Linguistic Quarantine

According to an article I came across today in the New York Times, quarantine has brought linguistic benefits to many bilingual homes.

Parents who raise their children with two or more languages often find that if one of their languages is not spoken, or not widely spoken, outside their home, their children will develop a preference for the dominant language of their community. This commonly happens after the children start school and discover that all, or most, of their classmates speak the dominant language. They may speak the non-dominant language, or at least understand it, but rarely use it.

Apparently in places where children have been spending a lot of time at home with their parents due to quarantine and lock downs, they have started speaking the non-dominant language(s) more.

For example, in Nigeria, where children are taught in English at school, but speak many other languages at home and elsewhere, they are now speaking more local languages, such as Luganda.

If you have a bilingual or multilingual household, have you noticed any differences in language use recently?

Bilingual Kids

Many families raise their children to be bilingual. This might involve one parent speaking one language, and the other parent speaking a different one. Or maybe the family will speak one language at home, and the children will pick up another at school. The hope is that the children will end up speaking both languages fluently.

Recently I got talking to a Czech woman, who told me that she spoke Czech to her sons for the first year or so, while her husband spoke English to them – he doesn’t know much Czech. After that however, she switched to English, as she found it too hard to speak Czech to them all the time. This surprised me, as you’d think that speaking your mother tongue would be easier than speaking another language, but not in this case, it seems.

As they currently live in Wales, the main languages her boys encounter are English and Welsh. Maybe their mother is the only Czech speaker around – I certainly haven’t come across any others. Maybe she feels more comfortable speaking English than Czech after living here for many years.

She told me that they’re soon moving to Czechia, so her sons will have to learn Czech. They’re young (4 and 2), so will probably soon pick it up. Whether her husband learns it is another matter – it is quite a challenging language to learn as an adult.

Are any of you raising your children bilingually?

What challenges do you face, and how do you deal with them?

Have you become more comfortable speaking a foreign language than your mother tongue?

Mixing Languages

Mixing languages

In bilingual communities it is common to switch between languages regularly. This certainly happens a lot among the Welsh speakers I know and hear every day.

Some conversations are mostly in Welsh with occasionally bits of English every so often, some are mainly in English with some bits of Welsh, and some regularly weave between Welsh and English.

According to a friend, it might not be so common for Catalan speakers to mix Catalan and Spanish. He is learning Spanish, and also knows a bit Catalan, and plans to learn more. He believes that Catalan speakers either speak one or the other, and don’t usually mix them in one conversation. So if he went to Barcelona and spoke the little Catalan he knows mixed with Spanish, people might find this strange. Is he correct?

According to the Urban Dictionary, Catañol is the mixture of Catalán and Español that people in Catalán-speaking areas of Spain often use to converse.

According to the Wikipedia, Catañol is spoken in Barcelona, especially by young people, and is a form of Spanish with Catalan influences. It emergered during the 20th century as a result of migration to Catalonia from other parts of Spain. It is apparently considered ‘vulgar’.

Are there any bilingual or multilingual communities where language mixing is rare or even stigmatised?

Monolingual USA?

The other day I found an interesting article in the New York Times about monolingualism and multilingualism in the USA and elsewhere. There’s a widespread belief that most Americans are monolingual in English, and that elsewhere it’s common for people to know two or more languages. The article asks whether this belief is true.

The question about language in the US census focuses on language use at home and doesn’t ask about use of languages other than English elsewhere, and the writer points out that many Americans who speak foreign languages speak only English at home, so for the purposes of the census they are monoglot English speakers. According to the 2009 census, for example, 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. The aim of the census is not to discover people’s foreign language skills, but to “track immigrants’ integration into mainstream American society and to ascertain what services they need, and in what languages”, so this is understandable.

The writer suggests that a better question would be “Can you have a conversation in a language besides your mother tongue?”, which was asked in a survey by the European Commission in 2006 – 56% of those who completed that survey answered yes. So perhaps the assumption that bilingualism and multilingualism are normal and unremarkable in much or the world is not entirely true. There are no reliable figures on this anyway, so it’s impossible to be sure. The conclusion is that Americans may be no more or less multilingual than people in other countries.

Benefits of being bilingual

According to a study at the University of Haifa in Israel, children who grow up bilingually are able to learn a third language more easily than monolingual children.

The study compared children who speak Russian and Hebrew with those who speak only Hebrew, and who are all learning English at school. It found that the bilingual children not only find it easy to learn English, but also that doing so raises their IQs, and that they speak Hebrew better than the Hebrew monolinguals.

The researchers believe that learning several languages at a young age bolsters one’s language skills, and as skill in language is an important cognitive function, this makes learning easier in general.

When researching the phenomenon of language decline and death for my dissertation, I found that one common reason why languages decline is because many people believe that it’s better for their children to speak a mainstream language rather than a minority language, and that trying to speak both languages is likely to overwhelm their poor little brains and result in them speaking neither language very well. This research suggests that such beliefs are mistaken.

Multilingual child

I’ve received the following request from the BBC that maybe you can help with:

The BBC are looking for a multilingual child and their family to participate in a major new BBC 1 science documentary series. Using cutting-edge CGI and amazing stories of human achievement and endeavour, “Human” will explore the physiological and developmental factors that make us the most remarkable species on Earth.

We are looking to spend 1 to 2 days filming a child, aged between 4 and 16, with exceptional multilingual ability. The filming will be observational and is likely to take place in a domestic setting. The final sequence is likely to form 5 minutes of a 60 minute film that will broadcast in Spring 2011. Our deadline for filming is the 5th October, so we are very keen to hear from interested families ASAP. Please contact Alex Hemingway at

Research projects

Chinese Englishes

One of my classmates at university is doing a research project on mutual intelligibility between varieties of English spoken in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK.

It involves listening to recordings of these varieties of English and answering simple questions. The recordings are divided into five sections, each lasting less than 15 minutes, which you can listen to at any time. There’s also a questionnaire to complete.

If you come from one of these places and are willing to help, please go to one of the following pages:

Listening task for native speakers of English
Listening task for native speakers of other languages

Quantifier Intuitions

Here’s another project you could maybe help with: a researcher from the University of Massachusetts Amherst but temporarily based at Bangor University is doing a study exploring the different meanings the words like, all, each, and every have in everyday life, and exploring their effect on the mathematics performance of children with different language and dialect backgrounds.

This involves completing this online questionnaire (43 questions).

Gesture and speech

I went to an interesting seminar yesterday which discussed the use of gestures in bilinguals and monolinguals. Research in Canada and China found that bilinguals tend to gesture more overall than monolinguals, and that they gesture more in their less dominant language. It was also found that gestures were most frequent when people were trying to remember words – the tip of the tongue phenomenon – and that participants in the study who were told to keep their hands still found it harder to recall words.

Here’s an abstract of the talk (Word doc).

Do you gesture more in some languages than in others?

Do you use more gestures when trying to retrieve words?

Colours / Lliwiau

This week I’ve been gathering data for a project comparing the colour vocabulary of Welsh/English bilinguals and monolingual English speakers. The aims of the project are to find out which colour words people know, which order they name them in, and whether the bilinguals name different colours in Welsh and English. All I have to do now is write a 5,000 word report on this data. Unfortunately the colours data collected online is not useable for this project, but I’m very grateful to those of you who completed the questionnaire.

It came as no surprise that there are more words for colours in English than in Welsh – I already suspected that. Most of the bilingual participants listed only basic colour words in Welsh, but one did come up with one I hadn’t heard before – gwinau, which means bay, auburn, brown or sepia and is usually used to describe the colour of horses. The same participant mentioned that there are a number of other words used to describe the colour of horses but couldn’t think of them. I found melynell (bay), llwyd-ddu (dun), brith / brithlwyd (piebald) and broc / brych (roan).

The basic colour words in Welsh are:

black – du
white – gwyn
red –coch
yellow – melyn
blue – glas
green – gwyrdd / glas
brown – brown / gwinau / cochddu (red/black) / dugoch (black/red)
purple – porffor / cochlas (red/blue) / glasgoch (blue/red)
pink – pinc / gwyngoch (white/red)
orange –oren / melyngoch (yellow/red)
grey – llwyd

The colour glas can mean blue (sky), green (grass), grey (sea), silver (coins) or transparent (saliva) depending on the context. The same word is found in all the other Celtic languages and has a similar meaning. Llwyd is also used to refer to brown paper.

Participants also mentioned arian (silver), aur (gold), piws (puce/purple), fioled (violet) and indigo. Another word for the latter two is dulas (black/blue).

The compounds are not commonly used, as far as I can tell, and none of the participants in this survey mentioned them.

I managed to find a number of other Welsh words for colours:

amber – melyn-goch / ambr
auburn – gwinau / coch / melynwyn / llwydwyn
azure – asur / glas
beige – beis
bronze – efydd
cream – hufen
crimson – coch / rhuddgoch / rhudd / purgoch / fflamgoch
cyan – gwyrddlas
fawn – llwyd olau
magenta – magenta / majenta
maroon – cochddu / marŵn
mauve – piwswyn / porffor gwelw / porffor golau
puce – piws / glasgoch
russet – lwytgoch
scarlet – ysgarlad / coch golau
sepia – gwinau / cochddu
tan – melyngoch
tawny – melynddu

I plan to add a new section on colours to Omniglot and have start collecting colour words in various languages. So could you send me all the colour words you can think of in the language(s) you know?