Multilingualism, monolingualism and attitudes to language in children’s fiction

In an article written 11 years ago, Gillian Lathey considers the representation of other European peoples in British children’s literature. She looks at how language is used to create character in various examples of British children’s fiction and how foreign characters are commonly framed in negative terms through the words they speak. She addresses exceptions to what appears to be the rule (Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, or Gaye Hiçyilmaz’s The Frozen Waterfall,  for example) but leaves us to consider the effect such literature might be having and what its place might be in the 21st century. It is a discussion still worth having here in NZ!!!

NOTE: Gecko Press is trying to change this situation by promoting books from around the world… http://www.geckopress.co.nz/

Since children’s perceptions of other cultures are formed—at least in part—by the books they read, children’s literature is a potential site [-p.296] for linguistic and cultural exchange. British children’s literature is limited in this respect by the lack of translations for young readers currently available and by the attitudes to other European languages portrayed in children’s texts. The language that a ‘foreign’ fictional character speaks in passages of dialogue often consists of a heavily accented English or catchphrases well known to an English-speaking audience, and acts as a stereotyping shorthand.

What, then, are the messages about the languages of Europe that child readers have absorbed from reading British children’s fiction of the twentieth century?” (pp.295-296)

“Children’s curiosity about the world is a sensitive matter; the desire to tame the unknown can so easily become a classification into reliable and one-dimensional types in language as in other respects. What can be learned from multilingual writers and those, like [Peter] Dickinson, [-p.302] who introduce young readers to the abstract potential of language to register every nuance of cultural and historical difference, is that real exchange and understanding can only take place when individuals— writers and readers—enter the thought frame of another language. To make this transition is to make the adjustment of the inner self from one language and culture to another described with such delicacy by W.G. Sebald in his deeply personal, documentary account of exile in The Emigrants (1997, p. 78). Too often in British children’s literature admissions of linguistic incompetence and caricatures sidestep such a major commitment or make it seem impossible.

Thomas Mowbray in Richard II despairs because he regards himself as too old at the age of forty to learn French; in modern Britain many admit defeat when they are still children. Children’s literature cannot be held responsible for this state of affairs, but it has both reflected and contributed to the British malaise in the company of other languages. And so these questions remain: will the majority of the British people remain firmly in a tongue-tied ghetto in the twenty-first century, and what role will languages play in the children’s literature of the country’s European future?” (pp.301-302)

Ref: Gillian Lathey (2001) Where Britain Meets ‘the Continent’: Language and Cultural Exchange in Children’s Fiction Children’s Literature in Education 32(4)Dec: pp.295-303

NB the Richard II reference is explained in her introduction when she considers the Duke’s reaction to banishment from the British Isles:

“In his response to this sentence of permanent exile, Mowbray regrets above all the loss of the English language, accusing Richard of condemning him to ‘a speechless death,’ since:

‘Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue,
Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips;
And dull, unfeeling, barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.’ (Act I Scene III)

Although the prospect of crossing the Channel no longer fills British travellers with quite so strong a sense of linguistic doom, it seems that as far as the learning of other European languages is concerned, Mowbray’s sentiments are still shared by many. Language continues to be a major sticking-point in the United Kingdom’s halting progress toward Europeanism, just as a lack of motivation to learn languages remains a fault-line running through the British school curriculum.” (p.295)

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in early years education, Literate Contexts, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Mono- Bi- and Multi-culturalism, social and political contexts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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