My husband and I are raising our children (aged five and two) to be trilingual in English (my L1), Spanish (my husband’s L1) and Japanese (the majority language of our community). For the most part, reactions to our children’s language background have been generally positive with many people showing a genuine interest, particularly regarding the future opportunities that they believe may be open to our children thanks to their language abilities. Unfortunately, the other day we encountered our first negative attitude incident, concerning my two-year-old son.
As any parent will tell you, being two years old is sometimes quite tough. You can’t always express in words what it is that you want to say, you may have difficulty coming to terms with people who won’t let you do what you want and you sometimes have such strong emotions that the only thing you can do is lie down on the floor and scream your little head off. Hence the existence of terms such as “the terrible twos” in English and “ma no nisai” (literally “two-year-old demon”) in Japanese. Now imagine that multiplied by 18 and you can get a rough idea of what life must be like in the two-year-old class at my children’s daycare nursery. During the course of any one day there will be a number of conflicts, usually over some toy or other, often resulting in one child hitting, pushing, kicking or biting another child. The carers at the nursery generally do a pretty good job of keeping the peace but it’s inevitable that they won’t be able to catch all the disputes before they escalate into full-blown ‘fights’.
The other day when my husband picked up my son, one of his carers, let’s call her Mrs. X, came over to apologize for the bite mark on my son’s arm. (My first reaction to this was actually ‘Phew! Thank goodness he wasn’t the biter!’ which although off the point illustrates how common this kind of thing is at our nursery.) My son it seems had been involved in a fight over a toy bike and had come out the worse for it. Mrs. X then went on to explain how this kind of thing is just part of normal development and often occurs because two-year olds don’t yet have a good enough command of Japanese to be able to resolve their disputes through the use of verbal communication, so they have to resort to physical force. Then came the whammy: “Of course in your son’s case, this is probably exacerbated by the use of two other languages at home.”
Under other circumstances I might have actually started to believe Mrs. X and started spiraling down the tunnel of self-doubt, worrying whether raising my children in three languages was actually the right thing to do and what kind of long-term effects it was going to have on their behaviour, but fortunately this time we had a star witness. My five-year-old daughter had witnessed the whole ‘fight’ and relished in giving us all the gory details of the incident, including all the pushing, hair-pulling and biting and a pretty convincing impression of my son yelling at the other little boy. According to my daughter he had been shouting in Japanese “kore wa Leo-kun no! kore wa Leo-kun no!” (loosely translated into English as “This is mine! This is mine!”), as he had tried to wrestle the toy from the other child. If we are to believe my daughter’s account, then my son had not been using physical force to compensate for his lack of language skills, as Mrs. X had argued, but had actually been using Japanese quite effectively to stake his claim to the toy bike. Of course the toy bike was not his and the other little boy had been playing with it first, so my son was by no means an innocent party in this fight, but to blame my son’s behaviour on multilingualism, rather than the usual two-year-old problems of not understanding that not everything is yours, that you must wait for your turn and that you should be nice to other people, seems bizarre to say the least. How on earth had Mrs. X managed to link my son’s fight to a condemnation of trilingualism? And furthermore, how had she managed to overlook the fact that my son had actually been using Japanese as part of the fight?
When I mentioned this incident to a psychology professor colleague of mine, she suggested that I look at it in terms of Leon Festinger’s (1957) “cognitive dissonance theory”. According to this social psychology theory, our minds contain a mechanism that “creates an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance, or lack of harmony, when we sense some inconsistency among the various attitudes, beliefs, and items of knowledge that constitute our mental store” (Gray 2007: 493). In order to avoid this dissonance, people may choose to focus only on information that supports their attitudes and beliefs and avoid or ignore information that may contradict those beliefs. If we look at Mrs. X’s behavior from this perspective we can assume that Mrs. X holds a belief somewhere along the lines of ‘trilingualism can harm the social development of the child because it can prevent the child from developing adequate Japanese communication skills’. However, as my son’s use of Japanese as part of the fight is in conflict with her belief, her mind conveniently ignored it in order to avoid dissonance. She had also conveniently been able to ignore other contradictory evidence against her belief, such as the fact that the most fluent Japanese speaker in my son’s class comes from a bilingual home and that my son’s five-year-old sister had also been one of the most fluent Japanese speakers in her class at the same age.
Trying to understand why Mrs. X came to the conclusion she did, however, is only part of the battle. My next challenge is to help her change her beliefs and attitudes towards trilingualism. This one I assume is going to be a little more difficult, possibly even more difficult than raising my children with three languages.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
Gray, P. (2007). Psychology. 5th ed. New York: Worth.