Saturday, 30 December 2017

Reflecting on multilingualism.

I have been listening to a programme on the radio all about minority languages, featuring comedian Rory McGrath, who studied French and Spanish at Cambridge but is a little ashamed to admit that he speaks no Cornish, even though he was born there. Considering that he was born in 1956, in an era when minority languages were not considered important and, indeed, in some countries regional languages were banned, it’s not surprising that he was brought up speaking English. He should feel no shame!

Oddly enough, even though Welsh is taught in Wales (and in fact I have read stuff which holds up the Welsh education system’s way of running bilingual schools as an example of good practice to all), Cornish is not taught in Cornwall, at least not in mainstream schools. Perhaps nobody has been sufficiently passionate about it.

I am still in two minds about the whole education in minority languages question. As a linguist myself, I find the minority languages fascinating and over the years I have found myself buying Castellano/Basque or Fran├žais/Breton dictionaries. I love deciphering reading material in Sicilian, Gallego or Catal├ín. And it would be a shame to see such languages disappear. Unfortunately when they become part of the educational establishment a kind of linguistic fascism comes along and the minority languages often dominate the curriculum. Moderation in all things.

Here are some odd facts:-
  • Faroese, the language of the Faroe Islands, is spoken by 66,000 people. For a long time they had no written language and still there are words used in the spoken language which nobody knows how to spell as nobody has ever written them down. They have no word for electricity. At least that was what the Faroese interviewee said at first. Then she went on to say that she is sure there is one but she has forgotten what it is as she uses the Danish or Icelandic word instead. 
  • Because of that sort of “borrowing” some minority languages kind of take over even smaller minority tongues.
  • Some people in Brittany consider themselves Breton first, European second and French third, but only if pushed to accept the third nationality. France still does not see the need for Breton in schools. 
  • There are still children in Sardinia, in the interior of the island, who hear more Sardinian than Italian at home and are at a disadvantage when they start school. 
One speaker wondered if he would be a different person if he spoke only one language. I would say he almost certainly would be. Speaking more than one language makes you see the world differently. 

Here is a link to yet another article about bilingualism. There are probably as many articles as there are opinions about it. They are always interesting. Personally I feel that if you and your partner speak different languages, then bringing up your children to speak both of them fluently is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. The writer of the article regards English as her dominant language, the one she uses almost all the time. When she had a child she spoke to her at first in English but then found it felt artificial and so she switched to Bengali. Suddenly she felt more at ease and natural in everything she did with and for her daughter. She still speaks mostly Bengali to her but wonders about helping her with homework as the demands of Maths and several other subjects run into areas where she does not have the vocabulary in Bengali.

What struck me was her saying that she felt like a different person and spoke in a different manner - not just a different language - when she spoke to her daughter in Bengali. I have a friend whose bilingual daughter speaks to her quite differently according to which language she uses. People have asked me whether I have a different voice when I speak French or Spanish or Italian. Possibly so, as I try reduce my English accent as much as I can. But I hope it does not make me into a completely different person.

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