This past weekend, I had lunch with an acquaintance, who has a 2-year-old son. The last time I met her was a year ago in her house where her son and my daughter each played with car toys and Korean books. At that time, my acquaintance — I’ll call her H — was sort of trying to teach her son Korean, her native language, but didn’t necessarily speak it to him. As a linguist, I tried to tell her and her English-speaking husband that using Korean to communicate with him was the best way to expose him to the language and foster his bilingualism. I had a feeling that her family wasn’t as keen on the kid’s bilingualism as my family was, so I quickly backed off from persuading them.
This time when I met H and her son, the son didn’t understand any Korean. She stopped speaking it to him and he gets no exposure to the language whatsoever. H was not happy about this but she was talking to him in English and joked that her son’s English is already better than hers. Since my sociolinguistics class was discussing language maintenance and language loss the previous week, the topic of bilingualism was very much on my mind. We talked about the sense of ethnic/racial identity, language attitudes in the U.S., linguistic history of the U.S., public education, and other topics, but this time, I got to think about something I will call mediated communication for the time being.*
Someone at the lunch asked me how I’m raising my daughter in terms of language. I told him that I only speak to her in Korean so that she can talk to my parents without my help. I jokingly said that I don’t want to play an interpreter whenever they meet. That led me to think about having and continuing a familial relationship in a mediated way. Since my parents don’t speak English, I’d always be an intermediary if they were to communicate with my daughter, if she lacked her Korean proficiency. (It’s odd to think about language proficiency of a one-year-old, but you get the idea.) I want my daughter to be able to have a conversation with my parents that I don’t know about. I truly believe that they’d have a more meaningful and closer bond if someone else isn’t between them. What would H’s son do when he grows up and has to rely on his mother to talk to his grandparents?
The same week, I read an excerpt from Lauren Collins’s new book When in French: Love in a Second Language. She’s married to a French speaker and the book is about her falling in love him and learning French. If we have a romantic relationship with someone from a different first language from us, would the interpersonal communication in this case count as mediated communication? It’s hard for me to think about this analytically. Although I’m married to someone whose native language differs from my own, I speak his native language with near-native competence and can’t imagine not having a strong personal identity in that language. But say we have two people who don’t share a first language and choose a lingua franca (that they don’t use much otherwise) to have a romantic relationship. How would they express their feelings? Their desire? Interfamilial relationship? I’m not talking about easy labels like ‘language barrier’ or ‘crosscultural relationship’ but the meaning of self-expression in a mediated way.
Hm, I suppose I may want to do some preliminary interviews with multilingual couples and families. Of course, there’s this book.
* Mediated communication, by the way, is usually used a contrastive term from face-to-face communication. So scholars talk about computer-mediated communication, telephone conversation, etc. I’m talking about a different form of interaction here, but can’t come up with a good term yet.