Blog februari 2018

The many flavors of bilingualism

Elisabet GarciaElisabet García González has specialized in research on bilingualism in so called heritage languages and has investigated Spanish-Dutch bilingual children in the Netherlands. She strives to find how environmental and individual factors affect the acquisition and development of two languages, and hopes to bring bilingualism research to society to raise awareness and improve understanding of what it really means to be bilingual.

I have always been fascinated by those people around me who were able to shift from one language to another in the blink of an eye. This was quite extraordinary where I grew up, a little working-class neighborhood in Madrid, where the majority of people were what we are today used to call “monolingual speakers”. My best friend in high-school was of Catalan heritage, and any time her father would drive us to the cinema, I would quietly sit in the car while they chatted in Catalan. – sorry – my friend would say – it is so rude he speaks Catalan when you are here, but we have this sort of deal at home where my father only speaks Catalan to my sister and me – I would listen in awe, while she would tell me what a normal evening at the dinner table of the Balcells would look like. – Yeah, when we’re all together my dad speaks Catalan to me an my sister, and we answer him in Catalan as well, but then my dad speaks Spanish to my mom and so she does to us. She can also speak and understand Catalan, but that’s not part of the deal. Catalan is this special thing between my dad, my sister and me –

I was always so jealous of my friend, we were both kind of nerdy in high-school, at the top of our class, yet she always beat me in English and French class – good in French? – she used to say – I don’t know…I just know the words! If it is not the Spanish root it simply is the Catalan one! –
It took me a few years, a Bachelor’s in Spanish Language and a Master’s in Linguistics to be able to even grasp a bit of what was going on with my friend’s upbringing. Not only was she raised as a bilingual, but as a heritage speaker of Catalan in an only-Spanish speaking community. And what I back then found a ‘curious linguistic situation’, I made it my research focus and beginning of my professional career.

Today, I have probably met more than a hundred families like my friend’s, where a battle of languages at the dinner table is simply the norm, and I am now more curious than ever to learn about how heritage speakers acquire, develop and (hopefully) maintain their languages. After testing bilingual children all over the Netherlands, and talking to parents from here and beyond, I must admit that there seem to be more questions than answers. Even though I am quite novel in my research career, I get asked thousands of questions by parents about what are the positive and the negative aspects of raising a bilingual child, and what is the best way to do so. However, I have realized that talking to parents (about their own methods) is one of the best ways to find answers. As scientists, we need to deal with large amounts of data in order to make claims about language acquisition, but one thing I have learnt from doing research on bilingual speakers is that there are no two cases alike. Instead, each child deals with immensely different amounts of input in each language. While some kids strictly speak one language with mom and another with dad, others have a much relaxed linguistic environment. And even in those cases when parents choose to establish some linguistic rules at home (like my friend’s father about who speaks Spanish and who speaks Catalan at the dinner table), the question could be – but how many hours does mom spend with her child? and dad? And how talkative is each of them? And does this actually matter to how (“well”) the child will learn the language? – Linguist Sharon Unsworth has done exhaustive research on how to measure a bilingual child’s language exposure to each of their languages, and others have studied how factors other than input affect the successful acquisition of two languages in childhood.

So what is the best way to raise a bilingual child? I am afraid we do not have the answer yet, neither will we ever do. Why? Because if there are no two families alike, neither there is a method that would perfectly either of them. I think the best approach here is the “scientific” one of try and fail. And, in my experience, there is no failing as long as there is trying. I really believe what really benefits bilingualism is staying consistent, providing as much input as plausible, but aso maintaining a healthy and motivational relationship towards both languages. Language is identity, and we should allow those little super humans who are living in two languages to develop their own identity within and towards each language. The rest of it, will fall in naturally.