I have read, taught, and talked about teaching and learning language for a long time. But when I think about some of the things that my three and one year old children do with the languages they are learning, it seems to me that some of the most prevalent folk wisdom and even some research/theories about multilingual language learners are inadequate.
Discussions among parents about children’s language learning process in bi- or multi-lingual homes always make me feel that parents have various types of anxiety and concern about their bi- or multilingual children. Many parents seem to be afraid that their children’s language proficiency will be negatively impacted if they try to make their little ones learn two or more languages at a time when they should be learning basic communication in their home language. Some of them seem to resort to strong prohibition against the use of English at home, constant lecturing about the importance of the home language and culture, and/or sending children to formal classes designed to help them with the home language. Others seem willing to give up their desire of teaching their kids their own home language for fear of them not learning English early enough and well enough. Yet others seem to try to keep the two or more languages separate. In one case, a 4-5 year old child, who was neither speaking English nor one of the two home languages very well, was taken to a specialist for consultation. The expert advised the parents to start speaking in English Only at home so the child was “not confused.” The neighbor of that family tried to solve the problem before it became too serious by maintaining clear language boundaries: the father spoke English Only and the mother Nepali Only with their daughter.
In all the above cases, the belief is that learning multiple languages can be a confusing hassle to young minds because it involves constant translation from one language to another. And, as the response of the language specialist above indicates, even scholars and researchers of language acquisition have not yet quite started questioning conventional fears that multiple languages and translation might have negative impacts upon young children.
Finally, the issue that intrigues me most is this: some parents are afraid of what they think is an act of “active forgetting” of home language(s) by their children: they say that when their kids start going to school, and more significantly when they grow up, they try to avoid home language because they consider doing so as being foreigners. This is quite likely because young people do try to not identify themselves with foreign languages and cultures. The problem, however, is that parents should be educating their children against instead of in favor of that kind of “foreigner” anxiety—-because if you think about it, there are so many other things that cannot and some that should not be overcome, like skin color, intellectual perspectives of different cultures, family traditions and relationships, etc. (And, by the way, I don’t even want to talk about parents who express great and often audible pride to see their children speak in English fluently… which, in short, makes me think, “Duh, that’s like saying that your dog barks like a dog—-what a surprise, है साथी, आम्मममम भन्या, खतरा भ’छन्त हौ?)
Yes, I must admit that as a parent, I have not yet reached the stage where the bilingual/multilingual parents who I’ve talked to have been. At age three, Umber is gaining fluency in English and Nepali (plus a few Chinese and Spanish words and phrases); and since her first birthday, Ava has only learned to utter a few Nepali words (including बाबा and आमा in the the most lovely and folksy Nepali accent), though she also understands some English spoken by her favorite cartoon characters. But I’ve not only been observing and thinking a lot about how these little ones—-especially the prattling toddler—-learn and use language; I have observed the children of some of my multilingual friends whose children speak two or more languages so well that they seem good enough evidence to disprove all the concerns and anxieties and theories that I described above.
And, while I wait to take the challenge of multilingualism with my children as life rolls on, I will go ahead and share a few thoughts here. First of all, I don’t (fully) agree with the conventional beliefs regarding multilingualism among children. In fact, I want to go on a limn and suggest that the prevalent beliefs/folk wisdom about multilingualism among children may actually contribute to the “problems” as perceived by the parents. Let me share some thoughts on the subject by using personal experiences with my kids, avoiding my terrible tendency/habit of beginning to add what “studies have found” even in reflective blog entries like this. (Just to make sure: Except for talking about what I learn from how the little ones learn or use languages, I will not use them as guinea pigs.)
Here’s an incident that recently occurred with my three year old that seems to negate prevailing beliefs about translation and language learning. The other day, when I said to Umber, “Go keep that fork in the kitchen,” he responded to me by saying, “No, iss not keep. Iss ‘put’ee back’!” Not fully understanding what he was saying, I said, looking away from the screen that occupies me all my time, “किचेनमा लगेर राख भनेको, बाबु |” Then he said, “ए, लाख भनेको ?” The second response made my head reel. I have spoken English for 30+ years, taught it for a long time, and English is what do in one way or another all the time; and here’s my three year old who is correcting me about how to use the word “keep.” My translation of the Nepali word “राखनु” was less accurate than his understanding of it, in English itself! He must have heard both the words “keep” and “put (something back)” in English from the cartoon characters on TV or baby movies that he watches: “keep” as in “Keep it, it’s a present for you” and “put” as in “Put it back in the box.” Nepali has only one translation “राखनु” for both words!
For me, as I semi-jokingly tell people, English is a “first” language when I am talking/writing about academic subjects and in many other contexts; however, I have rarely used English at home with family members—until now. Therefore, the more basic/homely words, phrases, and idioms are much harder for me to handle than the more specialized words, phrases, and syntaxes that I do outside the house. In a sense, my home has an artificial linguistic border that separates my family life with my social/professional lives. Apparently, that’s not the case with the kids.
It seems that for Umber, English is a co-first language with Nepali. Because he is not concerned with which is his “first” and such, he switches and shuttles between the two languages depending on which one works better for a given purpose, often mixing or mashing them whenever necessary. I must add that that Umber does seem to have a highly sophisticated sense of which language is more appropriate in what context (and I’m not exaggerating this, because I’ve had him put his index finger over his lips and say “sssh” when I start speaking in Nepali at a grocery store, and I’ve never found him talking in either of the languages without first deciding what language a guest speaks). And yet, when he is talking to someone he knows is bilingual, like he knows his parents are, he draws on the resources of both languages, switches back and forth, depending on context/purpose and efficiency, and he specifies his meaning by meshing the two languages at the level of words and phrases as well as higher units when he wants to.
Furthermore, even when using one language in a certain situation, it is possible that Umber will be better at drawing from other languages better than I have been, because I learned and used different languages in relatively separate situations, with artificial boundaries, hierarchies, and often through imposition by adults. Even I feel that though my fluency in any language, at the level of spontaneous speech and writing, varies by context, subject, interlocutors, and so on; my proficiency with any language, at the level of meaning-making, is significantly increased by my ability to draw on the semantic and epistemological resources of multiple languages. Thus, to state the obvious, if we promote multilingualism among our children, I am sure that the multiple languages they will use can greatly add to the process of generating and communicating ideas within and across different language communities. For example, the distinction between “keep” and “put” in English could help Umber give clearer instructions in Nepali, as either आफैसंग राख (“keep it with you”) or उता लगेर राख (“go keep it over there”).
So, here is how my three year old is exposing the myth that translation will confuse language learners: since communication involves translating thoughts into words and words into other words, whether one is monolingual or bi/multilingual, translation is a natural process that the human brain is good at. The more you let it translate thoughts to language and one language to another, the better their thinking and communication will be. To use the example, when I said “keep it,” Umber showed a better understanding of “keep” than mine because unlike me, he had two clear options and didn’t try to keep one out of the game.
At home, I seem to speak by translating one way: from Nepali to English; and at work I rarely have to translate, but if I ever do, then it is the other way around. I learned languages by deliberately putting them in hierarchical orders: thus, grammar for learning a new language in contrast to learning by speaking for the home/local languages.
In contrast, Umber doesn’t put one or the other language as his “first”: he seems to naturally/intuitively decide what language or their resources to draw on in terms of the context/subject, people, and what language someone is using with him. He seems to translate in a two-way manner within the same context. (If you don’t have firsthand experience of little smarty pants, trust me, they really seem to be capable of what I am describing here.)
I must add at this point that it is not only technically multilingual individuals whose understanding and communication may be better because of their access to multiple linguistic resources; the same phenomenon can be true with people who use only one language, simply because they too can, if they want, draw on the rich resources of that language. So this is not about language identity and how many languages you know–because we can’t count Umber’s few Spanish and Chinese words unless he productively draws on them–but about what people do with language. That is, if we consider that English language, for instance, has millions of additional words today than some of the historically less diversified languages, then we need to look at so-called monolingual English speakers also have at their disposal as much resources as other multilinguals may have. My point is that we should focus on the mechanism and how rich the process of meaning making is in an individual’s attempt to communicate or generate ideas.
Of course, do not forget that if your kids speak only English, only Chinese, only Spanish, only Nepali, they will be much better off–not worse–if you encourage and facilitate their desire and effort to learn and use more languages.
Which brings me to the issue about children not wanting to sound like or identify themselves as linguistic and cultural foreigners. I will first admit that in this regard I don’t have direct experience yet. But like in the case of the translation myths, it seems to me that parents need to think again. In fact, as I indicated above, I think that parents’ beliefs about children’s fear of foreignness may not only be inaccurate and simplistic, they may be actually feeding into the children’s language attitudes. I hate to add such a comment here but I have often seen a kind of double-standard among multilingual parents about their children’s language proficiencies. On the one hand, they belabor about the dignity of home language and culture (and for many, “culture” only constitutes what one child innocently called “demons from Nepal,” because his parents from an erstwhile upper family had only showed statues/photos of the Hindu gods as everything Nepali “culture”). And on the other hand, the children can sense in the very air at home, hear in their parents’ talk with other adults, and understand through patent pats on their back from their parents that knowing how to speak English well is a mark of prestige and pride.
As for the other funny problem of parents being proud of their children’s English abilities in a totally English speaking society, let me share a funny incident that happened at a gathering where parents were sharing their concerns about their children not learning or forgetting their home languages. The wife of one of our friends who was engaged in the discussion had been hearing our discussion, until she decided to interrupt the discussion and in a somewhat upset tone tell the group, “Who says that your kids don’t learn your home language? I’ll tell you what. Instead of sitting here talking about your child’s dislike of your home language, go ahead and stop boasting about their great abilities to speak in English [implying “only” English], and your kids will do as well mine!” Indeed, her two daughters daughters speak Nepali like they just came down the mountains from the countryside, and they speak English like “native” speakers.
As the mother in the above anecdote suggested, if you add the weird pride in your children’s developing monolingualism (and nothing but occasional complaint for not speaking your home language(s) well) on top of the real or perceived social pressure that they may have at school to progressively un-foreign themselves, then it is completely unsurprising that your children will both actively and conveniently forget their home languages relative to English. I think that it is essential that we teach our children that cultural diversity (in the sense of accepting and promoting co-foreignness, rather than “tolerance” for someone else’s foreignness) is a good thing; if we let them believe that knowing and using different languages is a bad idea, we will do grave injustice to these citizens of the twenty-first century. We are their best (and often) only teachers in this regard—-no one may help us take up this worthy challenge.
I will not yet bet on how easy it will be for me and my family to help our new members learn, appreciate, and harness the power and beauty of multiple languages and cultures—-and thereby learn from and communicate with people beyond one (or a few) linguistic borders/boxes in their lives. But I am sure that if in the process of living and communicating with a family that is spread across the world and collectively speaks about a dozen languages, our little ones come to appreciate and use the resources of multiple languages and cultures, they should consider themselves very, very fortunate.
And I am likely to continue learning from their learning process!