FB GROUP

Alan Bradley

Alan Bradley was our first guest-speaker on the 6th November 2003.

He began by highlighting the varying situations of languages in Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Indonesia, India, Italy, Iraq and the Isle of Man. The languages varied from one that was now effectively extinct (Isle of Man) through widely used international languages (Italian), languages which had been not valued (Kurdish in Iraq), languages which were once suppressed but are now valued (Irish Gaelic) etc.

He also mentioned his experience of teaching Spanish A level evening classes where a large proportion of his students were mother tongue language speakers – i.e. parents bringing up children bilingually probably know a lot more than he can do. He mentioned that the academic field in bilingualism is still in its infancy, at an early stage of understanding and there is very little that the academics can say for certain. The research focuses on particularly difficult areas that we still don't understand e.g. how the human brain works and how human being interact.

In the meantime, each family has a wealth of experience that they have acquired by trial and error. The only problem with this is that it is tempting to believe that what has worked for you will always work for others (to project your solution) whereas in fact each family is different. Academics can get together data from large numbers of families to try to determine what works for most people. In the academic field, until the 1960, most academics in the UK believed that bilingualism was not a good thing – was confusing for children etc.

Bilingual children were seen as being at a disadvantage, having a problem they had to overcome. This was known as the “deficit model. This linked into the prevalent politics of the time – with Britain running a colonial empire and English was imposed as a language all over the world. (One theme that emerged throughout Alan’s talk was the close link between languages and power). This also explained why there were absurd punishments for children caught speaking Welsh in schools and so on. Academics prior to the 1960’s used incredibly crude techniques to try to demonstrate that bilinguals had lower IQ scores i.e. they tested recent immigrants to the USA who were English Russian bilingual on tests which relied on a knowledge of baseball and then concluded when people failed that they were not intelligent!This also explained why there were absurd punishments for children caught speaking Welsh in schools and so on. Academics prior to the 1960’s used incredibly crude techniques to try to demonstrate that bilinguals had lower IQ scores i.e. they tested recent immigrants to the USA who were English Russian bilingual on tests which relied on a knowledge of baseball and then concluded when people failed that they were not intelligent !

The UK is still a society that does not value bilingualism and despite the multicultural variety of a city like London (possibly the most multicultural city in the world), very little is done to promote bilingualism. At every stage of life from pregnancy, health visitors to childcare to primary and later schooling and exams, monolingualism is the expected rule and bilingualism the exception.

Alan provided some useful working definitions that people use to talk about bilingual situations

Cultural capital: The value or assets that a person possesses that consist of their knowledge, skills, education, culture, and language. Not financial, though it may lead to financial success.

Code switching: Changing from one language to another in a conversation

Ethnolinguistic vitality: If this is high, a language group is likely to flourish in an intergroup context. Connected to numbers of speakers, status of the language, and the group’s control of the language.

Linguistic imperialism: The imposition of a language by a colonial power; the use of one language to dominate others.

Linguicide: The destruction or killing of a language. This may be done deliberately, or by neglect – which is often the same thing.

Linguistic landscape: The visibility or presence of a language in the surroundings: e.g. posters, signs, music. Research has suggested that the extent that a language is used in multilingual situations can be linked to how visible it is in the landscape.

Finally, Alan set out the results of a piece of research that he had learnt about whilst attending a conference in Bristol. The researcher was Annick De Houwer.
The study looked at home language use of 18,016 families of which 1866 involved a family where a language other than Dutch was used at home. The research was carried out in a Dutch speaking area of Belgium – Flanders.
The research on the 1800+ families discovered that the position of the child in the family (i.e. first child, middle child, last child) had no overall effect on whether or not the child spoke a minority language at home.
The group discussed this and several people could give examples where the first or second child had either acquired a minority language more quickly or where there had been a lot more resistance. It was agreed that different factors may come in to play with children at different ages and depending on the gaps between the children and so it was likely that there were a variety of positive and negative factors that had cancelled each other out statistically in the research.
The research also discovered that the gender of the parent using a language other than Dutch to the children statistically made no difference. Several of the group (including the note taker!) were very surprised (so much so that I stopped taking proper notes!). It was suggested that although it was still more common for women to be the primary care giver and to spend more time with children, it may also be true that men still tend to have higher status that women both within families and within society. This may mean that the children are more keen to speak the higher status language spoken by their father and this cancels out the greater time input from their mother. ( A great PhD for someone here!)

On the other hand, the language other than Dutch spoken by the parent did have an effect. Moroccan Arabic and Turkish were the languages most likely to be spoken by the children compared to other European languages. The group speculated about some of the possible reasons for this: large communities, strong traditions, mothers who may not work and who may not learn Dutch. All agreed and Alan confirmed that the difference between the languages i.e. coming from very different language groups with different grammars and so on makes no difference (Turkish is from a very different language family from Dutch) but clearly other factors (as yet not clearly determined) do.

The other factor that did make a difference was whether the parents spoke Dutch or a minority language to each other…

98% of families where both parents spoke a minority language and neither spoke Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.

96% of families where both parents speak the same minority language but one parent also speaks Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.90% of families where both parents speak the same minority language and both speak Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.
79% of families where one parent spoke the minority language and one parent spoke Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.

48% of families where one parent speaks the minority language and both parents speak Dutch had at least one child who spoke the minority language at home.

Alan began by highlighting the varying situations of languages in Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Indonesia, India, Italy, Iraq and the Isle of Man. The languages varied from one that was now effectively extinct (Isle of Man) through widely used international languages (Italian), languages which had been not valued (Kurdish in Iraq), languages which were once suppressed but are now valued (Irish Gaelic) etc.

He also mentioned his experience of teaching Spanish A level evening classes where a large proportion of his students were mother tongue language speakers – i.e. parents bringing up children bilingually probably know a lot more than he can do. He mentioned that the academic field in bilingualism is still in its infancy, at an early stage of understanding and there is very little that the academics can say for certain.

The research focuses on particularly difficult areas that we still don't understand e.g. how the human brain works and how human being interact.In the meantime, each family has a wealth of experience that they have acquired by trial and error. The only problem with this is that it is tempting to believe that what has worked for you will always work for others (to project your solution) whereas in fact each family is different. Academics can get together data from large numbers of families to try to determine what works for most people.

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