The holidays are over—we enjoyed them tremendously! Our grandchildren, while they were acquiring swimming skills here in Thailand, were also immersed in a rich “linguistic pool”.
“Tell me a story, Baba!” And I’d begin—in Russian. Breaks and pauses were not appreciated. “And then, Baba, and then?” At the age of 4, Michelle has an insatiable thirst for stories. We’d practice telling stories together. She would coerce me into taking the leading roles. Probably the same routine, with variations, happens in her other family language, French. She is also keen on talking about “mathematics”—perhaps her educational setting in her English preschool inspired her love for numbers. She easily transfers number concepts into Russian and French contexts. We are astonished by her linguistic gains and amused by her creativity and ability to switch effortlessly between languages, skilfully adjusting her talk to match the speaker’s “linguistic personality”.
Perhaps while memories are fresh, it is time to revisit some of our beliefs and assumptions and start setting goals and making new plans. Should we assume that our grandchild, through our family’s efforts, has become “balanced” in her linguistic ability? Or is it too early to draw conclusions, since language proficiency changes over time? The phrases “balanced bilinguals” and “language dominance” are often used when talking about bilingual and multilingual development. And yet, how can we define “balance”? Does this mean perfect or equal proficiency in each language, and how do we measure it? Especially taking into account the child’s ever-changing personal, social and educational landscape.
So many factors beyond our control throughout children’s lives will affect their need, and their ability, to use languages. Can we ever expect them to be perfect? Even if balance, or lack of it, between two languages might be possible to imagine and describe—my mind sees bicycles with two perfectly functional (or broken) wheels; or two floating icebergs with all parts intact (or some missing); or two fully (or partially) inflated balloons inside a person’s head—wait, what about the “balance” of three languages? The metaphors start to break up. Perhaps linguistic balance is not only an unattainable goal, but also an unhelpful way to look at linguistic ability in children who are growing up with several languages.
Rather than aiming at “linguistic balance”—which is hard to define and assess—we could aim at developing and strengthening children’s ability to function with confidence in linguistically and culturally diverse and changing settings. If we think about language in terms of its functions, or domains of use, we can then support children by expanding their experiences and providing contexts of language use for a wide variety of meaningful purposes. Those purposes might differ across languages, contexts and over time. To this end we set goals and make plans. Here it might be worthwhile to focus not just on goals and plans, but also on our visions. Whereas goals are specific and attainable, visions are broad, all-encompassing ideas. Goals of course are necessary, but visions provide purpose and significance for the whole endeavor of becoming functionally proficient language users.
Here is a link to a blog post, written by multilingual linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira: Dominant Languages and Balanced Languages
Columnist Olga Steklova is a retired EAL teacher at ISB and trilingual herself. She shares tips for raising multilingual children as she observes her own grandchildren. Here is a column that she wrote previously about linguistic balance, when the 4-year-old granddaughter described above was 2-1/2: How Important is Linguistic Balance?