already published in the area of biliteracy; some had been working with biliterate students and issues of biliteracy in university courses for some years, but came to engage with the issues in new ways through their involvement in the book. As the book developed, we encouraged contributors to read and comment on each other’s chapters, which brought some mutual adjustments and helped bring out common themes. All of us became aware of new perspectives to understand the experience of students and scholars, and fresh options for working with and for biliteracy. Guillaume Gentil, whose previous work provided inspiration for the book, kindly sprang into action once the rest of the book was complete, contributing a concluding chapter which draws themes together and points out some ways forward for research in academic biliteracies.

I’m grateful to Zayed University (UAE) for their support in travelling to Australia, Jordan and the UK in the course of preparing the book. Among many learning experiences along the way, I remember especially meeting up by coincidence with Christa at the AILA Congress in Brisbane – it was good to have a face to face meeting near the beginning as most of our later work together was by email or Skype. Another unforgettable and educative experience was taking part in a research conference at Cardiff University where most communication was in Welsh or Basque: having to rely on simultaneous interpreters and finding my usual language of academic/social communication suddenly minoritized, I suddenly found myself a ‘lurker’ in academic discussions!

Christa: For me, as a lecturer who code switches and uses two languages when teaching at Stellenbosch University, the active development of biliteracy in academic contexts is an important acknowledgement of the multilingual nature of twenty-first century higher education. Many students arrive at higher education institutions with a fully developed academic language that is not English and it would be a waste to ignore the enormous potential of that resource when making meaning of academic material.

We’ll look forward to hearing from readers of the book about how the issues relate to their own experiences as learners or teachers.

 

David M. Palfreyman: david.palfreyman@zu.ac.ae

Christa van der Walt: cvdwalt@sun.ac.za

 

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Multilingual Higher Education, which Christa published with us previously.