Mixing languages at the dinner table was a big part of our family growing up. We mixed up American English and Japanese to get a wonderful creole called chanpon. But multilingualism was not well understood at the time, and many parents, mine included, feared that children who grew up speaking two or more languages would never be able to speak each language independently. To address this fear, my mother instituted language dinners where we were allowed to speak English-only on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Japanese-only on all the other days. For every word we spoke in the other language on the wrong day we would have to pay in ten yen into a money box that was gifted to the church that Sunday. We gave up our pocket money for a good part of that year but then we revolted and continued to speak three languages at the dinner table, English, Japanese and chanpon.
On a macro scale, multilingualism spawned another fear – The Tower of Babel depicting people speaking in tongues – the view that a single language unites but many, divide. This view has dominated language policies, particularly in schools, resulting sometimes in linguicidal policies that punished citizens for speaking heritage languages, as was the case with my husband’s grandfather, disciplined for speaking Provençal instead of French once entering the school gates. More recently, fear of multilingualism has given rise to one-language-only mandates in schools, for example in a number of states in the US that advocate English-only.
While the debate on the provision of plural languages in education continues, I have had the fortune to be part of two generations of healthy multilingual families. The body of scholarship on bilingualism and multilingualism is growing, and we now have ample empirical evidence that demonstrates that bilinguals can keep their languages straight – save for the chanpon family get together, or the occasional Franglais limerick to celebrate Limerick Day (May 12th) and The International Day of Families (May 15th).
There once was a girl from Tokyo
Who met un Français très beau
So she picked up her stuff
And left with a chuff
To live in the land of Van Gogh
Have a go at a limerick and Happy International Day of Families!