For the first time in over 50 interviews conducted on this blog, our guests this month are a father and daughter – the former a professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck, University of London, the latter a BA student of Linguistics and French at Worcester College, University of Oxford.
Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele was born into a French-speaking family in Ostend, Flanders and grew up in Bruges, where the medium of school instruction is Dutch. He holds a doctorate in Romance languages and literature from the Free University of Brussels. Together with Katja, his Dutch-French speaking wife, he moved to London 22 years ago, and their daughter Livia, aged 19, was born there.
Jean-Marc's dominant language for academic purposes has become English, but he retains his command of French (in which he writes poetry) and Dutch, both of which are the home languages. He also speaks Spanish and understands Italian and German in subjects related to his linguistics research.
We begin the interview with Jean-Marc and continue with Livia. Apart from their individual talents and skills, they are a formidable team, having co-authored two papers – and both holding a first Dan black belt in karate.
The interviews that follow were conducted between Los Angeles and London and between Los Angeles and Oxford.
LMJ: You do research on individual differences in psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, pragmatic, psychological and emotional aspects of Second Language Acquisition and Multilingualism. Can you explain more specifically to the readers the meaning of "psychological and emotional aspects".
JMD: My interest in individual differences arose when I started teaching French in Brussels and I noticed that my students acquired French at different speeds and with different outcomes for different aspects of the French language. I also noticed that performance in informal classroom conversations and oral exams varied widely and that this variation seemed to be linked to psychological, sociobiographical and linguistic variables. My interest in psychological aspects of language learning and production extended later to the emotions that foreign language learners and users experience and to the obstacles that they face in wanting to communicate emotions appropriately in a foreign language.
LMJ: You have published too many articles, and have written and edited too many books to enumerate here. You won the Robert C. Gardner Award for Excellence in Second Language and Bilingualism Research (2016) from the International Association of Language and Social Psychology and the one that struck me particularly was the Equality and Diversity Research Award (2013) from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. How do multilingualism and psychotherapy interconnect?
JMD: It's an award I shared with Dr Beverley Costa, a psychotherapist, for the work we have done together. We realized that there is a pervasive monolingual ideological bias in most government services, including the mental health services. Our research showed that multilingualism can be an important part of a person's identity and that it is crucial that psychotherapists are aware of this. In other words, they need be able to understand the reasons why a client might switch to a different language during therapy, which typically happens in moments of heightened emotionality.
LMJ: Professor Grosjean, in an interview on this blog, stated: « on peut devenir bilingue à tout âge. » On the other hand Patricia Kuhl, Professor of Speech ands Heariung Sciences and co-director for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, has desribed her lab tests in which she stresses the special learning attributes of babies, which they lose after a short time. Which do you agree with?
JMD: These are not contradictory views and I agree with both. The crucial thing is to understand Grosjean's definition of "bilingual". Being bilingual in the 1960s – 1970s was understood as meaning maximal proficiency in both languages. Today it is interpreted as having at least a working knowledge of a language, for example, being able to have a basic conversation in the languages. Grosjean and all of use researchers accept that bilinguals or multilinguals have weaker and more dominant language(s), and that this dominance can shift after intense exposure to one of their weaker languages. One of the points made by François Grosjean in the 1980s was that a bilingual is more than the sum of two monolinguals, hence that it is irrelevant if a bilingual doesn't have the same scores on a test as a monolingual in one single language. Vivian Cook developed this idea in his multicompetence model, where he talked about L2 users as legitimate users of the L2, and it doesn't matter if they still make the odd grammatical error. Highly proficient L2 users of French still make occasional gender errors for example. L2 users have unique characteristics: "Acquiring another language alters the L2 user's mind in ways that go beyond the actual knowledge of language itself' (Cook 2002, p.7). I personally prefer to talk about foreign language users (LX users) as it could be the second, third, fourth or fifth language acquired by that person.
Patricia Kuhl refers to research on age effects in language learning. It's true that all healthy babies become perfectly fluent in the language(s) that surround them from birth (three in Livia's case). In other words, they become linguistically indistinguishable from their interlocutors. It is harder to reach that level for languages acquired later in life. The debate on the so-called "Critical Period Hypothesis", or "Age effects" as it is called today, is on-going. The question is whether there is a cut-off point in age after which it is unlikely that a person will become indistinguishable from native speakers. There are some rare cases of late LX learners reaching that point but in general their LX stands out in some ways (like my French-Dutch accent in English despite more than 20 years in the UK), especially in situations of stress. So Grosjean is absolutely right in claiming that it is never too late to learn a new language and become bilingual but it will take a while and it is likely that the person will always be identified as an LX user, which doesn't matter!
LMJ: Your daughter Livia was born in London. From the day she was born, you spoke to her in French, while your wife spoke to her in Dutch. Together you followed the rule of one person - one language (OPOL) very diligently in her early years, insisting that she answer in the language in which she was addressed. You write: "Livia had become an expert applied sociolinguist by age three." Can you explain that.
JMD: Joshua Fishman, a famous sociolinguist, explained in 1972 that sociolinguistics provides the tools to describe interactional contexts and that is boils down to "Who uses what language with whom and for what purposes?" I witnessed that when Livia, aged 2, first met her friend Laura, an English monolingual girl a few years older than Livia. Livia started using words in her three languages and quickly noticed that the French and Dutch words seemed to have no effect. Over the next two visits she adjusted her speech based on what Laura was able to understand, in other words, she stuck to English. I was delighted because it showed that Livia had become aware that not everybody shared the languages that she knew, and that she had to adapt to her interlocutor.
Of course, Livia produced some instances of code-switching with us and with other multilinguals. She would occasionally switch to English to tell us about something that had happened outside the house, or in speaking to a doll. Code-switching is certainly NOT a symptom of mental confusion but is something multilinguals engage in spontaneously when they know the interlocutors will be able to follow them. Presented with a choice of teapots ("théière" in French, feminine noun), she exclaimed (aged 3.5) that she wanted "une rouge one".
Livia also realized that not all multilinguals are equally fluent in all domains in their different languages. When she was 3 years old my mother started reading her a bedtime story from an English book and Livia stopped her and told her bluntly that her English accent was inadequate and could she please read a story in French of Dutch instead.
I also wondered whether children may have a naïve definition of language based on the sound of the language. Coming back from her English nursery school Livia was singing "Frère Jacques", (a song she had learned with me at home some time before), with a pronounced English accent. I joined in the singing, accentuating the French accent. She looked at me angrily and said "Non papa, je chante en anglais !" ('no daddy, I'm singing in English') (age 4). It turned out that the song had been part of the "French class" the previous day, and she had interpreted this as an English version of the familiar French song.
LMJ: You are co-authoring a book entitled Raising Multilingual Children from Birth to be published by Multilingual Matters in 2017 in which one chapter consists of a case study of Livia. In that chapter you relate that you video recorded her at regular intervals using her different languages with different interlocutors; that you stopped this at age five, when you realized that you lacked the willingness to transcribe everything and to subject it to a rigorous analysis.
JMD: This turned out to be an unexpected ethical issue between my role as father and my job as researcher. Being a researcher implies some distance from the participant(s), the job of the researcher is to be an impartial observer. Somehow, the father in me did not want the researcher to do his job, because it seemed like an intrusion of the privacy of family, and I didn't want to analyse Livia's lovely little first words in terms of emergence of morphemes, lexemes and calculating mean length of utterance.
LMJ: Do you think that speaking a particular language makes you feel different?
JMD: In a recent study (Dewaele, 2015) on more than 1000 multilinguals I found that nearly 60% reported feeling different when switching languages, with 30% not feeling any difference and the remaining 10% being unsure. Those feeling more different tended to experience higher levels of anxiety in the LX. Those who felt different reported feeling less funny in the LX because of a lack of proficiency, being more taciturn in one language, speaking in a higher pitched voice, covering the mouth, adopting a different body language and sticking to linguistic or cultural norms of the L1 to stand out in the LX or vice versa. Switching languages can allow an escape from linguistic and cultural constraints. I do not feel any different when switching languages, except maybe when I yell in Japanese during karate classes: because then I'm in a fighting mood! So my very limited Japanese is a purely martial language.
LMJ: What languages do you commonly read in for pleasure (can you name some titles of your favorite books, poems, etc.)?
JMD: English, French and Dutch. I prefer poetry in French, and Paul Eluard is my favorite poet. I love Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Gombrowicz' Cosmos, the short stories by Borges, all the books by Auster (In the Country of Last Things, The Music of Chance, Leviathan, New York Trilogy), most books of Murakami (especially Norwegian Wood), Zafon's masterpiece La sombra del viento, Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, detective stories by Dibdin, Kerr, and the French author Vargas, (Sous les vents de Neptune). I also loved Davidson's thriller Kolymsky Heights.
LMJ: Who is better at karate – you or Livia?
JMD: Livia is definitely better. One reason is that she started at the age of 7 while I started at 41. She has flexibility and grace and ferociousness combined with excellent control. I try hard but I tense up too easily. I was really proud of getting my first Dan last year: being older one needs extra courage and determination. Livia and I can both stand our ground in fighting. We also very much enjoy doing our katas together, it's almost a spiritual exercise.
Costa, B. & Dewaele, J.-M. (2014) Psychotherapy across languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 14, 235-244.
Dewaele, J.-M. (2013) Emotions in Multiple Languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave – MacMillan (2nd ed).
Dewaele, J.-M. (2016) Why do so many bi- and multilinguals feel different when switching languages? International Journal of Multilingualism 13, 92-105.
Dewaele, J.-M., MacIntyre, P.D., Boudreau, C. & Dewaele, L. (2016) Do girls have all the fun? Anxiety and Enjoyment in the Foreign Language Classroom. Theory and Practice of Second Language Acquisition 2, 41–63.