"Being Multilingual: Socialising in tongues"

Being Multilingual: Socialising in tongues

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Linguist Madalena Cruz-Ferreira highlights the similarities between becoming multilingual and learning other forms of language, such as social media, to socialise in new ways with new groups.

We start socialising when we realise, by around age three, that being human means finding ways to get along with other human beings. People socialise chiefly through language, so we need to learn to make sense of linguistic signals from our fellow interactants in order to find our place in our social groups.

Learning to interpret language takes time, energy and investment, but we can’t spend our whole lives investing: we must reap some reward, sometime. So we need to find our groups too, the ones that satisfy our socialising investments with reasonable reward.

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar has quite a few interesting things to say about how we do this. He asks, for example, how many friends does one person need? His findings became known as Dunbar's number, reflecting the "cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships" – about 150, give or take a few. The book that started me off on Dunbar's work has the appealing title Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language, and is as entertaining as the title promises.
I came to think about significant limits to socialising (or do I mean limits to significant socialising??) when I was writing about globalisation. Our social groups and our socialising have certainly evolved. Physical proximity is no longer an issue, for example. We are all on Facebook, but we may have no idea who our next-door neighbour is; we’re permanently connected, with no time to meet; and we may even send electronic greetings to the colleague sitting next to us at work. From social networking to smart phones and smarter apps, I came to think about the new language that we are all learning to use, to deal with them: we currently txt, ROFL, :D, and are *.*, O.o, and ^_^. I should add here that, as I am a non-native user of this language, I asked the natives (my children) for confirmation that these words(!) are printable in a blog like mine.
Being Multilingual: Socialising in tongues
We thus learn to use languages in order to satisfy our socialising needs, and we learn new languages to satisfy new such needs. This cannot be fundamentally different from what a multilingual does. It is not even different from what monolinguals do too, if we replace the word languages with the more general expression 'ways of using language' ('registers', in jargon). We learn to use our languages in different ways, so that we can socialise in different ways. We speak differently to children and adults, or to shop assistants and our boss, for example. Multilinguals and monolinguals alike switch 'registers' in their languages in this way, the difference being that multilinguals can also include different languages to switch among registers. The learning process that produces this skill and the skilled product that enables effective socialising are the same for all of us.

Our social groups usually start at home, among our families, and I will have much to say about uses of language in multilingual families, in coming posts. The next significant group, for most of us, must be our school(s). I wrote about schooling of multilingual children before, but I didn’t mention then how schooling in language subjects manages the learners’ multilingualism. Being multilingual appears to stand in the way of becoming multilingual the school way. In another post, I will report a few observations about this.


with permission of Being Multilingual.

Madalena Cruz-FerreiraBeing Multilingual - Madalena Cruz Ferreira is a freelance linguist who works on debunking myths and misconceptions about multilingualism at home, in school, and in clinic. One of her books, Multilinguals are ...?, is "a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation" (David Crystal), and "should be required reading for those who work closely with groups and individuals who use multiple languages" (Jeff MacSwan). She is Portuguese, married to a Swede, based in Singapore, and the mother of three trilingual children. She runs two blogs, Being Multilingual, on multilingualism, and Lang101 Blog, on linguistics for starters. You can find her on Twitter.

Photo credit: JD Hancock (photo 1), moodboardphotography (photo 2).

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 18th November 2013, 16:18:58 - Reply

    Carrico: I’m one of those who believe that age has nothing to do with learning, and who can’t see why learning languages should be singled out in this connection.

    Have a look at this other post of mine, ‘Age, decay, and missed opportunities’, to see what I mean and why:

    My children, who were not that young any more when we talked about cyber-emoticons, are better than me at these simply because they use them more often than I do. On the other hand, I “beat” them at blogging and tweeting, despite the respectable age at which I started blogging and tweeting – also because I do these things regularly and they don’t.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and your support on this site!

  • carrico posted:

    on 17th November 2013, 02:34:54 - Reply

    Interesting that you cite the age three for the beginning of socializing. Also interesting is that you asked your own kids about the 'new' language you are all learning. My kids have learned it much better and more quickly than I. They also picked up a second language more quickly than their parents. Is this also connected, do you think, to becoming multilingual, the earlier the better? Perhaps those of us old folks who study a new language have the 'cards' stacked against us. Dank u wel.