Raja's big ears tell a tale

6th July 2007 at 01:00
BILINGUAL CHILDREN are often culturally and linguistically influenced by English, regardless of fluency in their mother tongue.

Researchers at the University of East London have found that within two or three generations children adapt their native language culture to their British experiences.

The researchers asked 11-year-olds Gujarati speakers to read or listen to The Raja's Big Ears, an Indian folk-tale, in both tongues, then retell the story, in their own words, in both languages.

All but two began their Gujarati rendition with the words "one day there was a Raja". The phrasing, while not incorrect, was clearly influenced by the traditional English "Once upon a time".

In their English version, most children made use of complex and sophisticated sentence structure. By contrast, in Gujarati they often fell into a pattern of using "and then... and then..." to link clauses.

The Gujarati versions were punctuated by regular switching between the two languages, effectiuvely creating a third language. The report states: "Children report using words in English, 'because it came first into my head'."

A few used whole phrases and clauses in English, such as "scratched their heads" or "all sorts of instruments". And they would conclude Gujarati sentences with English tags, such as "that's why".

British cultural elements had been incorporated into the Gujarati retelling: for example, the Raja held a very British birthday party, receiving cards from guests.

"Children's varied experiences of literacy practices at home and school enable them to... reflect on language use and how it relates to cultural context," the researchers said. "They demonstrate their skill at adapting their language to the discourse conventions appropriate in the different social contexts of their everyday lives."

Adi Bloom

* r.m.sneddon@uel.ac.uk

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