All posts in Language

The Virtues and Challenges of Raising Bilingual Children


In a global world defined by diversity, language is a form of expression that delineates one cultural group from another. And increasingly, in our multicultural communities, children are exposed to the brilliant palette of languages and dialects that comprise our modern-day experience. Recently a couple of articles addressed the issue of bilingualism, and its effects on children.

A well-written, albeit lengthy, piece titled “Why I Want My Children to be Bilingual” in Aeon Magazine, recounts an author’s experience as a parent, struggling to inculcate in his children the appreciation, and practice, of non-English languages. Ben Faccini is a native English and French speaker and has high hopes that his London-born children will adopt his other mother tongue of French:

“Introducing French into the family equation has undoubtedly been an additional complication. It skews mealtimes, often setting off lopsided conversations, pitting my French against everyone else’s English. It makes the children feel they are being judged and tested. And, despite their growing comprehension of French, they’ll find any excuse to walk a few steps behind me on the way to school in case I’m overheard. They stick their fingers in their ears when the Petit Nicolas CD is played in the car…”

Mr. Faccini’s frustration with his children’s apathy is palpable, and like any logical parent, cites hard facts of bilingualism’s benefits:

“Studies by the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics at Cambridge University appear to show that bilingual children have a distinct advantage over their monolingual peers in their social interaction, cognitive flexibility and awareness of language construction. Research by the psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee at York University, Toronto, also noted this boost to cognitive abilities. Their 2004 study of pre-schoolers showed bilinguals eclipsing monolinguals when given tasks with conflicting visual and verbal information.”

The evidence for grooming a polyglot may be there, but children certainly don’t see it that way. I speak Japanese, minimally, having lived in Japan for three years (and being quarter-Japanese) and have tried to slip in words, even questions and commands, to my two-year-old. He is quick to replicate the sounds (chisai, for small; kudasai for please, even itadakimasu for blessing the food), but mostly reacts as if I’ve just told a bad joke: “Mama, you are sooo silly,” he says.

He is smart enough to know that I am speaking a different language, and is very keen to “play along” at home for a few minutes when my phrases turn high-pitched and tonal, but shuns it in public, when I point out produce in Japanese.

He is, I fear, embarrassed, as Mr. Faccini noted. In fact, as it turns out, children who have taken the leap to acquire a second language, prefer not only to be around those that speak the same language, but also the same accent.

Researchers at Concordia University found that children prefer to “interact with people who are like them, and might perceive an accent as the mark of an outsider.” In a press release by Eureka Alert, Professor Krista Byers-Heinlein says:

“This…has implications for parents. Since children lack the self-awareness to remind themselves that accent is a superficial measure of character, parents should be more direct in teaching their kids about accents.

We show biases early on, so it might be necessary to educate all kids, regardless of their linguistic background, about what an accent is and how it doesn’t reflect anything about people other than the fact that they are not speaking their native language.”

Though languages, and accents, may be mere facades of one’s true, full character, they can also serve as a window into another world. Faccini says it best in his essay:

“A knowledge of languages can foster versatility, an attentiveness to the world and an understanding of cultural difference. It can make sense of the make-up and narrative of nations, cultivating deeper and joyous communion with others. Without languages, I feel as though my children are going to be missing some vital limb, hobbling through life, cut off from their heritage and the possibilities of the world.”

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc

Cultural Ties, Diversity Found in American Greetings and Dialects, Y’all

american diversity map

Humans are naturally cultural sleuths, thin-slicing the curious cases of language variation—not only what we say but how we say it—and mining troves of mental data to instantaneously assess: Do I know you?

Take, for example, Thanksgiving’s favorite nut—the pecan. How would you say it? Would it sound like “pee-KAHN,” “pick-AHN,” “PEE-can” or “PEE-kahn”? Your choice would likely indicate, according to the Harvard Dialect Study, where you are from (or at least the regions of the U.S. that strongly influenced your accent).

The New York Times picked up on this interesting project by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder, and with the help of their graphic editor Josh Katz, created an irresistible dialect quiz. I often rebuff such assessments, because “how could some silly test really know me?” but I was shocked to learn of its accuracy. It narrowed down my dialect (based on the words I chose to represent certain ideas) to northern Louisiana (where I spent my childhood years) and central Mississippi.

The quiz basically validated what we already intuitively know—that there is a great deal of dialect variation within our American borders, and that our usage is clustered within our cultural in-groups. Dialects are clues to the closest thing to “home”—to the places, and people, that shape our lives.

Husband and wife team James and Deborah Fallows, pilot and co-pilot of The Atlantic‘s “American Futures” project, have been traversing the country and reporting on the American experience; Deborah recently wrote not about how we talk, but what we actually say when we’re hoping to zero in on someone’s origin.

According to Mrs. Fallows, the questions “Where are you from?” and “Where do you live?” carry much more meaning than the literal translations. Here are some of the comments to her study:

For instance, in Cambridge and Somerville, people will often give where the live by their nearest square or subway station: Davis, Porter, Harvard, Central, Kendall, Union, Ball, etc.

From Chicago: Identity is defined in layers. First, whether you’re from the north or south side: the great, indelible divide. Secondly, what neighborhood you live in. There are so many gradations– “near north side”, “far south side”, “south loop” — but the orientation is always north or south.

Other intriguing follow-up inquiries to the question “Where are you from?” emphasize the transient nature of the place:

Here in Austin, a common follow up to “Hello” and “Nice to meet you” is “So what brought you to Austin?”

Down here in Florida you might actually expect the question to be, “Where are you from up north?”

Greetings are not merely polite small talk but investigatory overtures. As Mrs. Fallows states:

“…You are really after an answer offering some social-economic-cultural hints about a person’s life.”

Our patchwork culture is a defining characteristic of Americanaof the beauty of diversity that lends to greater awareness of difference and to commonality. Our minds work, at a frenetic pace, to know the unknown. But one would be remiss to overlook the potential pitfalls of this warp speed appraisal, which may result in misconceptions, stereotypes and the like; that is a topic I’ll explore later.

You can find Mrs. Fallows’ entire article here. For a collection of Mr. Katz’s linguistic maps, visit here.

Photo Credit: Marxchivist via photopin cc

Of Stories Loved, and Lost, in Translation

Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore book cover

Language, communicated across oceans and cultures, is precious cargo. Translators of foreign language bear the responsibility of ferrying messages across divides, with the hope that in the end, they will reach the shore, perfectly intact. It is no small feat translators face, and yet most of us assume, as we read (a book) or watch (a film) that the intended meaning and impact of foreign language translated matches its newfound identity.

Topics of translation have been popping up in the media lately, specifically on the powerful, and enigmatic, role of the translator. What is it exactly, and what should it be?

Recently, in an article in the New York Times, Antony Shugaar, an author and former translator in Italy,  reminisced on conversations with William Weaver, a well-known translator of great Italian literature:

“I remember one specific comment on translation technique that was pure Weaver. The great white whale of Italian postwar literature is “Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana,” by Carlo Emilio Gadda. It’s a big, ungainly philosophical treatise of a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects of the areas between those two cities. Gadda was an austere Milanese scholar, the opposite in personality and style of these overemphatic, swaggering, loud forms of speech. But Gadda was an acute observer and a gifted mimic. And the “Pasticciaccio” — “That Awful Mess,” in Weaver’s rendering — takes gleeful delight in lampooning, personifying and ultimately embracing these dialects, Italy’s equivalents of Brooklynese, Bronxese and perhaps Boston’s Southie accent.

‘What did you do about the dialect?’ I asked him, at one of our lunches. He laughed, and replied, ‘Oh, I just left it out!’”

Mr. Shugaar continues:

“At first glance, it’s a little like translating ‘Moby-Dick’ and leaving out all references to boats. But I understood. Weaver explains it better in his introduction to the English edition: ‘To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.’ Weaver asks the reader, therefore, ‘to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.’ In other words, supply the boats yourself.”

This, to me, was captivating. A tenet of Mr. Weaver’s translation method rested on the reader creating, in part, their own story.

Another translator, Michael Emmerich, recently commented on the role of the translator in a piece in Japan’s The Asahi Shimbun. Mr. Emmerich is an American scholar who recently taught a seminar on the works of internationally-acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. According to Mr. Emmerich, Murakami’s work has been relayed by three translators: Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Here, he speaks of Birnbaum’s method:

“…[he] is not a translator who suffers from the illusion that there can ever be a one-to-one correspondence between the Japanese and the English, so he uses all of his powers to create English sentences that will live on their own in a way similar to the way that Japanese sentences live.”

That is a much more pro-active approach then, say, Weaver’s. Mr. Emmerich, who has read Murakami’s books in both English and Japanese, admits that he finds the author’s work in one language to be “totally different” from the other.

To complicate matters, he says it is not only the translator’s bias that impacts perception, but book cover designs and of course, our own cultural orientation.

All of this begs the question: Do we really know the message and intent of any given foreign language artist, if what we receive is a filtered, perhaps diluted, form of the original?

Mr. Shugaar, in his New York Times piece, highlights his, and maybe others’, greatest obstacle, when he said:

“People talk about untranslatable words, but in a way, there’s no such thing. It may take three words, or an entire sentence, or even an interpolated paragraph, but any word can be translated. Short of swelling a book into an encyclopedia, however, there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.”

Because in the end, on the arriving shore of a translated message, that is what we’re talking about—not just words that are tweaked, ever so slightly, but of a collective whole—a world that can not fully be realized, or understood, by those waiting eagerly, on the other side.

Photo credit: Book Cover Archive

Sometimes There Are No Words

Here’s a delightful sketch of untranslatable words from other cultures. Without a label for an experience or thing, one might be tempted to imagine the perspectives we’re without, for words give rise to significance within our psyche.
11 Untranslatable Words From Other Cultures

Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.