"Being Multilingual: Secret languages"

Being Multilingual: The perception of 'secret languages'

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Multilingualism provides the benefit of switching languages to ask personal questions, but is it accepted outside the family home? Madalena discusses her family's experience of being multilingual.

One of the most disheartening feelings I’ve experienced as a multilingually engaged parent relates to the realisation that practising multilingualism may be, and often is, interpreted as a deliberate sign of unfriendliness towards those who share one of our family languages. The reasoning seems to be something like 'If you can speak X, which you know I understand, why should you be speaking Y, which you know I don’t?'

In playgrounds, as our children were growing up, comments ranged from severe, "We speak X here,” to commiserating, “Oh, can’t the children speak X?” (where X stands for the name of the local mainstream language). In school, teachers recommended X monolingualism at home, not only as the usual (and misguided) safeguard against assorted developmental shortcomings, but also to protect the children from bullying that might arise from their unwitting public shows of Alien-Speak. 'Understandably', well-meaning officials added. You can read a detailed report on these issues in Chapter 9 of my book Three is a Crowd?, titled ‘A new language: intruder or guest?’

The scenario repeated itself elsewhere, from extended family gatherings to more or less formal dinners where our hosts would cause the smoothly ongoing conversation to suddenly come to a halt. Guests would glance at fellow guests to make sure that what they had all heard was discourteous gobbledygook indeed, and someone was finally bound to ask, “Sorry, what was that you just said?" with tones and facial expressions which made it very clear that the question was not about 'what', but about 'why'.

We parents, let alone the children, weren’t even aware that we were using Private-Speak, so naturally it came to us. Which meant that the generalised malaise struck us all the more painfully: we felt guilty of speaking our language(s), as charged. We felt as rude as if we had publicly whispered secrets in a shared language.

It doesn’t help that people who feel excluded in this way also seem to believe that we use our secret languages to talk about them, probably because so many of us tend to assume that our pet conversation topic, ourselves, unquestionably extends to others. This is not surprising, really, given that the Oxford English Corpus report that one of the most common words is 'I'. It might be hard to persuade those people that our secret conversations concerns banalities like stop picking your nose, do you want to go potty?, let go of your brother’s leg, or can I have your cake, daddy, if you’re not finishing it? and I want to go play with their goldfish. I often wondered whether I shouldn’t have asked these people two things: a) what do they talk about with their children, and b) in which language.

Things did get better, in time, as everyone got used to everyone else’s linguistic quirkinesses in the different places where we’ve lived. Not least, we parents came to feel free to switch languages with our children when they became aware of what linguistic politeness is all about, and thereby realised that it tops any feelings of personal offence, on their part, to their own language policy habits.

Being Multilingual: Secret languages

The children themselves came to put their secret languages to good use: when receiving their friends at our home, it happened that they deliberately switched to one language that they knew their friends didn’t understand, in order to ask us parents, for example, whether their friends could stay on for dinner and sleepover combos. This was the only strategy they could think of, as they explained to me, to protect their friends from assuming that they were not welcome in case the answer had to be 'no', for some logistic reason.

Languages can indeed be used as strategic tools in more than one way. One well-known example relates to the 'uncrackable' codes used by Code Talkers in World War II – their own languages. The site of the Navajo Code Talkers explains how the coding took place, and how its success seamlessly drew on native cultural tenets.


Reprinted 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: dickdotcom (photo 2), Elbie Rae (head/hot).

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2 Comments To This Article

  • Madalena Cruz-Ferreira posted:

    on 3rd August 2013, 12:07:45 - Reply

    Thank you for this comment, carrico! I agree with you that there is more than one way of interpreting behaviours towards us, including linguistic behaviours. On the subject of language and thought, you may enjoy this other post of mine, ‘Thinking in tongues’:
  • carrico posted:

    on 25th July 2013, 13:35:42 - Reply

    And, again, a brilliant little article from Madelena. Should have known she was Portuguese, of sea-faring stock. Her point of view explains how we bumbling wanna-be bilingualists feel when the Dutch switch languages on us. It feels like they're condescending toward us. Not necessarily true. The more perceptive are actually helping us by engaging us in our own native language. Language is thought, nicht wahr?