Thursday, August 2, 2012

Language consistency


Language consistency

When reading up on the challenges faced by many bilingual and multilingual families, I found that many experts stress consistency.
Some insist that you should opt for one method of communication and stick to it. For me, however, consistency is a sticky issue. At home, my son and I speak English together almost exclusively. My son and husband speak to each other in Turkish. Theoretically, according to some linguists, we should stick to this arrangement in order to maintain consistency.

However, it seems that we break the rules all the time. Although English and Turkish are the main languages of our home, we do have a tendency to slip into other languages. Personally, there are some words that I find express feelings or thoughts better in Spanish or Turkish than in English and I code-switch without even thinking about it. The result of my lapses in consistency is that our son has picked up a smattering of Spanish in the process.

Now that our son is learning German and Mandarin, new words are slowly entering our common language mix at home. I wonder what the experts have to say about this situation. Our solution has been to create our own mix of languages that are often used alongside the home languages of Turkish and English. It may not be the most orthodox method, but it is what seems to work best for us. My feeling is that while linguists can offer suggestions of how to raise a child in a multilingual environment, there are times when the rules need to be thrown out the window when they are not practical.

Growing up in South Texas, we spoke English and Spanish at home, as well as a mix of the two languages, usually referred to as Spanglish. Here in İstanbul, our multilingual household often resorts to using a mix of Turkish and English, or Turklish. When our son was small, we did try to speak only in Turkish and English so that he could pick up the languages easier. However, once he became more fluent in both, we began to add our own language mixes that combined two or more languages. This approach might possibly throw purists into fits of apoplexy because it definitely does not follow the rule of consistency.

Because I grew up in a bilingual culture and have since that time studied other languages, I do not think exclusively in a single language. My mother tongue is, of course, English, but I tend to think in a mixture of languages, depending on the situation and location. When I speak Turkish, I think in Turkish. Long gone are the days when I struggled to translate in my head from Turkish to English in order to understand what was going on around me, straining to translate back from English to Turkish to form a reply. There are times, though, when I find myself searching for a word or phrase in one language, and only coming up with the appropriate wording in a completely different language. Dreams, too, are not immune from the blend of languages that make up my life. Like me, my son also dreams in different languages, flowing easily between Turkish and English and even sometimes using a mix of the two.

I suspect that most multilingual families are like ours -- trying to listen to what experts have to say, but discovering that it is just not at all practical to attempt to rigidly adhere to any one particular school of thought on the subject. Changing languages in mid sentence, code-switching, word mixing and even inventing new words are common in families conversing in two or more languages. From personal experience, I feel that families need to be flexible and adapt to changes when necessary. Even though we started out with the idea that we would follow the one parent-one language method, where each parent only speaks their native tongue, once our son was speaking we found it to be too restrictive for our particular needs.

So, what advice can I offer families who are also juggling languages in the home, at school and at the workplace? Is consistency actually as important as some experts will have you believe? All I can say is that it takes time, patience and a good sense of humor to find how best to cope with living in two or more languages. Read what the experts have to say about the matter, but be flexible and adapt their advice to your own particular situation. Instead of fretting over whether or not we are following the right advice in raising our multilingual children, I think it is more important that a family learn to be flexible and creative to find what works best for their personal situation. Listen to what experts have to say, but, in the end, find what works best for your family.

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