Families Living in Two or More Languages and Cultures

What are the Opportunities and Challenges of Bi- and Multilingualism?

Term Paper, 2017

90 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Definitions
2.1 Types of bilingualism

3. Method of data collection and analysis

4. Bi- or multilingualism among couples

5. Bi- or multilingualism in children

6. Bi- or multilingual and -cultural education

7. Bi- or multilingualism within a family

8. Conclusion

9. References

10. Appendix

1. Introduction:

Our modern and globalised age offers people from all nationalities the opportunity to travel the world. Nowadays, even countries which are far away from home can easily be perambulated by plane, train or ship and this is affordable to almost everyone. For students of most study programes, a semester abroad becomes increasingly attractive and important as it forms the own personality and embellishes the CV. To speak a second or even a third language is welcomed by employers and in some fields of work it is already a precondition. Hence, it is assumed that nowadays "more than half of the world’s population is bilingual" (Grosjean, 2012). All these facts lead to the result that an intercultural exchange takes place. Different cultures from all over the world get together and there is a significant raise in bi- and multilingual families which are living in two or more different cultures. Love relationships across borders which seemed impossible in the past, is nowadays a common phenomenon thanks to the technical progress. However, the most important issue among polyglot couples or families is a successful communication. This usually leads to challenges as well as new opportunities for all family members.

The purpose of this term paper is to show these challenges and opportunities of bi­/multilingual families. Couples with two different nationalities and some who have the same origin but immigrated into another country on the one hand and children who have parents of different origins and therefore are raised bi-or multilingual on the other, are to be analysed with regard to their mother tongue, language choice within and outside the family as well as their identity. Moreover, the phenomenon of code-switching and its reasons as well as the use of language between parents and their children and among siblings will be examined.

Two questionnaires provide a basis for the data collection. One questionnaire is from the view of couples and/or parents that speak different languages and the other from the perspective of children raised bi -or multilingual. Therefore participants with different mother tongues and cultural backgrounds took part in this project. After that the results are to be compared with previous case studies and findings from other researchers. As this study contains mainly subjective aspects because of the individual answers in the questionnaire, all results and answers will be measured by means of charts and graphs to crave out a tendency of all aspects as there cannot be a definite result. All in all this term paper tries to draw a map on how bi -/or multilingual families arrange themselves and how they deal with different cultural backgrounds.

2. Definitions:

In the course of this term paper many distinctions of the term language have to be made in order to understand the complexity and diversity of this research topic. All the terms used more frequently are defined as follows:

The terms native-, first-, home language and mother tongue are in a certain way linked to each other. Therefore home language is referred to as the language which is usually spoken at home with the family (Franson, 2009, p.l). Native language describes the first language a speaker is exposed to and it is often related to one’s mother tongue or home language (ibid. p. 2). Hence, the first language is adopted in early childhood as well as naturally spoken (OED, s.v. first language n2). Additional language is interchangeable with the term second language and is defined as the first foreign language a person learns additionally to his or her native language (Franson, 2009, p. l; OED s.v. second language n2).

In some countries there is also an emergence of majority -and minority languages. The majority or also called dominant language of a nation means the language which is spoken most frequently by the majority of the population in a certain country (Zhu, 2014, p. 69), whereas the minority language is just used by a small group or community of the same country (OED s.v. minority language n2). However the term dominant language in this term paper is also used to define the mainly spoken language within a bilingual family.

Another important term which is called couple tongue is used to describe the language choice between two partners with different mother tongues and cultural backgrounds (Pietikäinen, 2014, p. 2). The choice of the couple tongue can either be one of the mother tongues of one of the partners with the precondition that partner A speaks the mother tongue of partner В as his or her second or third language. However, if this condition is not given, a so to speak neutral language can be chosen as the couple tongue, as long as both partners can speak this language, which is neither the mother tongue of partner A nor of partner В. The choice of the couple tongue also depends on the current country of residence and the language proficiency of both partners (Zhu, 2014, p. 69) .

However the definitions of bilingualism and multilingualism in this term paper are one of the most important ones, as these terms are stated in the research question and therefore serve as the basis for this project. Hence, bilingualism means that a speaker is able to communicate in two different languages colloquially (OED s.v. bilingualism n2), whereas multilingualism or plurilingualism is referred to as the ability to speak more than two languages (Franson, 2009, p. 2). People who speak just one language are called monolinguals (OED s.v. monolingual n2).

The last crucial term which is to be mentioned is called code-switching and refers to the use of two or more languages simultaneously (Pietikäinen, 2014, p. 5). In other words, different languages are mixed during a conversation within a sentence by using words or phrases from another language. This phenomenon appears within bi- or multilingual communities and families and is a natural way to communicate (Auer & Eastman, 2010, p. 85).

2.1 Types of bilingualism

The above mentioned definition of bilingualism saying that a speaker is able to communicate in two different languages, however, is in some way to vague and still disputed among researchers (Velínská, 2007, p. 7). Different opinions are being discussed when it comes to the proficiency of a language a speaker can have, hence, some philologists would claim that just those people who are familiar with two languages on a native speaker level are bilinguals (ibid.). Others would argue that every level of knowledge of another language a person has is to be recognised as bilingualism already (ibid.). According to Baker (2006, p. 8) the former bilinguals are categorised as maximalists and the latter are denoted as minimal bilinguals.

However, there are different types of bilingualism which can also be applied to multilingualism. First of all there is a distinction between several subcategories. The first terms which are defined by Štefánik (2000, as cited in Velínská, 2007, p. 12) are simultaneous and successive bilingualism. Simultaneous bilingualism on the one hand describes the situation of the adoption of two languages concurrently, this is often the case if a child has two mother tongues because his or her parents speak two different native languages (ibid.). Successive bilingualism on the other hand refers to the acquisition of one language first, usually the mother tongue which is learned in early childhood, and after that an additional language is learned (ibid.).

Thus, simultaneous and successive bilingualism then lead to the next distinction of natural and school bilingualism (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1984, p. 95). Both terms differ from each other with regard to the environment or context in which language skills are obtained by a speaker (ibid.). Hence, natural bilingualism is the way of learning a language naturally in daily life and in regular communication within a family or society at an usually young age, whereas school bilingualism is the consequence of studying an additional language in school in an unnatural way at a normally older age (ibid.).

The just mentioned distinctions of natural and school bilingualism are firstly separated by means of the environment and secondly in terms of the age of a speaker. However, bilingualism can even be differentiated more precisely when taking a closer look at the age of a language learner. According to Štefánik (2000, as cited in Velínská, 2007, p. 13) bilingualism can therefore be divided into four sub-categories referring to age. Thus, he distinguishes between infant, child, adolescent and adult bilingualism (ibid.). Infant bilingualism describes the adoption of two languages soon after birth in early childhood, child bilingualism refers to children at an older age who learn an additional language in school, whereas adolescent bilingualism defines the acquisition of a second language by teenagers and last but not least names adult bilingualism the situation of acquiring a further language during adulthood (ibid.).

Furthermore, another differentiation concerning the function of two languages is defined in productive and receptive bilingualism by Hoffmann (2014, p. 24). The former stands for the ability to speak and understand as well as read and write two languages, whereas the latter term means to comprehend just the written or the spoken form of a second language (ibid.). Therefore, productive bilingualism is also called active bilingualism because the speaker masters all forms of two languages, while passive bilingualism is synonymous to receptive bilingualism as there is a lack in commanding all forms of the second language (ibid.). Receptive bilingualism, however, can also occur in a process of language loss, this may happen, if a speaker does not use a language for a long time and forgets how to read or write one of the two languages but maybe can still understand it (Štefánik, 2000, as cited in Velínská, 2007, p. 11).

Bilinguals who have learned a language after another may be faced with the problem of negative influence of their second language on their first. In some cases the first language is even replaced by the second one, and this phenomenon is called subtractive bilingualism (Velínská, 2007, p. 12). However, if there is no negative effect on the first language in the course of acquiring an additional language, this is then called additive bilingualism (ibid.).

Mixed couples with different mother tongues have to decide in what language or languages they raise their children. There is two situations in which we talk about intentional or artificial bilingualism (Štefánik, 2000, as cited in Velínská, 2007, p. 12). One of them is when just the minority language of the place of residence is used to talk to the child(ren) because it is the mother tongue of one of their parents and remain the other language to be adopted from outside the family (ibid.). The other one is when parents only talk to their offspring in a language which is no one’s mother tongue (ibid.).

In terms of proficiency there can be made a distinction between balanced and dominant bilinguals (Backer & Jones, 1998, p. 12). A balanced bilingual is described as a speaker who masters both languages on a native speaker level (ibid.). The dominant bilingual therefore is more fluent in one language than in the other by reasons of a high degree of complexity and difficulty in one language (Grosjean, 1982, p. 188) or one of both languages is simply less needed than the other (Velínská, 2007, p. 11). However, according to Backer & Jones (ibid. p.12) the dominance of a language can change due to changes in education, work, residence, age and social surroundings or personal interests.

All the above mentioned subcategories and distinctions show how multifaceted bi- and multilingualism is and that it not just describes the ability of speaking two languages. Within a bi -or multilingual family, this means that every family member has the opportunity to acquire two or more languages in various ways and maybe ends up with different proficiency levels of each language compared to other family members.

3. Method of data collection and analysis

In order to answer the research question of opportunities and challenges of bi- and multilingualism within families, two slightly different questionnaires serve as a basis for the data collection. The questionnaire was not adopted from any concrete study but designed by the author of this term paper based on previous research on the topic (see Baker & Jones, 1998; Baker, 2006; Grosjean, 1982). Since a closer look is taken into bi- and multilingualism in families one questionnaire is constructed from the viewpoint of couples and/or parents and the other one from the perspective of children or people who grew up bi- or multilingual. The questionnaires are written in German and English, depending on the participants and are sent via e-mail to them. Bi-or plurilingual couples or single persons from different origins and cultural backgrounds took part in this project and are all friends and relatives of the researcher. In total, 23 questionnaires have been sent out, among them are 17 couples and six individuals (see table 1 to 4). However, there is an important distinction between the attending couples. The first classification (see table 1) are the once who have different nationalities and use just one of the mother tongues, either of partner A or of partner B, as their couple tongue, or they speak both mother tongues whereby one of them is predominantly used. In this case the mainly spoken language is regarded as the couple language.

Twelve of the participating couples belong to this category and therefore represent the group with the most attendants. Among them there is one German/American and one American/Spanish couple. Moreover, took five German/Chinese as well as two German/French couples took part in the survey. A French/Swiss couple, a German/Wales and one German/Albanian couple also belong to this classification. In the following this group of couples is abbreviated as Gl which stands for group one. The second categorisation (see table 2) are three mixed couples who have also different cultural backgrounds and native languages, however, they use a language which is neither the first language of partner A nor of partner В as their couple tongue. A mixed couple of German/Mauritian origin, a German/South Korean couple as well as partners from Hungary and Botswana present the second group. They all use English as their couple tongue and are referred to as G2. Last but not least, G3, the classification of couples who have the same country of origin and/or home language but speak another language within their family because of various reasons (see table 3). This is the smallest group including two couples in total consisting of a Romanian and a Russian/Kazakh couple. Although both partners speak the same mother tongue which is in one case Romanian and in the other Russian, the two couples use German within their family as well. When it comes to the bi- or multilingual single persons, G4, the focal point is on their mother tongues as they usually have two and not just one (see table 4). In other words, they are raised bilingual since their early childhood as their parents again fall in one of the above mentioned mixed couple categorisation. Among them there are three individuals with German and Romanian as their first languages, one participant with Hungarian and German, another with English and German and the last one with German and Polish as their home languages. Because of the fact that the focus of the research lies on families, the participants are not homogenous with regard to their age, gender and educational backgrounds as all members of a family are taken into consideration. The only important aspect all attendants have in common is their bi- or multilingualism and their various cultural backgrounds.

In order to gain the most appropriate results to this study, both a quantitative and qualitative method are to be used. The findings of the questionnaires are therefore divided into various sections to show the opportunities and challenges of bi -and multilingualism (see appendix). Firstly, to get an overview of the different cultural backgrounds and languages of the attendants, the researcher asked questions concerning their place of birth, current place of residence, other countries they lived in for a longer time, how many languages they speak as well as their mother tongue and languages they use within their family and with their friends and colleagues. Secondly, to find out more about their bilingual education, the participants were asked at what age and in which context they acquired other languages besides their mother tongue. The next section deals with the question of communication problems due to bi- or multilingualism. National identity and code-switching among bilinguals also play an important role in this research and are part of the questionnaire. Last but not least, the bilingual participants are demanded to give their personal opinion on whether they regard bi- or multilingualism as advantageous or disadvantageous. In order to illustrate the results and findings of this research in a clear and comprehensive manner and to describe features, measures and tendencies, descriptive statistics in form of tables and graphs are used and compared to findings from other researchers or previous case studies.

4. Bi- or multilingualism among couples

When it comes to bi- or multilingualism among mixed couples one of the most important question is which couple language the partners decide to speak. Rosenblatt (2009, p. 13) argues that the predominantly spoken language of intercultural couples is the language of the dominant partner and this would depict one of the challenges of bi- or multilingual couples. Nevertheless, the assumption of Rosenblatt cannot be confirmed according to the findings of this study as for the most G1 couples their place of residence and not the dominance of one partner seems to be the crucial criterion for their couple tongue.

Graph 1: Language choice of G1 couples

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Graph 1 therefore illustrates the proportion of Gl couples who, on the one hand, use the dominant language of their environment compared to the percentage of those who, on the other hand, do not speak the majority language of the county in which they live in. Furthermore it shows those who use both mother tongues equally, independent to their current place of residence. Thus, eight couples out of twelve use the majority language of their place of residence. Whereas just three couples do not use the dominant language and just one couple argues to speak both languages equally. This result shows a tendency that the majority of Gl couples use the official language of the county and its society they currently live in and also five out of these eight couples give their current place of residence as a reason for their language choice (see appendix Gl A, C, G, H, L question 8). Rosenblatt's argument also can not been taken seriously when it comes to G2 couples as this group decides to use a couple language which is none of the two partners' mother tongue. Their essential criterion on the decision about their couple tongue is their proficiency in an additional language, which is in all three cases English, due to the fact that partner A cannot speak the mother tongue of partner В and vice versa (see appendix G2 A, B, C question 8). G3 couples cannot be taken into consideration at this point as they have the same mother tongue and therefore none of them can be argued to be a dominant partner when it comes to language choice.

The basis for a successful relationship among bi- or multilingual couples is an appropriate verbal communication. However, due to different cultural backgrounds and languages within intercultural families, arguments among family members and especially spouses easily occur because of misunderstandings. Even though both partners show a high level of proficiency in their couple tongue, communication problems and misunderstandings due to cultural discrepancies, non-verbal communication or a lack of vocabulary are likely to be caused.

Graph 2: Communication problems

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Graph 2 shows the proportion of Gl, G2 and G3 couples as well as G4 individuals having misunderstandings because of bi- or multilingualism and intercultural backgrounds. Among the Gl couples seven out of 12 claim not to have communication problems and the remaining five couples report that they have misunderstandings when talking to their partner. These misunderstandings are likely to occur because one of the partners is a dominant bilingual and his or her proficiency in the couple language is not equal to the mother tongue. 100% of the G2 couples, however, argue to have misunderstandings due to multilingualism. This is the most obvious and, at the same time, striking result. Reasons for the 100% rate of G2 couples having communication problems can be justified with the fact that their couple tongue is not even one of the two spouses first languages. In this regard, are G2 couples are more disadvantaged than Gl and G3 couples as well as G4 single persons. Even G3 couples have communication problems sometimes, however, just when it comes to language use of their second language. One couple therefore reports to have no communication problems and the other one argues that sometimes misunderstandings occur because of the fact that their German is not so good (see appendix G3 A, В question 15). Hence, it is obvious that these verbal misunderstandings are caused outside their family as they are living in Germany, where their mother tongue is not spoken or when they talk to their children in German outside of their home, where they usually speak Romanian. However, among the couples themselves there are no misunderstandings. Last but not least, two out of six G4 individuals are also confronted with communication problems, with the reasons of mixing or inverting two languages without noticing (see appendix G4 A, C question 14). In this case this is a type of simultaneous bilingualism but with influences of dominant or receptive bilingualism. More than the half of G4, however, has no disadvantages in communicating in more languages. By virtue of the fact that they are confronted with two languages from their early childhood they are infant bilinguals and familiar with both languages equally, hence, they can also be called simultaneous and balanced bilinguals. To sum up all the findings on communication problems one can say that 11 participants argue to have problems and 12 attendants do not have any problems in communicating verbally in two or more languages.

5. Bi- or multilingualism in children

The next point deals with children who grow up bi- or multilingual and are also to be analysed by means of language use, on one hand, between the children and their parents and, on the other hand, among siblings. To describe the former, G1, G2 and G3 couples who have
children and all G4 attendants are taken into consideration. In total, this are 14 questionnaires as just six G1 and two G3 couples have children whereas all six G4 individuals are asked about their language use when talking to their parents. G2 couples are disregarded at this point as none of them have any children. The language use in the situation when the whole family, including mother, father and child(ren) talk to each other is not part of this project as this would then go beyond the scope of this research. In the following, only the language choice between each parent and child(ren) is to be analysed according to graph 3.

Graph 3: Language use between parents and their child(ren)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Among the participants ten out of 14 state that each parent speaks in a different language to their child(ren). This is obviously the most typical behaviour among the attending intercultural couples and the parents of the questioned bilingual individuals. Contrary to just two attendants, both G4 individuals who claim that both of their parents speak just in one same language to them and the other way around (see appendix G4 A, E question 6). Hence, their parents decided to raise them as an intentional or artificial bilingual when comparing the use of language between the two G4 single persons and their parents to their current place of residence (see appendix G4 A, E questions 2, 6). The two partners of the remaining two G3 couples, however, mention to use both the same two languages when talking to their children maybe because both partner speak the same mother tongue. In summary, this unambiguous result shows that the majority of mixed mothers and fathers speak in two different languages to their offspring. Usually this is the home language of each partner. These findings, hence, correspond with Baker’s perception (2014, p. 1) that it is crucial for both parents to have the opportunity to communicate in the first language with their children as it is easier to build an intensive connection and a close relationship with their kids. He also states that children need an equal access to both languages in order to gain the ability in communicating on the same native speaker level in both languages (ibid. p. 38). This in term means that a bilingual is capable of a wider communication and this leads to even more advantages like higher self­esteem, more tolerance towards others as well as higher creativity, just to name a few (ibid. p. 2). So this result is regarded as rather an opportunity than a challenge.

The next analysis and discussion of results is concerning language use among siblings. According to Barron-Hauwaert (2011, pp. 54-55) siblings choose their preferred language when the parents are not present. She also adds that even if parents do not endorse the children’s language choice they have little change to influence or change the siblings language selection (ibid. p. 55). Previous studies, however, show that there is a tendency in choosing at least one parental home language but it necessarily does not need to be one of those. It can also be a majority language of a country or the language to which the children are exposed in school (ibid. p. 55). The information from Barron-Hauwaert about language choice among siblings is now to be compared to the findings of this research. Therefore five out of the six G4 individuals who have brothers or sisters are relevant at this point (see appendix G4 A, C, D, E, F question 7).

As illustrated in graph 4, four out of five bilinguals use one language when talking to their siblings. Just one person mentions to speak in two languages to their brother and sisters. However, what is striking is the fact that all bilinguals in this research speak in the same language to their siblings as they do to their friends and colleagues and this is also the majority language of the country in which they live in (see appendix G4 A, C, D, E, F questions 2, 7, 11). Even the one attendant who speaks in two languages to its siblings uses one of them when talking to friends and colleagues. In three cases, the preferred language among siblings is also one of the parental language (see appendix G4 C, D, F; question 6, 7). In conclusion, this corresponds with the findings in previous case studies mentioned above as the results also show a tendency towards the assumption that children choose at least one parental language or a school or county language. In some cases it is both. Due to the fact that the children naturally decide which sibling language they are going to use, this can on one hand be seen as an opportunity for them as they can talk in the language they are more comfortable with and, on the other hand, a challenge for parents in case of wanting their children to speak in another language.

6. Bi- or multilingual and -cultural education

The importance of bi- or multilingual education in our globalized world significantly increases even among monolingual families whose members have no opportunity to acquire two languages within their family. However, that does not mean that monolinguals have to remain as such. Various opportunities like language courses in school or at university offer an alternative for monolinguals as well as bi- or multilinguals who want to learn a language which they are not exposed to naturally. In the following, a closer look is taken at the starting age of additional language acquisition besides the mother tongue(s) of a speaker. Therefore the partners of all G1, G2, and G3 couples and all G4 single persons are examined individually (see table 5). The analysis now counts 40 individual participants. In the questionnaire the attendants were asked how many additional languages they speak and at what age and in which context they have learned them (see appendix questions 4, 13, 14). All their languages have then been counted together and due to their age divided into four main groups, namely infant, childhood, adolescent and adulthood (see table 6) in order to crave out a tendency at what age the majority of participants started to learn other languages. According to table 6, most languages are learned in middle childhood between the age of seven to ten. At the age of about 18 to 22 there is also a significant raise in language acquisition. When looking at the context in which most languages are learned, it is striking that during childhood, schools and at the beginning of adulthood universities are the main occasions for learning additional languages (see table 5).

However, what is the best age of learning a second or third language? The majority of people would argue that early childhood is the most advantageous time for learning a language (Lessow-Hurley, 2003, p. 78). This would then be a disadvantage for most participants of this research, especially for the Gl, G2 and G3 couples as they have not been raised bi- or multilingual; they all learned their additional languages in another context (see table 5). However, according to Lessow-Hurley (ibid.) the proficiency of a second or third language depends on personal interest and motivation and access to a language. The only advantage that young children have is that they can obtain a more native like accent because they are usually faced with a language more often in a natural context than adults. Nevertheless, this does not mean that adult language learners cannot achieve fluency in an additional language (ibid.) as the participants of this research show. So even if parents decide to teach their child first one parental language and after some years another this may not be a huge problem.

7. Bi- or multilingualism within a family

Being raised bilingual and bicultural has its advantages for children because they are able to communicate in two different languages on a native speaker level. However, living in two or more languages and cultures with various traditions can also lead to challenges in finding one’s own identity, even among mixed couples. In this research all participants were asked what national identity they attribute to themselves (see appendix question 16). Therefore the partners of all Gl, G2, and G3 couples and all G4 single persons are examined individually (see table 7). The results show that out of the 40 participants just twelve attribute two cultural identities to themselves. Among them are six partners of couples who feel to belong to two different nationalities. The reasons most often given are therefore their current place of residence, which is not their country of origin and their double citizenship due to migration. What is also striking is the fact that among the G4 attendants all participants think to have two cultural identities because of the different nationalities of their parents. In summary, the results show that all persons who have been raised bilingual because of parents with different mother tongues, attribute two cultural identities to themselves. This double belonging means that they can identify trough different cultural values and of course language. Another case study on the topic of bilingualism and identity process from Licciardello and Damigella (2013, p. 749) also shows that language and identity are linked with each other and cause double belonging. This in turn can have advantages like more understanding for other cultures (Baker, 2014, p.2).


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Families Living in Two or More Languages and Cultures
What are the Opportunities and Challenges of Bi- and Multilingualism?
University of Würzburg
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empirical study
Bilingualism, multilingualism, multiculturalism
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Andrea Roth (Author), 2017, Families Living in Two or More Languages and Cultures, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/378583


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