The science behind the cognitive benefits of multilingualism is well established. But maybe we think about it too simplistically when we suppose that it’s merely toggling between language systems making the mind more flexible and adaptable. That much is true, but there’s much more going on in multilingual experiences, I think.
Here, as always, the children are instructive. Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s Translating Childhoods is based on ethnographic research with children engaged in language brokering practices, the kind of thing immigrant children know quite well: answering and making phone calls for their parents with the Department of Motor Vehicles or pizza delivery, translating (or arguing with proud parents about the translation of) documents from the mail way over their heads , etc.
Orellana’s chapter on the multiple positions and roles that children translating in parent-teacher conferences must take on, entitled “Transculturations,” unpacks the potential complexities of multilingualism really nicely. Translating for the parents and teachers, these children are certainly not purely conveying information verbatim– the extremely tricky nature of translation makes that impossible.
The immense subtleties of language that have so much impact on communication between parties have to get juggled by kids with still-emergent command of those nuances. One example from Orellana’s chapter’s involves a teacher saying, “tell your mom she has a lot to be proud of,” an ostensibly simple pragmatic act riddled with complexities in meaning, implication, and positioning. Convey to your mother some form of hedging or qualifying statement that suggests that, in spite of the criticisms you’ve already heard from me, I intend for you to feel affirmed in those aspects of parenting which you clutch on to in the face of these criticism [my extreme extrapolation, not author’s.] Instead, the child ends up with, “Dice que tú tienes que estar muy, um agradecida por mí [He says that you have to be very, um, grateful for me].”
Moreover, in these situations, the stakes are high and the subject about which these children are translating (not just language but huge communicatively complex and culturally nuanced moves) is none other than themselves and their schooling. This begins to unfold the multiple complexities inherent in a multilingual child’s situation. Contrast this with the monolingual kid who sits at home while mom or dad attends a parent teacher conference and comes back to report that the child better start turning in her homework every day. The experience of schooling, relationships, and language is utterly different.
And when I say language, I’d emphasize, not just language in terms of systems, but language in terms of worlds, cultural worlds, worlds of meaning and expectations and imagination. The child is constantly translating those worlds. Transculturing.
A research project I did with transnational students writing their college application essays revealed the same complexity, the juggling of not just the Spanish or English or Cantonese or English versions of the same words, but juggling multiple cultural worlds, the sense-making systems of vastly diverse experiences. I’ve worked with many students on college application essays. It’s always a complex task. For some of the multilingual students I’ve worked with, their inhabiting multiple worlds provides them the resources, the allusions, the imaginations, the aspirations to write themselves as extremely cosmopolitan and knowledgeable young people. But for others and also for those same students, there’s something overwhelming, almost crippling, about the burden of representing a summary of themselves, who they are and what they hope to become, when they consider the mad complex of their multiple experiences. Many monolingual students wind up writing about that one trip they took somewhere once where they learned how the rest of the world lives. For these students, this was a lifetime’s experience.
Transculturation. Great power and great burden.