CELEBRATING Bilingualism

Screen Shot 2021-04-06 at 12.55.10Photo by Shonali

Whilst growing up little did I know that one day I would formally learn about my multilingual behaviour as a studied science. Therefore, when I was learning about ‘language mixing’, ‘code switching’ or the ‘silent period’ in bilinguals during my training to be a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT), my interest knew no bounds as I could relate to them so well.

WHAT IS BILINGUALISM AND MULTILINGUALISM?

A person who is exposed to and uses two different languages in everyday speaking situations is described as a bilingual. A ‘multilingual’ is a person who is using more than two different languages. In India for example, where I come from, people are commonly multilinguals who speak in their mother tongue (native to the state they originally come from), in Hindi the national language of India and in English, a residual language of British colonization. In addition to that, people may also pick up the languages of the other states they reside in due to work, inter-state marriages etc. In this article, I have used the terms bilingualism and multilingualism almost interchangeably, barring a few instances (which will be evident to you as you read) demanding terminological precision.

BILINGUALISM- MYTHS AND FACTS

People may have misconceptions about the impact of bilingualism on the language development of a child. During my early days in the UK, when my first born went to nursery, her teacher advised the parents of bilingual children to use their home language with their children. I was ecstatic! Until then no professional in my entire life had encouraged the use of my native language. I went to an English medium school in India and I grew up being told off at school if we were caught speaking in our native language so much so that during those times, we almost felt apologetic about our mother tongue. Later in life, as a speech and language therapy (SaLT) student, the various facts which I learnt about bilingualism and its benefits, gave me a sense of pride to know more than one language, a privilege, which I took for granted before.  Now, as a therapist I know what my daughter’s teacher meant when she said that speaking in multiple languages makes children “smart”!

Here I share some common myths about bilingualism/multilingualism and the facts as evidenced by research:

MYTH: Learning two or more languages at the same time can negatively impact a child’s language development and can cause speech problems or stammering.

As a SLT in the UK, I come across bilingual parents who do not speak to their child in their home language. They worry that encouraging their child to speak in their home language will inhibit their ability to learn English efficiently. This is a common misperception. There is no evidence which suggests that learning one language inhibits the growth of the other. On the contrary, research shows that a strong foundation language helps become a scaffolding to a child’s ability to learn other languages, for then, the new language can map on to the foundation language and the child can transfer the language learning skills from one language to the other. There is also no evidence to suggest that learning more than one language causes stammering or other speech problems.

MYTH: Mixing more than one language in a sentence by a bilingual child is a sign of confusion.

Mixing languages is normal in bilingual children and is not a sign of confusion. Alternating between two or more languages by bilinguals/multilinguals in a single conversation without compromising the rules of each language is called code-switching. Research shows that codeswitched utterances produced by young bilingual children are a very complex mechanism. My lingua melting pot consists of 5 languages and two dialects of Bangla. English, Bangla and Hindi being the more dominant ones and amongst them English being the most dominant as I pursued my academic learning in English. My social conversational language can adapt to the needs of my environment. When I’m conversing with people from a similar background as mine such as with my childhood friends, some or all of the 5 languages may appear in an expression. Look at the sample example below (I’ve used the English script for all the languages here):

Ish ki aar bolbo yaar, bahut holbhar mein jaye the cleaning and tidying. Lah thait! (Bangla, Hindi, Assamese, English, Khasi).

Translated: (‘Ish’ is a non-word expression in Bangla that can mean a multitude of expressions from positive to negative, much like ‘oh’) What do I say buddy, I’ve had enough…to hell with the cleaning and tidying. I’m tired!

The sample mixes language in such a way that each language adapts to fit into the expression to make complete sense yet perfectly retains the language rule and grammatical structure of each language. The only time I use one language purely is in my professional life and with native English speakers in the UK.

FACT: Being bilingual has cognitive benefits

It takes no rocket science knowledge to understand that a bilingual’s brain would have cognitive advantages because it is processing two or more languages at the same time. Studies have shown bilingual individuals to perform better than their monolingual counterparts at executive functioning tasks of the brain such as switching between tasks and attention/inhibition to stimuli. This relates to the increased neural activation in bilinguals when using both languages and having to regulate the competing languages in the brain constantly to meet the language demands of a situation. Furthermore, another recent Tokyo-based study established that the brain activation of multilinguals is much more sensitive and a lot faster than bilinguals. Needless to say, when it comes to language, ‘more the merrier’!

MYTH: Bilingualism has a negative impact on a child’s academic progress

In fact, it’s the contrary! According to research bilingual children perform better academically than their monolingual peers due to the cognitive benefits of bilingualism as explained in the above section.

MYTH: The language acquisition milestones are same for all languages

Research shows that phonetic acquisition by English speaking children is complete by 7 years, whereas for Maltese speaking children by 3;11 and for German speakers by 4;11. Moreover, English is a less linear and transparent language with regards to its morphology than many other languages making it relatively difficult and longer to master than other more transparent languages such as Tamil or Turkish.

In my personal experience as a therapist, I’ve observed even older children without language difficulties struggle with the irregular aspects of the English language when speaking or reading, which is not so commonly seen in children speaking their native languages in India. Majority of languages in India are also phonetic i.e., they are pronounced as they are read or they are written as they are heard. English is not a phonetic language and that is why children, more so those with language difficulties, struggle with the language. More often than not, so as to reduce the barriers for those with language difficulties, I have this wishful thinking of the English language being revamped to a more regular and phonetic language!

FACT: Bilingual children may go through a ‘silent period’.

When a child is exposed to a new environment where the language used is other than the child’s home language, it is normal for the child to go through a ‘silent period’ during their second language acquisition. Again, I can give a first-hand account of this as a mum. My brimming-with-attitude second born, didn’t utter a sound for days on end in her pre-school. Her key-worker was slightly concerned and asked me if I would like my daughter to be reviewed by a specialist. Although, back then I had no idea of a phenomenon called ‘silent period’, having worked as a developmental therapist, I had knowledge of child development. My daughter was a chatty little monster at home and knowing her over cautious personality, I was confident that she was going through a transitory phase of absorbing the new language and would talk when she was confident enough. And she did. After six months!

MYTH: Bilinguals/multilinguals will always have the same level of competency or skills in each language.

Language competency is a dynamic process. Let me explain with a personal example. I’ve been exposed to my mother tongue Bangla since birth, however, my level of competency in Bangla is highly dependent on the context and content. I use Bangla only socially i.e., informally at home with my friends and family. Moreover, coming from a probashi (migrant) Sylheti community in a predominantly non-Bengali place Shillong, my Bangla is an eclectic mix of all the languages and dialects I was exposed to. It’s not with pride I say that I struggle to use pure Bangla in complex contexts. For example, to explain things related to my profession, I’ll mix English words, phrases and expressions in my Bangla expression. On the other hand, although English is my second language, it is my academic language and the only language I can use purely both socially and academically.

Language competency also depends on the frequency of use. Having grown up in Shillong, like most Indians, I could somewhat speak in Hindi, however, my Hindi was what I picked up from watching Hindi movies and from the Bangla and Khasi mix of Hindi what was called the baazari Hindi (essentially, the version of broken Hindi exchanged between the different language speaking communities in the streets/markets). Later on, when I lived in Delhi for two years whilst training to be a developmental therapist, my Hindi speaking ability soared significantly which surprised my own self. Currently, my competency in Hindi is at its lowest due to non-use. In the past, I was also proficient in reading Bangla, however, after school, I pursued my higher education only in English and over time without realising, I lost my ability to read Bangla as well as I used to. However, lately, I’ve started to pay more attention to my mother tongue and much to my excitement, my Bangla proficiency is slowly picking up. A common proverb we SLTs like to use is ‘use it or lose it!’.

WHEN SHOULD YOU WORRY? – THE RED FLAGS

For anyone learning an additional language, it generally takes about 2 years to acquire the basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS)- using the language socially, describing needs etc. It takes up to 5-7 years to attain the cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in the additional language- literacy and numeracy skills, language for complex cognitive and academic learning etc. When parents concerned about their bilingual child’s language development take their child to a SLT for a consultation, the SLT will assess the child to differentiate between the normal features of learning an additional language and difficulties affecting all language learning. Presence of the common features of learning an additional language, (e.g., mixing language, silent period, limited vocabulary in the new language, developmental stages of learning an additional language) are nothing to worry about and the child will overcome these features with time.

So, parents might wonder what could be the red flags to look out for? Generally, when a child is also having difficulty in their home language or first language and the difficulties are present across both (or all) of the languages they are exposed to, it would be a sign of concern and could indicate that the child has underlying language needs which will benefit from SaLT intervention. Speech, language and communication disorders can be associated with developmental or acquired conditions (e.g., Autism, Down syndrome, learning disability, developmental verbal dyspraxia, cerebral palsy, cleft palate, hearing loss, traumatic brain injury) or may also not be associated with a known condition (e.g., Developmental Language Disorder).

TIPS

I would like to share some professional advice for bilingual and multilingual parents:

  1. It is important that you continue to use all languages introduced to your child.  Speak in the language you are fluent in and feel most comfortable in. This will provide a good language model to your child to learn from.
  2. It is important that children continue to use their mother tongue at home. Research shows that once children start nursery or school and begins to learn English or a second language, it is easy for them to lose their first language, as English/the additional language can easily take over.
  3. Do not worry when your child mixes different languages in one sentence.  Mixing languages is natural for a bilingual/multilingual speaker.
  4. Continue speaking to your child in your chosen language/s even if they speak back to you in a different language.
  5. In a family where more than one languages are spoken, each parent could choose to speak to their child in their own language/the language their are fluent in and stick to it. This will provide a good language model to your child and help them learn the different languages easily.
  6. Provide your child with a language-rich environment in both/all languages and opportunities to learn the languages in various contexts (e.g., in play activities, daily routine activities, books, bedtime stories, nursery rhymes/songs, TV programmes, movies, interacting with family and peers).

Languages must be celebrated. A culture can be understood in its entirety only through its language. Knowledge of more than one language expands our social boundaries and helps us know about other cultures. Particularly, for children who are growing up away from their native countries and communities, being able to communicate with grandparents, relatives and other members of their community in their mother tongue promotes connection with and pride about their own roots, thereby reducing alienation from their native culture. This helps strengthen their sense of identity. When it comes to learning languages, less is therefore, far from being more!

 

REFERENCES

London SIG Bilingualism, S. Shah April 2016

RCSLT (Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists): https://www.rcslt.org/

ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association): https://www.asha.org/

Tokyo University (2021, April 1). Multilingual People Have an Advantage Over Those Fluent in Only Two Languages. Neuroscience News. Retrieved from https://neurosciencenews.com/multilingual-brain-activation-18166/

Asifa Sultana (December, 2016). Morphological development of Bangla-speaking children: A pilot study. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321579252_Morphological_development_of_Bangla-speaking_children_A_pilot_study

The Other Side of 2020

the other side of 2020The Other Side of 2020

A year when our children knew life differently
To be etched in their memory,
Perhaps without the pandemic
A taste of life we would not have known

As parents, we tried our best
To foster a spirit of trust, faith and strength
To counter the air of fear and uncertainty
We made efforts to help them see
The silver lining in the darkest of clouds
To transform the lockdown into a time to heal the unseen wounds.

To cherish the flexibility and the slow pace,
Of living life beyond the normal race
Going back to the basics and simplicity
Plain home-cooked meals,
Shopping for bare necessities
`Less is more’ was on full score
No alarms to jolt us up
Savouring ‘no-rush’ breakfasts
The joy of changing into pjs after the morning shower
Basking in the sun during the lunch hour
Laughing out loud way past the bedtime with vigour
The sun-soaked energy still steady in its power

No frantic rush to book and plan holidays,
Sitting back to watch old movies together instead
Away from peer pressure, competition and the chase
Away from plush constructs
Into the safety of nature and open space
Meeting friends and family, yes, on screen
But like never before we have seen or been
Choosing connection over triviality,
Compassion over pettiness,
Love over fear
Picking new possibilities which were lost in time
Taking care of ourselves, we learnt, is not a crime

The valour of the frontline crew knew no bounds
They became family for those fighting for life
Clapping for the NHS and painted rainbows we held
Little gestures to thank the caring hands which toiled
As we hurt from losing loved ones,
Missed our life we once had,
and wondered what more would unfold,
We sank into what matters most
These were moments so precious
To be etched in their memory and ours
The earth breathed
We breathed
We may have after all,
Taken a few steps to heal the unseen wounds.

 

The lockdown which unlocked the shadows

woman wearing brown shirt inside room
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A microbe. And that’s what it took to bring the human species down to a lockdown. We have been thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, something this generation had never experienced in this magnitude before. Normal life as we knew it is suspended indefinitely. The whole of humanity is in this together without any exceptions of caste, creed, religion, colour, race, political orientation, sexual orientation- one and all in a way which we witness only in movies. The image of a gigantic UFO towering over the earth fills my vision. I only wish the world came together not under such dire circumstances but in a manner which was more pleasant. We were not prepared to handle this crisis and it’s almost like taking one day at a time but also having to plan and prepare for the next several weeks. Tesco yesterday breathed panic. It was the morning after the government announced of indefinite school closure. I had run out of milk and came home without one. The milk aisles in Tesco and Co-op were empty. I didn’t have the time to search elsewhere as I needed to get back to start my work-from-home day.

Later in the day after I picked my girls up from school, the girls and I sat in the car on my driveway. Lots of pressing questions poured out from their bewildered minds which couldn’t wait: When will it be over? How long will schools remain closed? Will school not open before summer? Is Friday going to be the last day of my year 6? Now that the France trip is cancelled, will the France trip take place next year? How will I finish my GSCE curriculum? What will happen to work experience placement? I answered them one by one as we entered the house and followed the ‘after school’ routine. I tried my best to not dampen their spirits yet be honest: a skill parents have to learn to use almost every day yet never quite master it!

My answer to one of their questions threw them off guard and me too. The curious minds of children are always undermined. Often than not I put myself in their minefield and by then it’s already too late to reverse my steps. The mine explodes. They asked, “Did you ever have to go through this kind of situation when you were growing up Mamma?”. I thought hard and then I said, “Maybe not exactly like this but we also had a situation when our schools closed down for a year and everyone had to stay indoors for days, weeks and months together during curfews”. I had to explain what curfews and blackouts meant. I had to explain to their horror-stricken faces how people were assaulted, killed, abused because of their ethnic origin. “Did anybody you knew got killed?” they asked. “Yes. Our neighbour” I said. Our neighbour, a humble man with a family of two little kids, sold pakoras in his roadside makeshift shop. They were aghast to know that their dad’s youngest uncle was also pulled out from his shop and beaten up so badly that he had to be admitted in critical care and only barely survived. Their eyes widened with terror when I said that their dad and I were attacked in a street by a group of boys with knifes hidden in their leather jackets and how we narrowly escaped.

“But why Mamma? Were you not in your home country? In India?”
I said I was in my home country, but we were the second generation of Hindu Bengali refugees from Bangladesh living in a place belonging to the ‘tribals’ and where, we the ‘non-tribals’ were not accepted. I had to explain in short, our complicated history starting from Bengal partition which made my grandparents homeless and flee their homeland which is now Bangladesh and cross over to Shillong, the capital of the state of Meghalaya in North East India. And how even being in India they and their progeny were not safe and still are not. I told them how as we were growing up in Shillong we were subject to discrimination, called derogatory terms like “dkhar” meaning ‘outsiders’ lost the rights to purchase land or property amongst the other covert and overt animosity. I told them how Bengali families after the 1979, 1987 and 1990s unrest in Shillong had to again flee for their lives and go elsewhere. They understood the reason why my parents, their grandparents sold their house in Shillong and now live in Kolkata. As I spoke, my words got bolder with the raw emotions making their way in. I told them that they are the fourth generation of the ‘homeless’, or the ‘displaced’ Bengalis. We are the demographical truth of being the migrants. We are the political truth of being the ousted. We are the social truth of being the unwanted. We are the emotional truth of longing to have a place to call ‘home’.

My girls were shocked to hear all that I said. They exclaimed, “That sounds like terrorism!” and accused with concern in their eyes, “but why didn’t you ever tell us about all this?”. The look on their faces reflected confusion and amusement when they remarked, “How are you able to say all the horrific things you went through so calmly without any emotions just like how people tell a story from a movie or about something that have happened to others?”. They went on: How do we not know about it? How does the rest of the world not know about it? We know about the Holocaust, we know about Vietnam war, world wars and even if one person is killed in America or in the UK the whole world comes to know! How did the rest of India not know about the years and years of crime against a whole population? Why did India not do anything about it? Why didn’t any one fight for justice? Why did you not talk about it, Mamma?

The disbelief in the eyes of my girls pierced the steel wall in me. A stoic wall which we Bengalis in Shillong had built perhaps to cope against what we went through. We, who never voiced out or even thought we had a choice to voice out. We were living in a well of fear, surviving day to day placidly until we could get out of Shillong and get back our self-respect. When we left Shillong, we left behind the responsibility of standing up against the wrongs done unto us, the wrongs done against humanity arising out of narrow racial or ethnic insecurities. We were tired. We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permenent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.

The questions to me from my girls disturbed me even under England’s dark overcast sky of a possible Coronavirus apocalypse, some twenty years and eight thousand miles away from my Shillong time and space coordinates. Even under the shadow of this health calamity looming over the human race, their words echoed in my ears, “You should talk about it, Mamma. You should tell the untold stories”.

What Women Want?

 

beach woman sunrise silhouette
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Nature demands respect. Else we find ourselves beaten fighting an invincible force. Nature is not only the oceans, stars, mountains, forests, animals or the air we breathe. We often diminish the fact that we humans are at the very core of nature. Possessing intellect may make us unique but by no means it makes us transcend nature. We are and will always be governed by the rhythms and beats of the universe. Man and woman were born out of the universe’s wisdom with unique attributes. The differences in the attributes should not be the reason for prejudice. Rather, those differences ought to be celebrated so we can experience the joys of duality in this world.

And that brings us to understand the question: what do women want? The answer is less elusive than we think it to be if only we focus our attention to nature and get cues from it. Nature created women as hard-core romantics. They like the softer side of life. That’s ingrained in their biological make-up. Women desire to be chased, wooed in unimaginable ways, paid attention to, little nothings to be whispered into her ears, brought flowers to, told that she’s the world’s most beautiful woman to you and that she’s your world. She needs to be courted. That’s in her genes. And dear men, that’s where you come into the scene. To court her and sweep her off her feet. That’s what mother nature had planned for you and her. Primarily, to ensure that you and she procreate to play your role in preserving the human species over generations and generations. However, procreation or not, that equation of nature is there to stay.

Now, you do that perfectly when you are first courting her. That’s why she’s with you in the first place. You got her with your biologically driven ways matched with your human creative potential to combine novel and good old ways to weave the fairy tale for her. You mostly get that all right until there. Problem stirs up when you get lazy. When you think, “Well alright, I got her, so let’s get on with business as usual”. That’s how you sabotage it all, my friend. You defy biology and that’s when her interest in you wanes. The ‘bio-romanticism’ in her is very much awake. It needs to be fed and watered adequately. That’s your role in this evolutionary web of life and any impoverished feed from you will make her flee.

man and woman kissing together on body of water
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She’s the wooed and you are the wooer. Keep that in mind. That basic mechanism of life hasn’t changed since primeval times and that’s what we will pass on in our genes. Men are born to pursue women. That’s how the animals, fishes, birds and insects get their mate. Are we humans any different? We are only different in so much as getting lazy and still expecting kindness in return! Your other male brethren from the animal kingdom keep working at this aspect every time to win over their ladies. They put on their alpha male pompous display, even bordering on being outrageous. Some suitors scream their guts out and do the serenade, some spread widest their extravagant plumage creating optical illusions, some do the snazzy manakin dance, and some Romeos even give their lives for it! What potentially kills our human males, is their romantic complacency and running out of air. What you don’t realise is that your women are endowed with human genes. She has memory, remember. And intellect. And she gets bored. So instead of doing a one-time sprinter like the male tarantula, you need to run the human marathon spaced with attractive sprints and stunts. Yes, pull up your sleeves and bring out the Don Juan in you if you want to keep your woman!

Last but not the least, like every sound advice comes with a caveat, this one does too: even your best of wheedle may fall flat if she’s not interested. Who said life was meant to be easy!

 

Showerscape

Shower moments are phenomenal. It’s the time when I leave the world behind, shut everything out and step into my exclusive space. Without any adornment. All naked. Un-self-conscious. I turn on the knob and then the magic happens. That candid and intimate space feels extraordinary everytime. Can you imagine one of the precious elements of nature, the water, is pouring mad over me? Cascading over my body, touching every bit of me. It’s like an interplay of two lovers! The water, ever so gently kisses me, pouring out over me like crazy and bountiful love. My body responding to the wetness and my skin soaking in and welcoming the element into my world. My muscles let go of the tension and unwind to soak in the pure sensations. Noises of my thoughts are calmed giving way to feelings. The deep embedded emotions are stirred and released. They rise up one by one like bubbles and meet me. My dimension expands to include my spirit, my faith, my trust, my love. It travels the ether defying reason of the mind. I feel engulfed with the presence of myself, a wise old self which has been there for eternity. It’s powerful. I feel that aspect of myself which I hide under many layers. I feel heady with the endless possibilities of my life I see at that moment. I escape and float away into the magical and expansive landscape to experience the panorama of what I really am. That’s what lovers are supposed to do to each other, isn’t it? Ignite and empower the other through touch. Under the shower I become. I happen. All at the same time. My inner voice finally speaks! Ah showerscape!

nature water blue abstract
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