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Review of  Three is a Crowd?

Reviewer: Emanuel A. da Silva
Book Title: Three is a Crowd?
Book Author: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.3169

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AUTHOR: Cruz-Ferreira, Madalena
TITLE: Three is a Crowd?
SUBTITLE: Acquiring Portuguese in a Trilingual Environment
SERIES: Child Language and Child Development
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2006
ISBN: 1853598380

Emanuel A. da Silva - PhD candidate, Department of French, University of
Toronto, Canada


The book is the sixth title in the series on Child Language and Child
Development published by Multilingual Matters. It gives an insightful and
entertaining overview of three siblings developing language ability in a
multilingual environment where Portuguese, Swedish and English are spoken.
The book is about children learning language, not about the languages
themselves, so no exhaustive analysis of any language, language level or
developmental stage is attempted. Instead, a detailed discussion of several
issues pertaining to the children's progressive mastery of European
Portuguese (the children's home language growing up and their first peer
language) is presented. Based on the children's spontaneous, everyday use
of language, the book aims to provide a contextual account of the
strategies and processes behind the children's linguistic and social
development throughout the first 10 years of their lives. Cruz-Ferreira
addresses questions of language choice, lexical development, motherese,
phonology, prosody, language attitudes and multiculturalism, among others.

The answer to the question in the book's title ''Three is a crowd?'', is an
emphatic negative. Three or more languages are no more a crowd than one
single language and monolingualism should no longer be considered the norm.
The author, and mother of the three children in question, hopes that the
book helps broaden the boundaries that guide research, assessment and
opinions about child linguistic development, and in particular child
multilingualism, among linguistically untrained parents, educators, school
authorities and linguistics researchers alike. Cruz-Ferreira's writing
style is very straightforward, descriptive technicalities are kept to a
minimum, and English glosses of Portuguese and Swedish words are given
throughout, making this book accessible for a very wide audience, including
first year university/college students.


After the introduction in Chapter 1, the book is divided into three main parts.

Part I (which contains four chapters) sets the stage for how the children
became multilingual. Chapter 2 outlines a number of issues on bilingualism
and bilingual acquisition, bilingualism versus dual monolingualism,
one-system and two-system approaches to child bilingualism, mixed speech
and bilingual fluency. Chapter 3 provides some linguistic and social
contextualization and background on the family, the children and their
development at school and at home including, for example one child's
hearing difficulties. Chapter 4 presents the database on which the study
draws and discusses the methods, choices and limitations of the data
collection, presentation and analysis. The database is made up of
spontaneous production data in various situations involving different
interlocutors and different languages, spanning the birth of all three
children up to age 10. Chapter 5 gives an overview of how the children
signal their different languages and different communicative situations,
how they organize people according to language as well as how they develop
their metalinguistic ability. For example, the children are aware of two
different kinds of bilingualism in the family: their own, which is
''native'', and their parents', ''non-native''. However, the monolingual
ideologies behind the term ''native speaker'' are deconstructed throughout
the book.

In Part II, the author uses three chapters to present issues on how the
children make sense of Portuguese in a multilingual context. Chapter 6
focuses on how the children grasp the phonology of the language and in
particular its prosody, fundamental to an understanding of language and
language acquisition. The author looks at different intonational patterns
and choices with one-word, two-word and multiword utterances as well as the
prosodic role of fillers, which has gained little attention. Chapter 7 is a
qualitative account of the children's lexical development: matters
pertaining to structure at word, phrase and utterance level. She begins
with a critical reflection on the very word ''word'' and then discusses
passive and active vocabulary before turning to specific word forms.
Chapter 8 discusses the children's semantic manipulation and different
strategies to approach word meanings (by querying and manipulating words or
choosing/avoiding certain words).

Part III takes a broader sociolinguistic perspective and examines the
impact of acquiring a third language in each child's approach to
communication and to life. Chapter 9 asks whether a new language is an
intruder or a guest. It looks at the emergence of English in the children's
linguistic repertoire, its instruction at school and introduction in the
home as their peer language. Attitudes towards multilingualism are also
discussed. Chapter 10 explores questions of language choice, language input
and language management in a multilingual environment. How are language
''territories'' defined? Is there such thing as a ''balanced'' bilingual?
Chapter 11 deals with the different ways that the children grew up not only
bi-/multi-lingual but also bi-/multi-cultural. It describes how the
children learned to be 'idiomatic' in different cultures and identities: to
produce/expect behaviour according to social norms of the languages/cultures.

Chapter 12 provides a brief, yet concise overview of the book.


The study set out to investigate two research questions:
(1) Is there a fundamental difference between the children's use of
monolingual and multilingual acquisitional strategies?
(2) What role do acquisitional strategies play in the children's overall
linguistic, cognitive and social development?

I believe that, in general, the author successfully answers these
questions. For the first question, Cruz-Ferreira argues that her data shows
that the children's aquisitional strategies of probing and testing for
meaningful uses of language apply for developing one single language or
many languages. These strategies include making due with whatever
linguistic resources are available, this resourcefulness is a form of
adaptive behaviour – one which the author correctly observes is largely
unexplored among second-language teaching/learning because of the emphasis
of rote learning. Another strategy is to take things one at a time,
systematically. The exploration of prosody comes first, the babbling and
fillers that follow are then replaced with words and word sequences of each
language and so on. A third strategy is to experiment and put the new
language abilities to use.

As for the second question, Cruz-Ferreira sees no fundamental difference
between the children's acquisitional strategies and strategies used by
adults to tackle new challenges, linguistic or otherwise. Children and
adults alike are constantly engaging in new endeavours that require new
ways of thinking, of socializing, and therefore of using language to make
sense of our surroundings and ourselves.

I think the strengths of this book come from Cruz-Ferreira's reflexive
approach to the construction of knowledge, her emphasis on the data rather
than the theories and her critical view on the generalized use of labels
and terms rooted in contested ideologies: native speaker, balanced
bilingualism, critical period, etc. The author argues, along with Gupta
(1994), that studies on bilingualism often implicitly assume that
bilinguals are one thing, and native speakers are another, and that the
native, monolingual, speaker is taken as reference point for proficiency,
even in a multilingual context.

Cruz-Ferreira calls for more of a focus on multilingualism in linguistics
and the study of language learning and teaching. She recounts a story which
I think it worth retelling. Her daughter was almost placed in a Special
Needs class because of perceived ''behavioural problems'' and ''instability''
which the teachers believed was due to the child's inability to cope with
so many languages at once. The teachers (all monolinguals) demanded the
parents stop using languages other than English at home, if they were
interested in seeing their daughter's problem solved. The other languages
were seen as inhibiting the child's progress in English as well as her
overall development. Of course, this assumption that a bilingual child's
behavioural problems are the result of the child's multilingualism is
highly problematic. Those multilingual children with real behavioural or
linguistic problems will be ''treated'' for their multilingualism, not their

Language use in linguistically mixed families is a major concern, so much
so that Cruz-Ferreira refers to the common questions posted on the Linguist
List's online consultation service ''Ask-a-Linguist''. The author questions
if the very strategy of One Parent One Language (OPOL) that she adopted is
a necessary condition for nurturing fluent bilingualism. She concludes that
it is not. Based on research by Yamamoto (2001) and See (2004), mixed input
does not seem to necessarily result in semi-lingualism or mixed child
output. Furthermore, very few people adhere strictly to the OPOL strategy
or speak a ''pure'' language without any mixing.

Nevertheless, when observing her children's linguistic development, the
author noticed that they did not often choose to mix their languages. She
asserts that ''their strategies were in all likelihood supported by the
parents' consistent practice of person-language separation'' (p.75) i.e.:
mother – Portuguese, father – Swedish. It is crucial in my opinion, as well
as that of the author, that future research on (child) multilingualism
study multilingual parents who do not assign specific languages to people.
Although the author argues that monolingualism should not be the norm
against which bilingualism is measured, her children were raised in a
bilingual environment (Portuguese and Swedish) that consisted of parallel

On a few occasions, the author makes general, unsubstantiated claims or
overextends her observations. For example, when commenting on the
flexibility in the children's use of linguistic resources she says ''these
children, like presumably all bilinguals, do not seem to view a language as
a repository of treasured norms, nor themselves as its curators'' (p.277).
This generalization to ''all bilinguals'' does not take into consideration
the power dynamics behind what one considers a ''legitimate'' language and
the people who have access to or control it in certain spaces (Bourdieu
1991). By learning a minority language, someone in a position of power who
speaks the dominant language can exert their dominance through their

Another point with which I disagree is the supremacy given to the link
between language and culture. As someone studying the children of
Portuguese immigrants to Canada, my initial findings suggest that
Portuguese-Canadian youth do not consider language to be as crucial an
element to maintaining a Portuguese (cultural) identity as the older
generation may think. Many of them do not (know how to) speak Portuguese
because they have been told that they (and their parents) do not speak
''good'', ''real'' or ''proper'' Portuguese, and so they prefer speaking in
English, while still affirming and performing a Portuguese identity. As a
result, I disagree with Cruz-Ferreira when she says ''It follows that doing
well in a culture means doing well in the use of its language'' (p.278). I
find that the danger of affirming that a culture cannot be maintained
without its language as do Fishman (1989) and Cruz-Ferreira in this book is
that it reduces and limits a culture's point of reference to a single
language; much like multilingualism often gets reduced to monolingualism.
Or nationalism, for that matter. The homogenizing ideology of the
nation-state that equates one nation with one people and with one language
(as in the quote from Fernando Pessoa at the end of Ch. 11 which should
read ''A minha pátria é a minha língua'', not the other way around) no longer
holds and must open itself to a multiplicity of languages, cultures and

The author concludes by saying that the question is not so much whether
several languages ''crowd'' or limit children's breakthrough into language,
but rather ''as Humpty Dumpty would put it, which is to be master'' (p.310).
I take this reformulation to mean that a critical sociolinguistic analysis
of multilingualism is an important follow-up to this study. Throughout the
book, especially in the later chapters on language attitudes and
multiculturalism, Cruz-Ferreira alludes to questions of language and power
and I look forward to any future research that will incorporate such an
analysis with child multilingualism.

Overall, this book constitutes a valuable contribution to the study of
multilingualism and child language and development. Instead of a
chronological overview of the children's development in Portuguese, the
author opted for an interesting cross-sectional analysis of selected
features of the language. The data are well presented, the book is written
clearly and there is an excellent use of up-to-date references, including
Linguist List postings, a complete index of authors and subjects for ease
of reading. Parents, teachers, students and researchers can all take
something useful from this book.


Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Oxford: Polity Press.

Fishman, J.A. (1989) Language and Ethnicity in Minority Sociolinguistic
Perspective. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Gupta, A.F. (1994) The Step-tongue: Children's English in Singapore.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

See, H.L.C. (2004) ''Exploring the role of caregivers' pragmatic discourse
strategies in mixed languages policy bilingualism.'' Paper presented to the
Second Lisbon Meeting on Language Acquisition, University of Lisboa.

Yamamoto, M. (2001) Language Use in Interlingual Families: A
Japanese-English Sociolinguistic Study. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Emanuel A. da Silva is a Ph.D. candidate in sociolinguistics at the
Department of French of the University of Toronto, Canada. His research
interests include critical sociolinguistic ethnography, questions of
language, culture, identity and social boundaries. His dissertation will
focus on the sociolinguistic (re)constructions of identity among
second-generation Portuguese-Canadian youth in Toronto.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1853598380
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 344
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