three notes

January 20th, 2012

1: I just had Firefox eat my language bar. That was weird. I’m pretty sure it was a Firefox problem, because I opened up Maxthon, logged in to Weibo, and the language bar worked. But in Firefox, the language bar vanished and I could not switch to Chinese. Well, I could type all I liked, but only in English-style diacritical free Latin script. I closed Firefox, reopened, problem gone, language bar back and functional, proper toned pīnyīn and 汉字 allowed again.

2: Via Language Log, the benefits of being bilingual. There’s lots of goodness there, but I must admit this paragraph had me a little concerned:

In one recent study, Anat Prior and Tamar Gollan compared Mandarin-English bilinguals, Spanish-English bilinguals, and monolingual English speakers living in San Diego. As you might expect, the Spanish-English speakers flipped between their languages on a daily basis. Mandarin-English speakers, on the other hand, kept their language use more compartmentalized. (Incidentally, Asian immigrants to the U.S. are among the fastest to lose their heritage languages.) All three groups were given a test in which they had to switch between sorting visual images either by their color or by their shape. Only the Spanish-English bilinguals showed a relative advantage when confronted with a sudden category shift; the Mandarin-English speakers were no different on this score than the monolinguals.

If we take “flipped between their languages on a daily basis” to mean frequent code switching and “kept their language use more compartmentalized” to mean less frequent code switching, which is what the linked abstract seems to suggest (“By contrast, Mandarin–English bilinguals, who reported switching languages less frequently than Spanish–English bilinguals”), and assume there’s some social reason for Spanish-English bilinguals in San Diego to code switch more often than Mandarin-English bilinguals (proximity to Mexico? larger hispanophone community?), then it would seem on the face of it to make sense that that particular Mandarin-English community shows no advantage over monolinguals. Now, my daughter gets English from me and Mandarin from her mum, so when she learns to speak, will that frequency of code switching be enough for my daughter to reap the benefits of growing up bilingual? I passed that article on to my wife, whose response was:

09:40

那要是我们回新西兰,你跟我还说中文

09:40

呵呵

“When we go back to New Zealand, you’ll still speak Chinese with me, hehe.” But of course. Our relationship has always happened almost exclusively in Chinese. And it’s not just climate that has us aiming at Auckland, but also the large Chinese community.

[tangent, but yes, that does mean one day the ‘ex’ in this blog’s title will have to be replaced with a ‘re’]

3: Omniglot found a good article in the NY Times questioning the USA’s reputation for monolingualism – and also the rest of the world’s assumed multilingualism. It throws out some interesting stats. 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home – and yes, it does point out that that’s the wrong questions:

But a moment’s reflection reveals that the bureau’s question about what you speak at home is not equivalent to asking whether you speak more than one language. I have some proficiency in Spanish and was fluent in Mandarin 20 years ago. But when the American Community Survey (an ongoing survey from the Census Bureau) arrived in my mailbox last month, posing that question, I had to answer no, because we speak only English in my home.

And is Europe really so fabulously multilingual when only 56% of Europeans say they can carry on a conversation in a second language? But wait, I see a red flag here: Self-reporting, which is not the most reliable evidence when it comes to matters linguistic. For example, in Norway I knew a guy who could carry on a conversation in English, but only when he was drunk. When he was sober he was too nervous to attempt any more than the most basic communication in English, and then only when necessary (i.e. no translator to help). But perhaps the stats in this paragraph help firm things up:

But the statistics tell a murkier story. Recently, the Stockholm University linguist Mikael Parkvall sought out data on global bilingualism and ran into problems. The reliable numbers that do exist cover only 15 percent of the world’s 190-odd countries, and less than one-third of the world’s population. In those countries, Mr. Parkvall calculated (in a study not yet published), the average number of languages spoken either natively or non-natively per person is 1.58. Piecing together the available data for the rest of the world as best he could, he estimated that 80 percent of people on the planet speak 1.69 languages — not high enough to conclude that the average person is bilingual.

Given the world’s massive linguistic diversity and the sheer number of countries where more than one language is in common use – particularly in Europe, Asia, Africa and Melanesia – it just seems so obvious that most of the world’s kids grow up bilingual. I remember never being able to understand why Southeast Asian friends were surprised at me studying three languages at university when they’d all grown up with at least two, if not three or even four languages. But then again, what’s obvious is not necessarily true.

And it reminds me: I’ve met plenty of bilingual Americans. Mandarin-English is a pretty common mix where I live, Spanish-English also seems common, both for reasons that should be obvious (what did i just say about obvious?). On the other hand, the only people I’ve ever met who’ve boasted about how long they’ve lived in China without learning a word of Chinese (apart from the names of places they often go and their favourite beer and cigarette brands, of course) have been my fellow Kiwis. And yes, I do mean ‘boasted’, as in their tone of voice suggested they found their stubborn monolingualism in a country whose official language is not English and where English is only commonly used in the expat community and their hangouts was somehow a source of pride.

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