Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bilingualism as a Rubik's Cube

I wrote several of these, Metaphors of Bilingualism, when I was in Italy with a Fulbright, in 2014. For example, Bilingualism as unfinished architecture, and Bilingualism as a dream, which sums up all the others. I can't believe it's already been three years since I was wandering around Padova and Venice, collecting bilingual writing in Italian high schools, and making new friends.

The good news is, I can still speak Italian and, surprisingly, use it quite a bit, as I keep in touch with friends, vacation back in Italy, read, etc. In fact, I have been noticing lately that Italian seems to be interfering with my well-established Spanish, both in speaking and writing. This observation is the inspiration for my new metaphor: Bilingualism as a Rubik's cube.

Photo by Marco Blazevic,  
So, let's imagine that each side (color) of the Rubik's cube is a language. Generally speaking, by the time we're four or five years old, we are already carrying around a Rubik's cube with one side complete: the color of our native language, AKA mother tongue. This is the language we acquire naturally and easily, from the time we are born. If you are lucky enough to be born into a household where more than one language is spoken, you will have two native languages and thus be a simultaneous bilingual... and, following the metaphor, have two sides of your Rubik's cube complete when you enter school.

However, it is a myth that true bilinguals must acquire their languages simultaneously from birth. The fact is, the majority of bilinguals (and they are still bilinguals!) do not fall into this category. Instead, most bilinguals acquire their languages sequentially, meaning they acquire one language at home and one later, in school or through experience, like living in a different linguistic environment (more on simultaneous vs. sequential bilingualism here).

Ok, back to the Rubik's cube. Let's say you are a sequential bilingual, like most (and like me). You got your first side of the cube with your native language: let's say it's yellow. Then, maybe through school and some cultural immersion, you acquire a second language, so you complete a second side of the cube: let's say it's red. However, as you are trying to assemble that red side, sometimes yellow squares move in. If you immerse yourself enough in red, maybe you will even have some red squares move into your yellow side of the cube. It's pretty hard to get both sides to be complete and stable, but they can eventually get there.

Now, you want to add another language, so you attempt to solve a third side of the cube: let's say it's green. Of course, as you are assembling the green side, you get some yellow squares and red squares in there. While you are sorting things out, you also get some green into your red side. The point is, it's impossible to solve one side of the cube without moving squares from the other sides, and those colors are going to mix up to some degree. You can eventually, and with great effort, straighten them out, but they will, at least at first (and maybe when you are really getting tired of trying to solve this darn cube), they will mix up.

Maybe you have experienced this yourself. For example, this is why, when you speak a second language, you likely have an accent. The "accent" is just your brain and speech articulators imposing phonemes (speech sounds) from your first language onto your second- phonological yellow squares moving into the red or green side of the cube. Of course, language is not just phonology. You can mix up words, produce sentences with a word order that make sense in one language but not another, attempt to translate slang or idioms that sound absurd in the other language.

Why does this happen? Ojo: This is where the metaphorical gets theoretical. Linguists used to think that a bilingual person's languages were separate, independent systems in the brain. In a now classic paper in the field, Francois Grosjean argued against this idea in 1989. Almost 30 years later, most researchers agree that bilingual language is a dynamic, unified system. That is, a bilingual person's languages are integrated and overlapping, and can be used purposefully and strategically either individually or together (e.g., in code-switching or translanguaging). Ofelia GarcĂ­a has promoted and explained these ideas well, as well as their implication for the education of bilingual children.  

In summary, just as a bilingual person's languages are part of the same linguistic system, the different colors of the Rubik's cube are part of the same cube. In both cases, the parts influence each other and the whole. So there you have it: bilingualism is a Rubik's cube!


  1. Hello! Great post! As an elementary school teacher of many ESOL students (primarily Spanish and Haitian speakers) I see this happen everyday! I have picked up enough Spanish so that I can understand parents' basic questions about school, and I can answer in rudimentary Spanish, but usually the parent knows enough English so that when we cobble the two languages together - on purpose - we are able to communicate effectively.

    Also in class, I use Spanish and Haitian words for emphasis and greeting, aimed at those native speakers as a welcoming and friendly gesture, but now most classmates respond and enjoy it.

    To your analogy, I say "bon lide" and "claro"!

    1. Hi Stacy,
      Thanks for your comment! Good for you for embracing multilingualism in your classroom. You should read Ofelia Garcia's work on translanguaging- most of it is geared toward classroom contexts. Jim Cummins' and colleagues' work on identity texts in multilingual classrooms in Canada is also cool.
      Merci and gracias!