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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look who's bilingual now

Being accused of being too honest for my own good is something I can actually live with quite well. Gives me a nice warm feeling inside, and mostly what I end up giving up is not particularly significant. However, recently I've been thinking that I'm seriously doing myself a disservice. I speak three European languages to a good level of fluency and still find myself looking at job ads and thinking that I can't even apply for most of the vacancies because I don't have the right language skills. 

The problem is that I want a job where I can write, and all the local writing jobs want French or German as a mother tongue. (English-language writing jobs do exist round here, but they're rare, not always genuinely open competitions and there are LOTS of people like me - "trailing spouses" is a term I learnt recently - trying to garner them.) 

Now my German is good, really good. I've published in German. When chatting to German-speakers, I get mistaken for a German. But it's not my mother tongue. Honest as I am, I can't put that on my CV. And in these days of job ads ending with "Please don't bother to apply if you don't fit our basic and easily definable criteria", such as native speaker requirement, it doesn't matter how well I argue in my covering letter that I have near-native German and frankly better French than most German-speaking Swiss can muster. My CV is still not going to make it through that first filter.

So I decided to say that I'm bilingual English-German. This way I'm not lying, I'm not claiming anything about what my mother tongue is or isn't. And I'm not pretending to have any skills I don't have. It's all a question of definition. There are plenty of high-status, academic-backed definitions of bilingual which apply to my language skills (although I'm not yet quite sure how I would manage a challenge to my definition of bilingual in an interview situation - citing some professor's most recent publication might not work so well with a hardened HR professional). 

Can I offer you one definition I came across recently? It's from Xiao-lei Wang's book "Learning to read and write in the multilingual family"*. It focuses on literacy skills, but I would still suggest it's typical of other academic definitions of multilingualism (she in fact quotes some). After several pages of discussion on the "competency continuum" (p.23) of various language users, she arrives at the following definition of multiliteracy:

"an individual [who] can actively use more than one language in reading or writing with different levels of proficiency for a particular purpose" (p.24).

In this definition, the pretension to proficiency is related exclusively to the purpose of the communication, and not to some edified norm of native-speaker status. After all, there are plenty of native speakers who positively massacre their own languages, particularly in writing - one look at the average Facebook page, or comments in any museum's guest book, is enough evidence of that.
So by calling myself bilingual I can stay honest and hopefully significantly increase my chances of finding the job I want some time in the foreseeable future. Wish me luck!

* Wang, Xiao-lei (2011) Learning to read and write in the multilingual family, Multilingual Matters: Bristol

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Friday, 1 July 2011

Intonation, intonation, intonation

Isn't it funny how an outsider notices odd things that for you are just part of life? I guess this is part of the richness of travelling and mixing with people from different languages and cultures. And the great thing is that both sides, the observer and the observee, get something out of it, whether it's a great experience or an insight into your own way of living. In my case recently though, I felt I was caught out. I like to think of myself as a pretty canny and informed observer of my children's language use, but it took somebody new to our family (and someone also quite switched on to languages) to notice something I had completely missed.

We have a new au pair for the summer (she's fantastic by the way, a real big sister to our kids), another German speaker (see Why I'm smug about language mixing for the logic behind this)She's been making lots of observant comments about the children's language use, and it was her who said to me the other day, "It's funny how Leonard uses English intonation when he's speaking German". I was flabbergasted. I'd never noticed. Probably because it's always just been that way, and there is of course that native speaker acuity that we "near-natives" can get close to but never quite achieve (although I'm reasonably sure that my own intonation in German is also near-native). 

So I started listening, and there is a definite anglo-singsong tone to Leonard's German. Funnily, it's also a very child-like intonation, which is odd because his main English language partner is me, and I promise I don't talk like a four-year-old! I've been wondering how I could illustrate his intonation in words and within the limitations of the blogspot editor (not sure I have the stamina to make recordings or even diagrams at this point - maybe for later). Let's try. Here's a very typical Leonard sentence:

"Can I have a biscuit?"

I've chosen a question because questions have a standard intonation pattern, in this case you go up on "bis-", and then "-cuit" has a fall-rising pitch, i.e. you go down and then come up again (I'm going to have to get a recording of this, aren't I...)

Now in German the question intonation is a bit different:

"Kann ich einen Keks haben?"

You just go up on the word "Keks" and then come down again. (If any German speakers reading this disagree horribly, please do let me know!)

And sure enough, Leonard tends to use the "up and down and up again" pattern in both English and German. Being a mother I of course then immediately wondered whether I should worry about this (to my credit I at least wondered first rather than jumping straight to the worrying). I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't. Firstly I have much more important things to worry about (such as global warming, social justice and where to hang that stunning wrought iron framed mirror I just bought which is a tad too big and heavy looking for the place I originally wanted to put it). Secondly it's not going to impede Leonard in his general language learning and achievement of life goals; put it down as a slight quirk in his accent, which most multilinguals have. Some people (like our au pair) actually think it's cute, so it might even help him socially. And thirdly, he might just figure it out himself as his language skills mature. So I say, more power to his vocal chords. You never know, it might just be a sign that he's a Pavarotti/James Blunt/Freddy Mercury/Frank Sinatra (choose your preferred style and decade) in the making... 
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