Pick a language, any language

There is a new women’s clothing store on the corner of 2nd Ave and 41st Street in Manhattan. Apart from the distressing orange and paisley strapless jumper displayed in the window, the thing that stood out about this store was its name: Dor L’Dor. Seeing the sign across the street all during brunch, we could not help but discuss the name. It was generally agreed that it was a dumb name that didn’t actually mean anything. The L’ gave the illusion of French, but then it should be Le Dor. But ‘dor’ isn’t a word in French, unless it’s d’or, which means ‘of gold’. Then at least it would D’or le D’or…which makes absolutely no sense.

But the word seemed very familiar to me and I was left with one of the odd situations that comes from knowing a word and what it means, but not remembering which language it belongs to. Didn’t it mean ‘difficult’? No, that’s zor in Turkish. I almost confused it for cor in Italian, which means ‘heart’. I stopped eating and adopted my thinking face so I could concentrate. I then tuned out all the laughter at seeing by my thinking face. Finally, it hit me.

“It means ‘pain’ in Portuguese!” I should have known this more quickly, considering how many times my migraines prompted me to explain that my bedroom eyes were actually due to my “dor de cabeςa”. I felt better and continued eating my bagel and lox.

Wordle: Bilingual 2

Though I’m not comfortable calling myself a ‘balanced bilingual’, I am still able to navigate my way through a number of languages other than English.  I never once thought whether or not this caused me confusion or problems despite these dor moments. I once even forgot both English and Portuguese words for ‘map’ and could only think of the Turkish word (harita) and even then, I would never consider this a disadvantage.

There’s been a lot of controversy over bilingualism and bilingual education in the United States. Politically, this question has become inextricably linked to the debate on immigration. Without delving into that particular can of worms, there are still many issues to look at concerning the case for or against bilingualism, especially in children.

Because this is a hefty topic, or at least more than I care to include in one single post, I’ve decided to devote the week’s posts to issue of bilingualism to break it up into more manageable pieces.

I’m starting out with a call for discussion (and my inner teacher would like to invite all of you quieter kids in the back row to contribute as well!): What have been your experiences with bilingualism? Should children learn two languages at the same time, or is it too confusing? Should adults try to learn second languages even if they don’t need to for practical circumstances?


19 thoughts on “Pick a language, any language

  1. As a bilinguist…(just kidding)….I wanted to give the impression that I know what I’m talking about. But seriously though, as a bilinguist, I think letting kids learn a second language earlier is better. It not only increases their ability to adapt to learning and social settings, it contributes to an increase in grey brain matter :) The downside to parents who want their children to learn a second language is that some of these parents are ill-equipped to faciliate that second language. I speak French fluently, and even I have been lazy teaching my kids how to speak French because I was married to an Englishman and I was outnumbered by English people.

    I currently live in an area where people resist learning Spanish as they feel it should be the job of immigrants to learn to the English language. When I lived in Canada, I came across many French people who resisted learning English as they thought it unnecessary in a country officially bilingual. I say, both camps lose. People who have more than one language have greater advantages on many levels.

    • I hear the same kind of thing – why can’t they speak English? Why don’t they just go back? Since I’ve finally decided that this is ‘my fight’, I’ve started engaging these people in conversation about the matter. My opening question is usually something along the lines of “What makes you think that they don’t speak English?” That’s not to say that I believe it’s not important to learn English for someone who moves to this country. My problem is with the idea that learning English should mean forgetting or ignoring the first language. On the plus side, I’ve heard lots of amusing stories told by my students who had front row seats to some crazy conversations, all because it was assumed that my students don’t speak English :)

      As a bilinguist is a good phrase to start throwing around! ;)

  2. In Hebrew Dor L’Dor means “from generation to generation” – passed down from one generation to another!
    Although sometimesI’m happiest speaking a mishmash of two languages I wouldn’t miss being bilingual for anything!

    • Ah, fantastic! When I looked it up, I just kept getting commercial sites. Then I included “Hebrew” in the search and found some more information. This is from a sermon delivered at the Old York Road Temple – Beth An (in Pennsylvania):

      “Here, and here alone, the God of Sinai speaks, as it were, to the entire nation as a whole. Only when we stand together, arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder, can the brit, the covenant, be transmitted “m’dor l’dor”, [emphasis mine] from one generation to the next. True, the covenant was addressed to numerous individuals and was valid for them and their contemporaries. But in order for it to make a lasting and permanent impression; in order for it to descend into the depths of the Jewish neshamah, the Jewish soul; in order for it to have authority and high regard in an age of non-conformity and disrespect, the people have to stand together as one.”

      Thank so much for the information and settling my poor linguist’s mind to rest :)

  3. I am all for bilingual education, and I think we should start at a young age. My only second language is Spanish (took 4 years in high school), but it has fostered a rudimentary understanding of any romance language (dor is close to the Spanish “dolor” , which also means pain, so I was able to make that connection). I wish that I could have started learning languages younger, so that I would know 3 or 4 by this time in my life. Younger brains soak up language like a sponge, so I think we should try to cram as many as we can in there. :)

    • Romance languages are good that way. So are Slavic languages, actually. I think it’s one of the reasons I sometimes know the meaning of a word but forget which language it comes from! I wish I’d started earlier, too. I remember being so desperate to start learning French in 8th grade that when I was in 6th grade, I would steal my sister’s French texts and do her homework! I’m still amazed sometimes that I was never beaten up on the playground ;)

  4. There is a theory that if you learn second language before you’re 5 or 6, I think, you’ll be able to pick up other languages much easier later in life as your brain wires itself differently. In a lot of European countries is kind of a given that people speak or at least understand more than one language (unless you’re British, of course). I started learning second language very early and not because my parents thought I should, but because growing up in Soviet Union a lot of TV programs, cartoons, ect. were in Russian, so kids picked it up along the way before they started official lessons in schools. So, yes, I’m with the “teach them another language as early as you can” crowd.

    • (But we know, of course, that the British aren’t European ;) What was the famous headline? “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off” )

      It’s certainly true that exposure to other languages when very young gives a distinct advantage in pronunciation throughout life. In my reading I’m doing for the next post, there’s evidence that the brain starts cutting itself off even earlier than age 5 or 6.

      I’m curious – if you don’t mind me asking, what was the ‘local’ language that was spoken in addition to the Russian that was in the media and in schools?

      • Oh no, British most certainly aren’t Europeans. :)

        As for my “local” language: Soviet Union was made up of 15 different countries and most of them (apart from Russia, of course) had their own language. Most of those languages are Slavic in origin, so the leap between “local” language and Russian wasn’t that big. Apart from the Baltic states, which have completely different languages. Most people can’t seem to get their head around it for some reason. I’m from Lithuania and you would not believe the amount of times I’ve had to answer the question about what language we speak in Lithuania. And then try and convince people that, no, it’s NOTHING like Russian or Polish. It always makes me laugh. I mean, you don’t ask a French person what language they speak in France, do you?

      • Sadly, I’ve had people ask me what language is spoken in Portugal, and why is it a different language if Portugal is in Spain? Why don’t we just speak Spanish? One advantage to getting older is that I have had time to perfect my withering “you’re an idiot” look, which definitely comes out when I get these types of questions!

        I’ve known a number of people who grew up in former Soviet-controlled countries and have always been amazed at how well the Russians managed to impose their language in so many places. All the people I’ve know have been completely fluent in Russian as well as their country’s native language. And it seemed that the native language stayed strong in some countries but perhaps not as strong in others. The people I knew from Azerbaijan had no problems going back and forth from Russian to Azeri (which meant they picked up Turkish with no problems, too), but I had a student from Kazakhstan who said she was really a lot better in Russian.

      • Ok, I’m slowly losing my faith in humanity again. I can sort of understand people being clueless about my country. We are tiny, most people don’t even know Lithuania is in Europe, but Portugal??? Why would anyone think it’s in Spain? Mind you, it’s not only European problem, I know my Brazilian friends always struggled to explain to people that they don’t speak Spanish.

        Russians definitely managed to do a through job in trying to impose their language. In those times, everyone had to be able to speak and write it, if they wanted to have a decent job: all the official documents had to be written in Russian. As for Russian vs. native language: I think it depends quite a lot how old you are are (my mum’s generation is far more fluent in Russian than mine) and how strong was the Russian integration in your country.

      • True about the generational thing. The Russians, I imagine, have slightly less official influence now :)

        The small countries are so misunderstood! My boyfriend is Slovenian on his father’s side, and he lost count of how many times he got either, ‘Oh, you’re Slovakian” or “….?”

  5. I’ve taught children who were truly bilingual, and I grew up with several friends who, due to German mothers and American fathers. spoke both German and English fluently. As a teacher, I was privy to observing how quickly non-English speaking students would pick up our language, as our area is home to many Spanish speaking immigrants. I once had a Japanese student who went from zero to more than functional English in the course of three months. Kids are amazing when it comes to learning a new language. The elementary school that I went to had a program for the gifted students to learn French. The only problem was, our teacher wasn’t at all fluent in the language, so we ended up learning lots of French history instead! (I did learn French in high school and college, but have lost so much of it. :( Perhaps I should beg my husband for an anniversary trip to Paris as a memory jolter!)

    As far as adults learning a second language, even if they don’t need to for practical reasons: I see learning something new as always a positive endeavor. I have the complete Rosetta Stone collection for German on one of my shelves, even though most of my German speaking relatives are dead or too senile to engage in conversation! One day I hope to actually open the box and attempt learning it! :) Interesting post, as always!

    • Yeah, kids learn amazingly fast. What was frustrating was when I had the parents in my ESL classes and they would get so discouraged that their children were learning so quickly but they were learning so slowly. One woman even insisted on bringing in kids books and games to use in class because, as she claimed, it worked so well for her son, so why wasn’t I using the same things so she could learn as quickly. It’s hard for them to understand sometimes that it’s a different process for children and for adults. Our brains are too different.

      I really think you should start working your husband over for that Paris trip! ;) I’m brushing up on my French for a visit to Normandy this summer. I’ve been wanting to go to France since I was 12 and I’m beyond excited that I am finally going :)

  6. I’m a Canadian (born and raised) and while French is taught in schools from Grade 4 on (unless you live in Quebec) I was lucky enough to be placed in a French Immersion school. There, English wasn’t taught until grade 4, though I learned it at home from my parents and by being an avid reader of everything, including all the french labels. During that time, my parents always knew when I was dreaming about school, because I spoke French aloud in my sleep, while the rest of the time was English. When writing English, more often than not French was the first language I thought in, and so I translated back to English. Fast forward to high school, where I went to an English Arts school, and I started to lose my ability to think in French.

    It came in handy later. As a sub for a national company’s HR centre, I would take on someone’s Quebec stores. Though I had to learn French terms for things like over-time (temps partielle) I could at least carry on a quick phone conversation with the store. During my 4 month stay in Italy for architecture, I found my french coming to me more than the little bit of Italian I knew, and I’ll never forget the day when a telemarketer called and asked me if I spoke Italian. I said no, and asked if they spoke English. They said no, and asked me if I spoke French. Once we established a common language, I was promptly able to tell them we didn’t need their services. I’ve often thought I want to go back to my French, so I’ve started reading the French side of things when dual translated (like Canadian in-flight magazines).

    What I can say about education, is that the teaching and support makes a difference. When you have teachers who love the language, children don’t grow to dread French class. Nobody in my Immersion school hated French the way my English schooled friends did. Also, with resources, it took 3 years for my friend to be diagnosed as dyslexic, simply because she picked up the language through hearing it. She excelled in understanding through auditory learning, but didn’t in reading. Unfortunately, she had to return to an English school to get the help she needed. The problem I see with Immersion education, is that your school is already considered as getting advanced help, so they don’t give any more. If you need something else, you have to move schools.

    Anyway, just my little story.

    • It’s very interesting what you said about the lack of services for learning disabilities in the Immersion schools. I had never thought of that at all. It makes me wonder if it’s a factor in why the Canadian French Immersion schools have traditionally been so successful (if the lower-performing students left and were not counted in the data concerning language competence achieved).

      Thank you for your ‘little story’ (read ‘enlightening’!).

  7. Hmm… interesting topic!
    I’m bilingual in French and English. My first language was French (at the time, my mother was still learning French, so perhaps it helped her to practise with me, but my paternal grandmother disapproved of my mother and anything anglophone, so there was also a lot of pressure on my mother to prove that I and my younger siblings were good French children…). I probably only really started to learn English when I was four and my father was posted to Canberra. Subsequent postings took us to Canada, South Africa, and Washington D.C., so very soon, and in spite of my French grandmother’s disapproval, we were all fluent in both languages. I guess that’s a point in favour of teaching children a second language before they turn ten…

    My father’s last posting took us to Moscow, where, for the first time in our lives, there was a language barrier. I myself was in my senior year of high school and left a year later to study in Paris, but my three siblings stayed in Moscow for a further two years. The elder of my two brothers enrolled in the Chopin School of Music to start his training as a pianist, and discovered that his professor spoke neither English nor French – she did speak German, but as he didn’t, that didn’t get them very far. A lot of miming went on during the first few lessons! Then he started taking Russian lessons, and gradually he picked up the language. By the time we left in 2005, my brother was completely fluent – a tribute to what one can achieve when one really puts one’s mind to it! It also proves that age is not an obstacle to learning…

    At home, we speak both languages, and also a hybrid version of our own, which gives rise to much laughter. My sister has a particular gift for starting a sentence in French and ending it in English, or for voluntarily giving a French word an English pronunciation when she is too lazy to find the proper translation. It’s become a family joke. If I’m around, I’ll inevitably end up correcting her at some point (I’m a teacher: I can’t help being pedantic about grammar!). Many people ask us which language we feel more comfortable using, which language we dream in at night, or if we’re better in one language than in another. Speaking for myself (but I think for my siblings too), I’d say that having grown up using both languages equally, they are precisely that: equal. Which is why they are so easily interchangeable. If we make mistakes, or use a French word in place of an English word, or invent an English word that stems from a French one, it’s less because we haven’t mastered the language properly than because we’ve developed our own code, our own set of signals, which allows us to understand the meaning behind the unconventional signifiers. The danger is, of course, that you get so used to this hybrid language that you can no longer separate the two original languages in order to make yourself understood by the outside world. That’s where – if I may venture to be pedantic again – being a teacher comes in useful: you’re obliged to be rigorous and specific. And you realize that being bilingual involves a lot of work: it’s not just learning two languages at the age of 5, or 7, or 11. It’s an on-going process that demands a conscious effort to stay abreast of linguistic evolutions, to remain attentive to the search for the right word, and not to succumb to laziness and the lure of the family patois.

    • You know, I’ve been wanting to ask about your language background. I’ve read on your blog that you are studying in Paris, but you obviously have exquisite control over English as well. now I have the very interesting answer! :)

      It’s a really good point that you bring up: use it or lose it. That’s true no matter how well you know a language. My mother sometimes has trouble remembering Portuguese (she didn’t learn English until she was 22) because she doesn’t use it regularly, and she even has a bit of an English accent when she speaks Portuguese now.

      In my sociolinguistics class in grad school, my professor mentioned the theory that the way to test which language is dominant in a bilingual is to see what language is used to count, to talk to children or pets, and to talk dirty during sex. (I think every hand in the room shot up to see if they could sign up for that research question for their term project ;) ) She was being a bit tongue-in-cheek about the last activity, but it’s an interesting idea, especially the counting. Talking to pets is a bit fickly – English is certainly my dominant language, and I use it most often to talk to my cats, but I’ve been known to switch to whatever language hits me at the moment, just because it seems right at the moment.

  8. Pingback: Random language, random words, random thoughts « hydrargyrium

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