Inmaculada García-Sánchez on her Annual Review article

Kids in the middle

Recognizing the important role of children as cultural translators

Originally published: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/society/2019/kids-middle

Linguistic anthropologist Inmaculada García-Sánchez of Temple University studies child language brokers. It’s a term that might evoke an image of kids in sharply pressed business suits, but these kids are brokers in the sense that they arrange and negotiate transactions or conversations on behalf of immigrant family members and other community adults because, often, they speak the dominant language better than their elders.

Their work as language interpreters in their communities is key in business transactions, civic engagement, health care and even their own parent-teacher conferences, García-Sánchez has found. Writing in the Annual Review of Anthropology, she flips the idea that most of us have about children and caregiving. (García-Sánchez defines the term broadly as acting on the behalf of others.) In a discussion with Knowable, she says society should recognize that children are far from helpless and do more to care for others in their families and communities than we give them credit for. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Interview by Kendall Powell

Kendall Powell: Why should we pay attention to the caregiving that children do?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Giving care is a very complex process that involves many community members and resources — it is a community care network. As language interpreters, children are contributing to the smooth functioning of the institutions that serve their communities: banks, clinics, government agencies. The more we understand the role of children as caregivers and care facilitators, the better we’ll understand how caregiving truly works.

Kendall Powell: How did you get interested in studying children as translators?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I’ve always been interested in multilingual communities, particularly immigrant communities that are undergoing rapid change linguistically and culturally. Children are at the forefront of those changes in their communities.

Child language brokering is not new — there are written accounts of children doing this in Canada and the US for their immigrant families in the late 1800s. But it has only received attention from anthropologists and sociologists since the 1990s.

There was this idea that children come by translation naturally, largely by mimicking adults.  But language translation is very complex — it contains linguistic and emotional complexity, and it involves managing everyone’s point of view. Sometimes the child is acting as an agent of an institution such as a health clinic, which adds the need to navigate the organization and a layer of social complexity. It’s not simply a natural-born thing!

Translation is really just the tip of the iceberg because it is the visible part. Children are also helping their parents compose emails or double-checking invoices for the family business.

Kendall Powell: How does child language brokering work?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In immigrant communities, there are never enough official translators. So immigrants rely on an informal network of community members who are willing to do the interpreting. And children are playing a central role in that work.

“The idea that children are ‘helpless’ is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution.”

Generally starting around age 8 or 9, children negotiate, mediate and translate for their families and other adults and for the institutions or services those adults interact with. This is something that hearing children of deaf parents also do.

Kendall Powell: How do children do this if they are also new arrivals?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: It’s a combination of factors. The rate of language acquisition in young children is going to outpace the parent — especially if they are immersed in the new language through school. It’s also important to note the availability of children. Adults in the community might be working two or three jobs, or they work three shifts of a job, so they are less available for translating help.

Kendall Powell: Isn’t that too much responsibility to put on a kid’s shoulders?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Everybody everywhere in the world recognizes that children are young, dependent and require a lot of help. But in post-industrial Western nations, we’ve sort of overdone this a bit. The idea that children are “helpless” is quite modern, arriving around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class, nuclear family. In reality, the abilities of children, and what they should be allowed to do, varies across cultures and over time. For example, even in my mother’s generation in Spain, it was much more common for older siblings and child neighbors to do sibling or peer babysitting than it is today.

In modern times, families have become increasingly child-centric, with the idea that children shouldn’t be allowed to give care. It’s important, too, to note that the childhood that has become normalized is that of white, middle-class people. People tend to think of this “normal” childhood as what is natural and healthy. This is why they immediately characterize any work done by children as “unhealthy” and become outraged by it. But our “normal” childhood right now in the early twenty-first century isn’t necessarily better or healthier or leading to better outcomes than other types of childhood experiences.

Kendall Powell: Where is the line between what children should and should not do as caregivers, then?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: There is tension between children’s vulnerability and children’s competency as social actors. Both are very real. But for me, it’s a huge problem when child language brokering and other childhood experiences are pathologized. Yes, sometimes these situations are very extreme — such as a child translating between a parent and a doctor during an emergency. In my own studies, I have observed that in most high-stakes, stressful situations, adults recognized that child language brokering was not appropriate and they waited for an adult neighbor to help if they could.

But the vast majority of child language brokering is much more mundane and low-stakes. The child might help an adult order a pizza or fill out a permission slip for a field trip. Also, it is never just the child in these interactions, but rather a “performance team” that involves at least two adults along with the child. In my work studying child language brokering in Moroccan immigrants in Spain, I attended medical visits in which the doctor and the immigrant parent or family member followed along in the conversation and helped the child. Each person brings expertise to the team — the child knows the mainstream language, the doctor has medical knowledge, the immigrant adult has real-world knowledge.

Kendall Powell: Is child language brokering treated like any other household chore by immigrant families?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Yes! There is a lot of negotiation about this within families, just like telling your kid to mow the lawn. Some kids do it willingly and for others, it’s a huge battle. I find in my research that parents get upset when kids don’t want to do child language brokering. It is considered a contribution and seen as a larger responsibility toward the household that is good for the child’s development.

Kendall Powell: Do other positive things come from children doing child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: Shu-Sha Angie Guan, a developmental psychologist at California State University, Northridge, studied first- and second-generation immigrant college students who had done child language brokering as children. She found that the more brokering for parents that students had done, the better they developed transcultural perspectives, and students who performed more brokering for people other than parents had higher levels of empathy.

In my Moroccan immigrant study in Spain, one of the things that surprised me was how the children would do very tiny modifications in their translations in relation to racial stereotypes or misrepresentations of the Moroccan community’s culture. In one example in a pediatrician’s office, a Moroccan mother referred to spanking one of her children. The nine-year-old neighbor translated that the mother had merely reprimanded the child verbally. The children were aware of the widely circulated negative stereotypes and were inserting themselves to act as advocates and protecting their community from unwanted scrutiny. To me, children’s competency at reading the politics of the situation is mind-blowing.

Kendall Powell: What other surprises do you find with child language brokering?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: With Marjorie Orellana of UCLA, I studied Latino immigrant children in the US who were translating at their own parent-teacher conferences. There was an assumption that the kids would lie to make themselves look good in front of their parents.

But what we found was jarring. Every time I look at that data, I feel like crying. Not only were children not lying or making themselves look good, but all the praise that teachers were throwing their way was going untranslated. So parents were actually getting a worse report.

Kendall Powell: Why was that?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: One hypothesis is that children know that tooting your own horn is kind of narcissistic. So perhaps they were embarrassed to toot their own horn even via translation. Also, it could be that children pick up on the structure of teachers’ language — that teachers often use praise to soften the bad news part of the conference. Maybe they were just skipping to the meat, thinking, “The important part is that I’m doing poorly in social studies, not that I get along with my friends.”

Kendall Powell: You call children “active and competent caregivers.” What other types of care work are they doing?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: In my own research, I’ve seen that children care for each other all the time. They are usually very inclusive — we adults could learn from them. In immigrant peer networks, I’ve seen children organize games in such a way that it doesn’t matter if you just arrived in the new country or what your level of linguistic ability is. I observed children alternating songs for jumping rope between Spanish and Moroccan Arabic so that all could join in.

Kendall Powell: Does doing work like child language brokering make children more successful adults?

Inmaculada García-Sánchez: I have not studied long-term outcomes, but I can tell you that when I’ve interviewed children about doing child language brokering, they feel good about working, accomplished and relaxed. They are also developing a sense of autonomy, initiative and empowerment — which ironically, are the things we all want our children to develop.

Elise Berman on her new book, Talking Like Children

https://global.oup.com/academic/product/talking-like-children-9780190876982

Interview by Shannon Ward

Shannon Ward: Most chapters of your book illustrated the enactment of “aged agency” through narratives that follow key events in the lives of your interlocutors, written in an accessible style and in English translation. What challenges did you face in translating your fieldnotes and transcriptions into this format?

Elise Berman: This is a great question. It was both hard and easy. I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, that would make the people I had met come alive, even while being theoretically rich. And so I did some research. As I was writing Talking Like Children, I happened upon a book called Storycraft by Jack Hart that discusses how to write narrative non-fiction. It occurred to me, then, that anthropological data is full of stories, and that ethnographies can be, and the best are, narrative non-fiction. Similarly, while teaching at UNCC the books that work best in my classes are the ones that have a strong narrative arch, characters that the students can latch on to and follow.

But the structure of narrative non-fiction that Hart describes is quite different than the way I was writing in graduate school (and I ended up wishing that I had taken a narrative non-fiction class). So, I completely rewrote my dissertation, not only to change the theory but also to change my style. One of the main points that struck me from Hart’s book was that when telling a narrative, you don’t want to give away the end in the beginning. So, for instance, in Chapter 1 when I talk about the birth of Pinla’s child, I do not initially tell the reader who got the child in the end. That is the climax, and the desire to know the result of these negotiations is what pulls readers through the text. But in the type of expository writing that I have learned, you are supposed to put the thesis in the beginning! So what I tried to do was put the theoretical thesis of each chapter in the beginning, but create narrative tension by starting with a hook and letting the story develop through the chapter without giving the ending away. I also tried to follow the other elements of Hart’s structure—beginning with action, intertwining narrative with expository information, and ending with a climax. This organization of each chapter took quite a bit of rethinking, reworking, and learning about narrative non-fiction.

But the other part of your question, about translating the fieldnotes and transcripts themselves into the dialogue, that was easy. A quote from a transcript can be written as dialogue, especially since I would have to translate it from Marshallese anyway for a transcript. What I did, instead of including symbols to indicate things like pauses or pitch, was provide that information as a narrative description. I actually found it much easier to explain this way than through symbols in a transcript. Moreover, writing this way pushed me to look closer at my videos. For narrative reasons, I wanted to be able to talk about where Rōka was looking or what Jackie did with her hand. To do that, I had to dig deeper into the recordings, and I frequently discovered relevant elements of the videos that I had left out in my previous version of the transcript.

Shannon Ward: Throughout the book, you compared age to gender, in order to theorize age as constructed and shifting. You also assert that “age is power.” Could you say more about how age intersects with gender to produce power in this ethnographic context? Relatedly, how are gender differences acquired alongside age differences, especially in childhood but also across the lifecycle?

Elise Berman: Gender differences are definitely acquired alongside age differences. The best example of this is in Chapter 6, where I talk about how Jackie has lost her former ability to run errands to men, since as she gets older she becomes subject to the “shyness” that often leads young women and men to talk in gender segregated groups. In contrast, however, Sisina, the child, is relatively bold. Her boldness is a part of learning to be not only a child who is different from an adult, but also a girl who is different from women. There are also various other aspects of gender that change across the life course that I do not discuss in the book. For example, in old age women seem to get bold once again and start playing a larger clowning role in festivals, whereas the younger women tend to be a little shyer.

This is one of the advantages, in fact, of focusing on age as a social construction. When one does, it highlights how all other categories—race, gender, class—dynamically change across the life course. So, focusing on age, in a way that I suggest has been largely (although not entirely) neglected in the social sciences, helps arguments that gender or race are not static or set in stone. It also changes the questions one might ask about the socialization of gender or race. Rather than being socialized into gender roles, people are socialized into age specific gendered modes of interaction and feeling that are constantly changing as people move across the life course.

Shannon Ward: Your book includes several stories of children who circulate between adopted families and birth families, amidst extensive controversy and discussions of adults’ morality. In these stories, you show how people, including children, use their age to affect the outcome of these exchanges. How do these Marshallese practices of adoption provide new perspectives on agency in the exchange of persons?

Elise Berman: This is another great question, and it really relates to the different forms of aged agency that exist in the RMI as a whole. Ultimately it is very hard to say no to an elder who requests something, including a child. But children and young adults have several different forms of agency, and specifically the agency of movement. Many children in the RMI have some amount of choice about where, and with whom, they live. In theory they are allowed to decide and can live with almost any relative. In practice, of course, it is much more complicated—they may not have transportation to a different relative (if that relative is on a different island), the different relative may not actually want them to stay, the parent they are leaving may be particularly powerful. Nonetheless, children’s freedom of movement changes the pattern of adoption as a whole, since adoptive children can and do move back and forth between multiple houses, including between what we would call their birth and adoptive parents. So, one part of childcare in the RMI is keeping your children happy, because if they aren’t they could (in theory) live elsewhere. People talked to me explicitly about this idea, that keeping your children with you requires keeping them happy—and that while this is particularly true of adoptive children it applies to others as well. Children’s movement is possible partly because of their age. They are not yet tied to a particular household that they care for.

Just as children can move between households, young adults can as well. One way to get away from a request for a child that you don’t want to fulfill is to move away until the child is older (one mother told me she did this: she didn’t want to give her kid away to an elder relative so when she was pregnant she moved to a different atoll). In turn, young adults also have a variety of choices available to them that are not as readily available to people in the US. Adoption is not a last resort in the RMI: it is a reasonable and expected option for single women as well as partnered ones. So I know of several women who told me that they adopted a child before they were partnered and before they had children of their own because they wanted a child. Now, this might happen in the US as well, but it is still something of an anomaly for a single woman to adopt a child. In turn, particularly given the common pattern of grandparents adopting the firstborn grandchildren, youth who have children before they are ready have a number of options open to them, options that might be offered rather than having to be sought out. Moreover, people change partners quite frequently early in relationships (when people are koba, together, but haven’t taken the step of becoming married), and this isn’t really seen as something that will negatively affect the children. Thus, women can adopt when single, and if they have a child without a partner it is not a big deal.

At the same time, however, these large families and these forms of sharing children have their own tensions, which I tried to illuminate in Chapter 1. In addition, and this is something that I didn’t write about in the book, when combined with high poverty rates this system is ripe for exploitation. There is a huge crisis of American adoptions of Marshallese children, where the ability of powerful people (including foreigners) to ask for things and get them, as well as these malleable households that shift and adapt, has led to an exorbitant number of American adoptions of Marshallese children.

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Shannon Ward: Chapter 5, in particular, addresses issues of morality and age. Marshallese ideologies assert that children refrain from lying despite risks to their own or others’ reputations, unlike adults who lie to avoid shame and protect their reputations. In other words, this ideology holds that children are able to tell the truth, especially about others’ negative actions, due to their position as nonmoral persons. Throughout the book, you also mention the importance of Christianity. Other ethnographic literature about the Pacific region has shown how Christianity is shaping notions of truth, responsibility, and evidence related to morality. Could you say more about how these ideologies of children’s truthfulness and nonmorality relate to Christianity in this ethnographic context?

Elise Berman: It is not that the children refrain from lying despite risks to their own reputation, but rather that there are no risks to children’s reputations (or so adults think; children have a different view). Since, according to adults, children are too young to have reputations, any words that they tell are not real lies. Thus the ideology is not so much that children do not tell untruths (everyone agrees that they do), but rather they do not and have no motive to tell real lies that negatively affect adults. If they do, those words are not their own and they are not responsible for them.

This view of children’s words as not their own and, therefore, not lies even when they are false does seem to be quite different from the ideology of language explicitly expressed in church settings, in which a much greater concern is placed on words themselves as opposed to the effect of words. In line with the literature you reference, Christianity does seem to promote a different view of words and responsibility. But this ideology, as elsewhere in the Pacific, also seems to vary with denomination. My host family was Būrotijen, which is the United Church of Christ, the original denomination of the missionaries who came in the 1800s. So, I spent most of my time at the Būrotijen church. But there are many other newer denominations. When I visited two evangelical churches—Assembly of God and Looking for Jesus—the sermon’s rhetoric was much more focused on how God tells the truth and one must always tell the truth. Since almost everyone I interacted with outside of church was Būrotijen, I can’t say for sure how this perhaps greater emphasis on words’ referential accuracy within these other churches affects behavior outside of the church.

 

Perry Gilmore on her new book, Kisisi

Kisisi Cover

Press link: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1119101573,subjectCd-AN43.html

Kisisi was published in cloth, paperback, and e-editions by Wiley Blackwell in 2016

Interview by Alma Gottlieb

reposted from her website: http://almagottlieb.com/2017/05/interview-with-perry-gilmore-about-kisisi-our-language-the-story-of-colin-and-sadiki/

Kisisi (Our Language): The Story of Colin and Sadiki chronicles a charming and, indeed, remarkable friendship that developed between two five-year-old boys—one (Sadiki), the son of a traditionally pastoralist Samburu family in Kenya working as a wage laborer for wealthy British landowners; the other (Colin), the son of a white American couple of means, both students, living in Kenya for 15 months of graduate research.

When they first met, the age-mate boys found themselves drawn to one another . . . but frustrated by their lack of a common language. Slowly, they developed their own language (dubbed “Kisisi” by Colin’s mother, Perry Gilmore), combining bits and pieces of Swahili and English into a constantly-evolving pidgin that they, alone, understood. Narrating the development of this unique pidgin, the book combines the engagingly personal voice of a proud and loving mom with the sharp observer’s eye of a trained anthropological linguist.

Renowned linguist, Deborah Tannen, has this to say about the book:

It’s part linguistic analysis, part gripping story of culture contact, part deeply moving memorial to a life tragically cut short. This book will fascinate anyone interested in language, children, or human experience.

The 136-page book has five chapters, and Gilmore writes like a dream. Once you start it, I dare you to put it down.

You can find a link to a sample chapter here (“Uweryumachini!: A Language Discovered”):

If you’d like to request an exam copy for a course you teach, follow this link.

You can find Perry Gilmore’s contact information here.

I recently interviewed Perry Gilmore online about the book. Here’s what she had to say (AG = Alma Gottlieb; PG = Perry Gilmore):

PG portrait

Perry Gilmore

 

AG: In the Prologue, you write of Colin and Sadiki:

[T]heir invented language helped them construct new identities and resist, transgress, and transform the marked postcolonial borders and harsh inequities of economics, race and culture that engulfed them and dominated the social power relationships and language ideologies that engaged all aspects of their daily lives (xvi).

As such, you call the book

a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and the politics of language and oppression . . . an ethnographic exploration of young children’s critical and resilient discursive agency in their innocent yet effective quest for language equality and a place for their friendship on the rigid borders of their vastly different language and cultural worlds (p. xix).

Similarly, in the final chapter, you write:

“the children’s language . . . [created] opportunities for them to cross deeply entrenched colonial borders as effective change agents and as an official effective language policy makers” (p. 95).

Those are impressive claims. How would you respond to skeptics who might doubt the ability of five-year-old children to disrupt the intertwined and entrenched legacies of colonial domination and racism in East Africa?

Colin and Sadiki Planning a Pretend Hunt

Sadiki (left) and Colin (right) planning a pretend-hunt

PG: I agree that these are impressive claims! But I am convinced that they are reasonable and accurate insights about the social dynamics that Colin and Sadiki’s border-crossing friendship generated – for them and for those around them.

In the early pages of my book, I express the hope Colin and Sadiki’s story will be able to amaze the reader. The boys’ story urges us to look more closely and see all children with a little more awe, wonder, and respect.

I, myself, was almost incredulous when I first discovered that, before two months, the children were communicating non-stop and with great facility in a Swahili- sounding language that only the two of them understood. My own shock, disbelief, and curiosity prompted me to record their language carefully and document the full range of their social interactions. In 1975, when these events occurred, I, myself, was doubtful that Colin and Sadiki – at only five years of age – could actually be displaying such creative linguistic virtuosity, strong agentive social roles, and active resistance to the existing language ideologies and conventions that surrounded them.

Having been an elementary school teacher for six years, a language and literacy curriculum developer for school-age children, and a graduate student in developmental psychology with a focus on language acquisition, I had a strong background in child development and behavior. All that I had ever read about children and about language at that time completely defied what I was witnessing.

In Kisisi, I present what I hope is a range of convincing contextualized behavioral evidence to demonstrate not only the children’s language virtuosity but also their effective and impactful social agency. No doubt, some might be skeptical about the ability of two five-year-olds to interrupt an entrenched and oppressive colonial order. I, myself, initially struggled with these more speculative ethnographic insights. For example, I could answer questions about “what” they were speaking with empirical linguistic descriptions that identified specific lexical innovations and new syntactic constructions. I could answer questions about “how” they constructed meaning and negotiated shared information in an empirically detailed discourse analysis that, line-by-line, examined their turn-taking utterances. However, to answer questions about “why” they chose to invent and continue to use their own private pidgin language instead of the Up-Country Swahili that they were expected to use, I used an ethnographic analysis that is necessarily more exploratory in nature and more interpretive in identifying underlying meanings.

A skeptic – or any reader, for that matter – could, and probably should, question my ethnographic interpretations about the children’s resilient and transformative agency. It was my task in the book to provide enough of their story to convincingly demonstrate their effective resistance in a rich description. I hope I accomplished that. As with all ethnographic work, however, I did not and cannot “prove” my analysis; instead, I explore its underlying meanings.

The case of the boys’ friendship, and the ephemeral invented language that helped create and sustain it, presents a provocative extreme along a continuum of possibilities in examining language choices and behaviors in social practice. The example also provides a lens for understanding how young members of language communities use and think about language – how they clearly exercise language choice, change, and possibility.

It is only in recent years, especially in the new and growing field of the anthropology of childhood, that children’s agentive behavior and early language ideologies have been recognized and explored. In earlier anthropological studies, children had generally been seen as the recipients of generational cultural transmission, rather than seen as contributors toand co-constructors of their own worlds. The role of children as language innovators and de facto language policy makers has been largely understudied, undocumented, and even ignored. This case of language invention provides documentation of children’s language creativity; gives insight into the agentive roles of children as language innovators in multilingual contact situations; and sheds new light on questions of language genesis, change, shift, and maintenance.

Even two-year-olds make their own decisions about language choice in multilingual settings. For example, in my Indigenous language work in Alaska, I saw young Yu’pik mothers in tears when their two-year-olds could understand everything their mothers said to them in Yu’pik, but would only answer in English. Somehow, much to the pain of their families, these very young language learners had made their own decision to choose the dominant English language over their Alaska Native heritage language. Examples like these are widespread and clearly demonstrate that very young children can and do resist existing language ideologies and exercise their own language choices.

Colin and Sadiki’s isolated and remote rural situation contributed to their more extreme language innovation, collaborative language choices, and social practices. I have argued that the children, by choosing to sustain, expand, and develop their own private language, resisted the dominant language ideologies that represented the hegemonic, racialized, post-colonial order of newly independent Kenya. Their public uses of their private language made a symbolic statement about what I describe as their “cultural critique” of an oppressive regime in which their own cross-racial friendship was considered by many as a violation of social norms. The boys refused to docilely participate in the existing colonial order and rejected the Up-Country Swahili language that was designated to keep that order in place. They resisted being socialized into a language ideology they rejected, and instead created a new language ideology that allowed a safe and celebrated space for their friendship. Sadiki and Colin used their language to deconstruct a colonial culture of fear and silence and reconstructed their own counter-culture of courage and voice.

Their resistance and language ideologies may not have been articulated with theoretical vocabulary, but they were boldly enacted. The boys did not resist through anger or aggression. Instead their effective, border-crossing agency was accomplished through loving verbal art and play. Their joy-filled language practices challenged the oppressive colonial culture that surrounded them, identifying them as a distinct and separate speech community that valorized its own social justice values and allowed a space for their treasured border-crossing friendship.

Colin & Sadiki-Proud Pretend Hunters

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right)–proud pretend-hunters

AG: What a persuasive response! I dare a reader to remain unconvinced. . .

In the book, you point out that, until recently, scholars of language overlooked children’s linguistic experiences as unimportant. How does your book contribute to developing scholarship about children’s language practices? Does what you observed about the development of Kisisi suggest anything about the origins of our species’ linguistic abilities?

PG: For centuries, speculations about the origins of human language and the genesis of new languages have presented daunting questions for philosophers, language experts, historians, and scientists. These questions had always fascinated me. My primary reason for being in Kenya in the first place was to study baboon communication. This type of ethological fieldwork was in part driven by a fascination for primate studies and its potential for illuminating the origin of language in the human species. The study of nonhuman primates in their natural habitat was a relatively new research practice at that time. Naturalistic, long-term primate studies promised to be a valuable source of information concerning possible models of early hominid behavior and communication. I had no way of predicting that it would be my son’s unplanned and serendipitous close friendship with his Samburu neighbor that would offer me an even more provocative language origin story!

Ethnographic studies of young children’s language socialization were just beginning to emerge as an area of interest and significance. In striking contrast to earlier widespread Piagetian language studies, which characterized children as developmentally egocentric and incapable of modifying their speech for an interlocutor, newer observational studies showed strong socio-centric abilities of very young children and even babies. For example, Elinor Ochs (1977) demonstrated that her infant twins were able to take conversational turns and repeat each other’s pre-linguistic babbling utterances. These findings in the late ‘70s defied the long-held Piagetian claims of egocentrism. Of course, Ochs’ work had not yet been written or published when I witnessed Colin and Sadiki’s socio-centric language invention.

The infamous “forbidden experiments” recounted by Herodotus and others, the failed and poignant attempts to teach feral children to speak (e.g., Itard’s Wild Child, and the case of Genie), questionable research proposals designed to create a new pidgin language by isolating speakers of different languages on a small island (e.g., Derek Bickerton), the study of a new sign language created by deaf children in Nicaraguatwin languages – all these cases were seen to hold the promise of finding the secrets of language origins and genesis. The study of pidgin and creole languages has similarly been seen as a fascinating place to see language develop and change over time.

The study of Colin and Sadiki’s language adds to this literature in captivating ways. It is a rare, first-hand account of an emerging language-in-the-making. Most of the examples of “new languages” are anecdotal and discovered after the fact. I was in an unusual situation whereby I could document the boys’ language practices as they occurred over time. Invaluable also was the benefit of seeing all of their behavior in social context. The ethnographic details of their situated everyday language practices were unique compared to other studies. These ethnographic data allowed for a more “emic” interpretation of the functions, uses, and meanings of their communication in context. This “ethnography of communication” approach enabled me to describe the children as members of a vibrant (if tiny) “speech community” who used their new language for specific purposes and in specific situations. I did not simply provide a structural description of their “language” in a vacuum but in the context of their complex, multilingual social life.

What can Colin and Sadiki teach us all about human language and about children’s language? One reviewer, a linguist and pidgin/creole scholar, has commented that Kisisi “shows that two five-six year old children can create a new grammatical system” and it “can happen fast.” I suggest that the boys can teach us many things about children and language. What seemed to me at first to be a small and simple story of two children inventing a language turned out to be a story that was complex, nuanced, and multilayered. Their experiences raise many profound questions causing us to rethink common assumptions about children and about language. Their “not-so-simple” story provides provocative insights about some very big ideas concerning language origins, children’s innovative language competencies, and the significant role of play and verbal art in language genesis. Their experience provides compelling evidence concerning the agentive roles that very young children can exercise in language and culture resistance, choice, and change.

Sadiki and Colin’s language began in response to a pragmatic need to understand each other in order to be playmates and friends. Their early genesis of an original, simplified Swahili pidgin served that immediate function, facilitating their play and budding friendship. As time went on and their close bonds deepened – even as they had learned and used other local languages – they continued to use and expand Kisisi, its linguistic form and structure, and its semiotic functions. It was fun. It was secret. It was theirs. It was an artistic verbal spectacle that surprised and captivated unsuspecting audiences. Their new language bonded them as much as it reflected their bonds. They created a secret language with a public function. Through their language use, they carved a new, exclusive, and symbolically resonant space, a separate universe for their controversial friendship.

Their experience taught me that we scholars of childhood need to view all children’s language, in its many complex forms, as inevitably intertwined with the lives and meanings of the children who use it.

Colin & Sadiki Closing the Paddock Gate

Colin (left) and Sadiki (right) closing the paddock gate

AG: You lived in Kenya, where the events described in this book occurred, some 40+ years ago. Some people might think that the data are too old to be relevant; others might think you’ve forgotten too much by now to write accurately about the events. Can you talk about the advantages of waiting so long to write about past events?

PG: Producing what Johannes Fabian would describe as a “late ethnography” that (re)presents and interprets historically situated events and practices, I have written this account forty years after I experienced it. I had deliberately accumulated a substantial archive during my time on Kekopey Ranch in Gilgil, Kenya. Like so many who had come before me, I intended to write a book about my time in Africa–although I originally thought my book might be about my life with the baboons I was studying. With that in mind, I was very meticulous about keeping lengthy journals and records. I also kept carbon copies of all the letters I wrote to friends and family back home. And I kept copies of the audio cassette voice letters we regularly sent back and forth to the States. Those voice letters included rich descriptions of our activities and environment, as well as many instances where Sadiki and Colin told jokes, recounted events, and sang songs for Colin’s grandmother, other relatives, and close friends. Because I was fascinated with their new language, I made regular tape recordings of Sadiki and Colin’s language interactions in a range of contexts and kept detailed notes about and translations of their developing language.

At the time, I was a professional writer for a nationally funded educational laboratory, Research for Better Schools, Inc. (RBS). I was on leave to do the baboon research but was able to do freelance writing for RBS drawing on my Kenya experiences. I mostly wrote children’s poetry and short stories for an anthology for a reading and literature curriculum we had been developing. (I had a wonderful supervisor at RBS who arranged for me to continue as a long distance writer on our project. This was amazing since it was long before fax machines, e-mails, Skype and scans! The international packages took six to eight weeks to arrive at their destinations.) I did this writing for the entire time I was in the field. The poetry and stories I wrote were largely focused on the boys and necessarily captured many subtle details and evocative descriptions of their daily life events.

The letters, journals, notes, recordings, and RBS writings all provided an extremely rich archive for me to draw on, decades later. Even forty years on, the accounts seem vibrant and vivid, and the now-digitized recordings bring the children’s giggling voices right into the room. I also maintained a growing library of local books, newspapers, documents, and articles that captured the local colonial life of the period. Furthermore, I drew on the parallel memories of many colleagues, friends, and Sadiki and his family, who lived with us in Kenya at the time. Many of them were kind enough to read early drafts of the book and/or talk with me about these past times and events.

You ask about the advantages of waiting to write about past events. One of the most exciting advantages of writing the book now is that over these decades, the field has grown so rich theoretically, and that has allowed me a range of theories, concepts, and language to work with that did not exist before. When I was first examining their behaviors, we didn’t really have the theoretical frameworks or the critical language to fully describe or understand what the boys were doing. Post-colonial studies, critical ethnography, language socialization, power and hegemony, decolonizing methodologies, agency, resistance and language ideologies didn’t yet exist as areas of study. I was better able to capture all aspects of their profound and complex story by relying more heavily on more recently developed ideas as central issues in telling their story. It was as if the field finally caught up to the boys!

AG: Ha, yes. We sometimes talk about scholars being “ahead of their time.” In this case, two five-year-olds proved “ahead of the scholars’ time”!

In that regard, in the Epilogue, you suggest that Kisisi offers pedagogical implications for language learning (including bilingual education) that could prove useful to teachers of students at various levels and in various contexts. Can you share some specific ideas you might have along those lines?

PG: Ethnographic inquiry about children’s language practices can inform and often enlighten educators. Ethnography can expose children’s language competencies that hide in plain sight, often unnoticed and unimagined. Kisisi can provide one ethnographic account of young children’s competencies that might help teachers look at their own students differently. Teachers might be encouraged to use an ethnographic lens in their own daily pedagogy. An ethnographic eye can reveal otherwise unseen or unrecognized competencies. Ethnographies like Kisisi can present strong counter-narratives to a dominant, destructive, deficit discourse that unfortunately persists in many educational settings. In a time when deficit arguments continue to hang heavy in US educational circles – fueled, for example, by the so-called “30 million word gap” research (Hart and Risley 1995, 2003), which falsely argues that low-income children in the U.S. at three years of age have been exposed to millions of fewer words than have been their wealthy counterparts – it’s a good time for teachers to use an ethnographic eye to confront the unequal power arrangements that obscure the potential linguistic talent, virtuosity, and strength we need to recognize and nurture in all children. By paying close attention and documenting children’s everyday talk, teachers can identify competencies and start to work from from a resource-rich stance rather than a deficit bias. All students come to schools with naturally creative and flexible multilingual and translanguaging capabilities. Colin and Sadiki are not unique. They demonstrate the fluid language abilities that all children are capable of. What is needed is a safe and respectful space to use language(s) in ways that enhance rather than threaten children’s identities and ideologies. When teachers create those meaningful contexts, language learning and use will flourish.

AG: Speaking of which . . . President Trump began his presidency with an executive order founded in deep suspicion of immigrants and refugees. Your book seems founded in the opposite aim: the urge to find the common humanity linking young children from radically different cultural traditions, historical contexts, economic resources, and life options. Have you had any reactions to your book from readers who might have approached it from something closer to Pres. Trump’s position of skepticism? More broadly, do you think your book, and others like it, can make inroads among those who hold deep convictions about the unbridgeable divides separating people via discourses of “otherness”?

PG: In an era of division, I have had very positive responses to Colin and Sadiki’s story. I believe the boys touch a place of hope and optimism in the hearts of those who have read the book. In this Trump era, Sadiki and Colin’s story reinforces a vision of building bridges, not walls. I think it sparks a yearning for deeper human connections with the “other.”
Colin and Sadiki Running in the Tall Grass w Perry Gilmore

Perry Gilmore, Colin and Sadiki walking through tall grasses

AG: Who do you hope will read this book—among scholars/students, policy makers/politicians, and the general public? What’s your fantasy for the impact that this book could have, if it were read by the right people?

PG: I hope a wide array of people will read the book. The two boys offer us a beautiful lesson in humanity. Love and play are at the heart of their creative language virtuosity and their healing, social justice transformations. I hope those who read the book will forever after watch all children with more awe and wonder! Linguists, anthropologist, educators, policy makers, and the general public can all find something in the book for them. The boys have left us a unique gift – a rare language legacy; and a human story of irrepressible expressive creativity and resilience in challenging the politics of language and oppression.

And, finally, I wrote this book as a memorial tribute to my son, Colin Gilmore, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver when he was only 18 years old. One clear hope of mine is that readers will remember Colin and the courageous and loving lessons he and his dear friend, Sadiki, left us.