Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Book Review: Multilingualism from Infancy to Adolescence

You might say that my sister- and brother-in-law are ambitious in hoping that my speaking French with their son will enable him to grow up bilingual. But then you haven't met linguist Eduardo Faingold and and his wife, who helped their son Noam learn four languages by the time he was in elementary school. Faingold, a professor of Spanish at the University of Tulsa, has written a book about this process, a case study of the first 17 years of Noam's life.

In his 2004 book (one of the most recent books on bilingualism that I found at the university library when I started this research), Multilingualism from infancy to adolescence: Noam's experience, Faingold traces his son's linguistic development in two countries and offers theories as to why and how Noam acquired (and lost) languages along the way. Born in Israel to an Argentine Spanish-speaking father and a Brazilian Portugueses-speaking mother, who both used their native tongues with their son, Noam also encountered Hebrew outside the home. They later moved to the United States, where he quickly learned English. By the time he completed high school in the US, he had lost and regained his Spanish and Hebrew, and to an extent, his Portuguese . Whew! Interestingly enough, Noam can't be considered fluent (native-like) in any language but English.

Faingold begins his book by explaining the pros and cons of a linguistic case study (a qualitative, detailed, long-term approach whose results are not easily generalized to others because they concern only one subject). He also shares his rationale for teaching Noam these four languages: to allow him to communicate with relatives, to be able to travel in countries where these languages are spoken, to familiarize him with their cultures, and to enable him to speak like a native in the countries they immigrated to. These are all understandable goals (but none of them apply to my situation of teaching French to my nephew Carl). Each subsequent chapter of Faingold's book examines Noam's language acquisition at specific points in his life, which unfortunately means we don't get to hear much about exactly how his parents taught him to speak.

The story opens in medias res with trilingual toddler Noam already speaking and understanding Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese. At age one, Noam was using a strategy known as "referential avoidance" when speaking--using "expressive" words like verbs, adjectives, and demonstratives, along with "quasi-words," rather than object-oriented nominal language. The former indicates that he was using language for interacting socially rather than for naming things. His parents, however, wanted him to know the words in three languages for the objects he talked about, so they increased their "motherese" speech--speaking slowly, exaggerating their intonation, using short sentences, repeating names of items, encouraging him to use those names, and so forth. (Though not a mother myself, I suspect that this is typical of monolingual parents too.) They found that Noam's vocabulary in all languages expanded dramatically by age 2 (although Faingold concedes that this could be due to his growing older and not just their "intervention"). He concludes that parental intervention ("motherse" speech) is not necessary but still useful for language acquisition and is particularly helpful for teaching referential terms.

In this chapter, Faingold also raises the issue of language status: in Israel, Spanish and Portuguese are not considered as useful or important as other foreign languages such as English and French. Thus Noam picked up on the fact that the languages he spoke at home had lower status than the Hebrew he spoke at day care and with friends. This is an issue that arises often when children grow up bilingual: they are aware when a language has a "bad reputation" and when one is considered "prestigious," which influences their interest in speaking it. (Faingold doesn't explain how language status is "assigned" in general--I imagine it varies greatly from country to country--and I'm wondering what status French has here in northern Colorado. Naturally, I think it's pretty cool, but do others see it as a "desirable" language to know?)

In chapters 3 and 4, Faingold discusses syllables and toddler speech, for example the strategies of reduction (where the speaker eliminates the unstressed syllable of a word) and maintenance (where the child produces a word with the same number of syllables as the word is supposed to have). He proposes that "children acquiring similar languages seem to prefer maintenance as a strategy for the construction of the early lexicon, while children exposed to non-related languages appear to prefer reduction as a strategy" (38). (Faingold neglects to define "similar" in this context; as usual, I'm thinking about Carl and wondering if English, a Germanic language, and French, a romance language, are considered dissimilar, or if that term is reserved for, say, Chinese and Hungarian.) Another feature of "baby talk" is the reduction of words by dropping either the first or last syllable. These features have traditionally been considered universal--true across languages--which Faingold illustrates by comparing Noam's speech to that of a child who knows other languages. However, he also posits that there is variation from child to child. Here he compares Noam to a cousin who speaks his same three languages. Faingold provides copious tables of the words spoken by his subjects. (Note: one "universal contraint" that he observed is that baby talk usually features syllables composed of a consonant followed by a vowel. Toddlers seem to prefer this structure. Interestingly, this is how syllabification tends to work in French, which means that Carl's natural baby talk tendencies will prepare him for proper pronunciation in his second language! You think?)

Chapter 5 looks at Noam's patterns of language use through adolescence. Up to age 2, he uses S, P, and H with all interlocutors. At age 2, he uses S with his father and P with his mom, but then begins code-switching (this is a stage that occurs in all children learning more than one language). At this point, Noam sometimes used more that one language even in the same sentence, regardless of whom he is addressing (parents, himself, babysitter, even the cat!). At about age three, he understands S and P, but prefers to respond in H, the community language. When 3 1/2 to 6, Noam seems to prefer H and speaks it like a native even to his parents, who respond in S or P. After moving to the US at age 6, Noam becomes fluent in English within six months and claims not to understand S, P, or H. Despite the fact that he visits relatives in Israel and Argentina yearly, and that he lives in NY and CA where there are significant Spanish- and Hebrew-speaking populations, Noam refuses to speak either language. By age 12, however, he has started studying Spanish at school and Hebrew at the synagogue in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah. As a boy born in Israel, his Hebrew classmates admire him, and as the son of a Spanish professor, he's a star of his Spanish class. Thus H and S no longer seem "low-status" languages to him, and he begins to speak them more at home and ask questions about them. He even jokes and swears in H and creates neologisms in S. (To me this implies that he had not lost H and S permanently when he stopped speaking them as a six-year-old, or at the very least that his mind was wired to relearn them more quickly than his peers who were starting from scratch.)

In his discussion of the factors that influenced Noam's language use, Faingold points out that children being raised with a language(s) different from the majority language quickly learn that their parents speak the majority language too (they hear them on the phone, talking to neighbors, and so forth). This reduces the children's motivation to speak the minority language, because now they know they can communicate with the parents in the majority language. While I would like for Carl to hear me only speaking French, that will be impossible--I speak English with his parents before and after my babysitting shift and we all speak English at family get-togethers. Faingold also recommends that kids have peers to speak the minority language with, and that will be hard for Carl (at least until he gets some French-speaking cousins via me and my husband or until I can find or create a francophone play group in the area). Peer pressure is powerful--kids typically don't want to feel or appear different (because of their language(s) or any other reason). Because of Noam's family and religious connections, reacquisition of the minority languages was easier for Noam. How can I find something analogous for Carl? If we don't want him to reject French, we need to make him believe that it's important or useful or cool or fun. (I'm going to enjoy this challenge.)

Faingold's book concludes with the results of various tests that Noam took as an older adolescent (AP Spanish, university language placement exam, Oral Proficiency Interviews). Of his foreign languages, his Spanish is strongest and Portuguese weakest. While not "fluent" even in Spanish, he actively uses all three, thus reaching his father's goal for him as being a "balanced bilingual." That sounds good to me, but part of me winces--after all that exposure in the home, formal study, and travel (he even participated in a summer study abroad), Noam still isn't fluent in Spanish. What chance does Carl have? On the other hand, I teach French at a university, and I don't speak like a native myself. I'm not fully bilingual, but I read fluently and can communicate very well in French (and being a teacher, my grammar's impeccable!). Carl's in good hands.

Faingold, E.D. (2004). Multilingualism from infancy to adolescence: Noam's experience. Information Age Publishing: Greenwich, CT.


  1. Hmm...what is the power of one? There is only so much that is in your control. But even if French doesn't "catch", he'll be in a better place to learn another language (or relearn French) and to know what the heck all those terms in biology class mean. ;)

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