LINGUIST List 12.2995

Fri Nov 30 2001

Review: Yamamoto, Lang Use in Interlingual Families

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Simin Karimi at or Terry Langendoen at <p> Subscribe to Blackwell's LL+ at and donate 20% of your subscription to LINGUIST! You get 30% off on Blackwells books, and free shipping and postage!


  1. Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Review of Yamamoto, Language Use in Interlingual Families

Message 1: Review of Yamamoto, Language Use in Interlingual Families

Date: Fri, 30 Nov 2001 11:41:28 +0800
From: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira <>
Subject: Review of Yamamoto, Language Use in Interlingual Families

Yamamoto, Masayo (2001) Language Use in Interlingual Families:
A Japanese-English Sociolinguistic Study. Multilingual Matters,
paperback ISBN 1-85359-539-X, x+170pp, Bilingual Education and
Bilingualism 30.

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, National University of Singapore

This book is a revised version of the author's doctoral
dissertation, submitted in 2000 to the International
Christian University, Tokyo. Its potential readership
includes not only researchers in (child) bilingualism, but
any family where the use of more than one language is an
issue, regardless of languages or of country of residence.

Chapter 1, "Introduction", defines "interlingual families"
as those "with two or more languages involved"(p. 1). The
purpose of the study is to analyse patterns of language use
among these families, in order to highlight the reasons why
and the manners in which children of parents who have
different mother tongues may end up bilingual.

Chapter 2, "Studies of Bilingualism in Interlingual
Families", distinguishes "linguistic" from
"sociolinguistic" research approaches to bilingualism in
interlingual families, characterising the former as
focusing on the acquisition or use by bilinguals of
"selected linguistic items" within, e.g., phonology or
grammar, and the latter as highlighting the "dynamics" of
bilingual acquisition or use through the identification of
factors that "promote or hinder bilingual
development"(p. 4). As the present study belongs in the
latter tradition, the chapter then gives a review of
analogous studies, including in the Japanese context,
providing a useful, quick-reference tabling of previous

Chapter 3, "Taxonomy of Interlingual Family Types",
discusses problematic and ambiguous uses of terminology in
research on multilingualism, including the terms
"bilingual" and "native speaker", the latter particularly
where bilingual populations are concerned. It then proposes
a framework for categorisation of interlingual families on
the basis of two criteria, one concerning parental language
background (shared or cross-native) and the other
concerning the (mis)match between parental language and the
community language, "community" referring to the country
where the family resides. In the present study, Japan is
the country of residence.

Chapter 4 describes the "Objectives and Method of the
Present Study", as the title indicates. In total, 1,059
questionnaires were sent to families potentially qualifying
as interlingual, of which 397 were returned. Among these,
118 were selected as the final sample according to six
criteria which range from full completion of all the
questions to the age of the youngest child. This was set at
3 or older, 3 being the cut-off age where the view of a
child as bilingual, or not, is unchallenged by current
views about early bilingual awareness (this issue is
discussed on p. 46). One criterion establishes either
English or Japanese as the native language of each parent
The questionnaires seek information on family background,
family's linguistic situation, attitudes and perceptions
about bilingualism and promotion of bilingualism.
Follow-up interviews with 6 of the respondent families were
conducted, in order to ascertain details of the reasons
behind decisions and opinions concerning language use.
Given that language use in interlingual families may change
over time, the interviews also focus on changes in language
policy and language use prompted by factors such as school
start, birth of siblings, moves and children reaching their

Chapter 5, "Findings", by far the longest in the book at
over 70 pages, tabulates and discusses the results of both
questionnaires and interviews. The chapter also focuses on
the issue of the one parent-one language principle, finding
that its implementation does not necessarily guarantee the
child's bilingualism, in particular the use of English to
the English-speaking parent. The chapter also proposes a
taxonomy of language use in interlingual families, according
to who uses what language to whom in the parent-child and
parent-parent dichotomies, and among siblings.

Chapter 6, "Conclusions", offers insight into the factors
that affect language use among the children in interlingual
families, ranging from the role played by the language of
schooling to the degree of parental engagement in the
promotion of particular languages as family languages.

The last 40 pages in the book include bibliographical
references and two Appendices, one with the English and
Japanese versions of the questionnaires sent to the
informant families, the other with the detailed raw and
percentile data obtained from these questionnaires.

This study provides what constitutes, to my knowledge, a
first attempt at a taxonomy of interlingual families.
Furthermore, as stated on p. 128, the study is based on the
largest sample so far of interlingual families living in
Japan. The relevance of both endeavours is clear, in that
Japan is traditionally perceived as a homogeneous
monolingual and mono-cultural community, not least by the
Japanese themselves.

Before commenting on the significance of these matters for
our understanding of child bilingualism, a brief sketch of
issues that I found problematic or obscure follows.

The text, particularly in chapter 5, is generally hard to
read in that each statement is repeatedly interrupted by
parenthetical indications of percentages and/or coded
identification of family or family member under discussion.

One of the questions in the questionnaire, as given on
p. 141 and discussed on p. 48, asks about the language spoken
by the children's playmates, viz. whether these "do not
speak Japanese" or "speak both Japanese and (an)other
language(s)". Results from this section thus appear to
concern the language background of the playmates, not the
language of play, the latter being in all likelihood the
intended purpose of the question.

The Figures depicting language use in the interviewed
families (pp. 105ff.) do not include child to child language

One point that I found somewhat unclear concerns the
rationale behind the framework used to categorise
interlingual families (pp. 40ff.). The two proposed criteria
each consist of binary, mutually exclusive conditions. By
the first criterion, families are either "_cross-native
language_, in which parents have different native language
backgrounds, or _shared-native language_, in which the
parents have the same native language background." (p. 42).
By the second criterion, families are either "_community
language_, in which parental native languages include the
community language, or _non-community language_, in which
neither/none of the parental languages is the community
language" (p. 42). Families can thus be interlingual "by
virtue of parental native language background" (p. 42) or
"by virtue of the community language that surrounds them"
(p. 43). The resulting four types are then characterised as
instances of "partial match", "total match" and "total
mismatch" between parental and community language.
While the conditions for interlingualism are obviously
different (parental vs. community language) and imply
equally different options of language use, it is less clear
why the resulting language (mis)match should be given from
the perspective of the community language and not from that
of the parental language, since it is the _families_ that
are being categorised. For example, both type B, "cross-
native/non-community language families" and type D, "shared
native/non-community language families", are given as
instances of "total mismatch". (There is a typo in Figure
3.1, p. 43, where type B should read "cross-native/*non*-
community language families). Type D would appear to be an
instance of language match _within_ the family.

On the other hand, the "total match" in type C ("shared
native/community language families"), as discussed on
pp. 42-43, actually concerns a monolingual family living in
a community that speaks their native language. What makes
the family interlingual is that "these families must
activate their bilingual potential by using another
language among the family members" (p. 42). If so, the label
"total match" is unclear, in that in order to qualify as an
interlingual family one of the parents, or both, must use a
non-community language. Since the parents are the
initiators of language practices within families, the
criteria appear here to refer to the (mis)match between the
community language and the language(s) that are actually
_used_ in the family, not the native language(s) of the
parents, although the selection of informant families for
the study in fact targets parental native language
regardless of parental language use.

Having said all this, it is also true that any taxonomy is
by definition controversial, and that Yamamoto duly
discusses and substantiates the choice of the one proposed
in the book. Any difficulties or ambiguities encountered
here do no more than reflect the un-controllable range of
diversity that is found in actual language use, regardless
of the criteria, definitions or labels through which one
may attempt to capture it. Proposed models therefore shed
all the more light into the variables that defy modelling.
It is in fact in these variables that our understanding of
language policy in interlingual families must be sought. As
this study abundantly shows, issues of language choice have
little to do with language itself, bearing instead upon
cultural perceptions that range from the status attributed
to different countries to xenophobia and racism. One
finding is that bilingualism may be thought of as tolerable
if, and only if, it involves English, a language whose
prestige appears largely unquestionable. There is a
"prejudice in favor of white westerners" (p. 73), if they
speak English.

Findings such as these are particularly apparent in the
report and discussion of the follow-up interviews, which
give parents' perceptions about bilingualism and about the
attitudes towards bilingualism in Japan. Yamamoto puts
together a candid, illuminating, and often unsettling
scenario of cultural issues of this sort that,
significantly, were the ones to which respondents showed
sensitivity when prompted about apparently linguistic
issues concerning the use of more than one language in the
family. In the words of one parent, "people perceive being
bilingual as a profanity against the pure Japanese
atmosphere and hold strong feelings of both repulsion and
jealousy" (p. 74). Further, "marrying a non-Japanese would
'mess up' the lineage" (p. 121). These are strong words for
strong conflicts whose daily episodes the reader can only
guess at, and their publication in unedited form is thereby
all the more necessary and welcome.

Private fears and public enactments that assuage such fears
consequently turn out to play the key role in matters of
language use. The "conspicuousness" (p. 128) of the
bilingual child, linguistic, cultural, and physical, gains
foreground as a perceived threat and is treated
accordingly. The child is the object of the kinds of
cruelty that only children, worldwide, are experts at
inflicting on one another, and the child reacts with the
one variable s/he feels in control of: "[o]ne way to
conform is to refrain from speaking the minority language"
(p. 128), including with the respective parent, and
including in the apparent sanctuary of the family home.
Prejudice is rife among adults as well as children (e.g.,
pp. 116, 121), and comes from both Japanese and non-Japanese
(e.g., pp. 107, 113).
Compounding this picture are the usual, and groundless,
worries voiced by native monolinguals about bilingualism.
Parents seek to avoid "language disorders" caused by
bilingualism, or plainly refuse "to _overwhelm_ their
children with _demands_" to use a particular language
(p. 110, emphasis added). Incidentally, similar views about
the deviant or otherwise special nature of bilingual child
language acquisition are not uncommon among linguists
either. One recent example is Oller (2000), where exposure
to different languages is treated in the same chapter as
prematurity and extreme poverty as factors affecting the
development of babbling, one less recent example is Bishop
& Mogford's (1993) book on exceptional language
development, which includes one chapter on child

The bilingual child emerges as torn between peer approval
and anguished parents, themselves torn between full
awareness of the child's plight and the understandable
reluctance to raise their own child as a foreigner, from
whom and to whom the use of a foreign language is expected.
Against this background, it is not surprising that parents
opt out of the one parent-one language principle, or of any
strategy designed to nurture the minority language. Several
families also appear to believe that a language and the
culture that it encapsulates can be acquired, maintained or
developed through the child's intercourse with a parent who
nevertheless switches to a non-native language (p. 112), or
with media like television (p. 110), despite evidence to the
contrary including where monolingual children are concerned
(e.g., in Naigles 2000). Interestingly, one family that
does follow the one parent-one language principle
(described pp. 118ff.) lives in a traditional, rural area
where both the Japanese father and the English mother help
the grandparents with farming. The Japanese grandparents
and neighbours do not feel threatened by the children's use
of English with their mother, in that the children are
equally fluent in Japanese too. The pressure towards
conformity inherent in city life then, not tradition,
appears as one factor in parental avoidance or use of "the
language which they felt most comfortable with" (p. 121).

Yamamoto's lucid, common-sense approach to the
sociolinguistics of bilingualism is also patent in her
proposed "principle of maximal engagement with the minority
language" (p. 128). In families where this principle is
active, the children receive not only crucial input in the
non-community language, but an equally crucial "subtextual"
message about the importance of that language in the
family's identity. According to one parent's experience,
"bilingualism does not come naturally" (p. 112), requiring
instead active involvement of the family in it.
But issues pertaining to child bilingualism reach beyond
the family too. In her concluding chapter, Yamamoto wonders
whether the findings reported in the book may be
generalised, given the idiosyncratic characteristics of
both community and families in this study. From my own
professional and parental experience with child
multilingualism, I see Yamamoto's findings less as a
portrait of families who happen to have Japanese and
English as their languages and happen to live in Japan than
as encapsulating the core of noxious sociolinguistic taboos
and myths about child multilingualism that need urgent
social, political and educational counter-measures in order
to provide children who happen to be multilingual with a
healthy family and institutional environment in which to
grow and thrive.

Bishop, D. & K. Mogford, eds. (1993). Language development
in exceptional circumstances. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Naigles, L. R.(2000). Manipulating the input: studies in
mental verb acquisition, in B. Landau, J. Sabini, J.
Jonides & E. Newport, eds. (2000). Perception, cognition,
and language. Essays in honor of Henry and Lila Gleitman.
MIT Press: 245-274.

Oller, D. K. (2000). The emergence of the speech capacity.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira teaches linguistics at the National
University of Singapore. Her research interests include
prosody, phonology, bilingual child language acquisition and
Portuguese linguistics.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue