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On The Borderline: Dominant Tongue

I once caught my translingual toddler sitting on a bed at her grandmother’s house in Canada, secretly sifting through a jarful of grandma’s saved pennies and reverentially whispering to herself: “Millions, millions....” To my surprise, my mini-miser was using Greek. Afterwards, I noticed she spoke Greek to her dolls, as well as counted in it. Our core family language was English - why had the community language ended up dominant? If external factors, like amount of input or frequency of exposure, are not balanced between the two languages being simultaneously learned from a very young age, then one language may develop faster and exhibit greater complexity, replies Greek repatriate Froso Argyri, a developmental linguist.

Argyri is a member of “Me 2 glosses” (With two languages), an Aristotle University-based counselling service which is a branch of the University of Edinburgh’s information service called “Bilingualism Matters”. She says that the most common way to determine language dominance is to examine proficiency.


For instance, a smaller vocabulary, shorter phrases, the limited use or absence of complex grammatical structures, or mere yes” or “no” responses, may indicate non-dominance. A marked preference for one language may also show up in contexts where either language could be used (like discovering treasure at grandma’s).

Unlike my household, the OPOL - One Parent, One Language - approach is being used by Argyri and her Icelandic husband to raise their four-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.

“My daughter uses Greek most of the time, even when she is addressed in Icelandic,” the linguist says. “It’s clearly her preferred language, and she has developed a more advanced grammar in Greek compared to Icelandic.”

But, they plan to increase Icelandic exposure with an au pair next year. Puerto Rican Yadira V Calderon, one of the founders of the nonprofit association “Great Parenthood Greece”, also employs the OPOL method, immersing her four-year-old in Spanish and Greek.

Seventy per cent of the tot’s day is in Spanish, so Calderon - who moved here in 2007 - is not surprised by its dominance. However, things may change with preschool this September.

Dynamic, not static

“The community-language exposure will increase, and I shall welcome the transition,” Calderon says, “regardless of my limitations with the community language.”
Argyri confirms that patterns of language dominance - in children and adults - aren’t static. A non-dominant language may assume dominance because of circumstances, like school entry or relocation to a new country.
n addition, translingual people are often better in one language in certain domains - as in academic subjects or work - and in another in other domains, as in family banter or religion. So, dominance may also swing back and forth between languages, depending on the situation and past experience - including miserly moments.

Kathryn Lukey-Coutsocostas is an Athens-based, Canadian Greek (by marriage) writer, and a transnational of some 30-odd years. She blogs at

Source: Athens News
Thursday, August 9, 2012