Saturday, 3 October 2015

What does ‘multilingual’ mean?

What, exactly, do we mean by the label ‘multilingual’? I don’t mean dictionary-sanctioned definitions of the word, nor what the word should mean according to more or less entitled opinions, I mean what linguists mean when we talk about word meanings: what does the observation of uses of the word ‘multilingual’ tell us about its meaning? In order to find out, we can do what linguists do, which is to collate a sample of contexts where we find the words that interest us.

We observe, first, that ‘multilingual’ appears in contexts such as “... bilingual and/or multilingual ...”, implying a core distinction between two and more than two languages. The dichotomy, however, seems exclusive to bi- vs. multi-, in that we don’t find contexts such as “trilingual and/or multilingual”, “quadrilingual and/or multilingual”, and so on. The reason might well be that two languages were long thought to be the crowning achievement of human linguistic ability. Evidence of this belief lingers on in our current terminology, where we still talk about SLA (Second Language Acquisition) to refer to any number of languages learned beyond our native ones, or about L1 to refer to a (single) language learned from birth, the assumption here being that there must be some L2 politely waiting in line to become part of one’s linguistic repertoire. Habitual use of cardinal/ordinal 2-related words in these contexts, lacking relationship to the meaning of ‘2’, explains why the word bilingual has come to mean ‘more than one language’ or ‘two or more languages’. Which is rather confusing, to say the least: just imagine using words like bifocal or bilateral to refer to ‘two or more’ focal lengths or sides, respectively. This is why I prefer multi-words to refer to ‘more than one’.

We observe, second, that the word ‘multilingual’ collocates with family, school, clinic, on the one hand, and with child, teacher, clinician, on the other. This sample shows that the word is used as a qualifier (we could call it an adjective) of another word (a noun). The same goes for contexts like The family/child/ ... is multilingual. More uncommon are collocations such as A multilingual is ..., multilinguals are ..., or a/the multilingual., where a final stop follows the word: I am / They are multilingual is sanctioned by use, but I am a multilingual / They are multilinguals apparently isn’t. Not all that long ago I had to add the plural form multilinguals to the dictionary in my word processor, which kept marking it with a no-no wavy red line. We’re not comfortable using this word as a noun – yet: it could well be only a matter of time for multilingual/multilinguals to become as noun-worthy as bilingual/bilinguals, given that our attention to non-monolinguals dates from quite recently.

A third observation is that when we’re talking about, say, multilingual schools and multilingual teachers, we’re talking about two different multilingualisms – and yes, my word processor also had issues with this plural. A multilingual T, including families, schools, clinics, countries, environments, is a T(hing) where more than one language is used, whereas a multilingual P, including children, parents, teachers, clinicians, individuals, is a P(erson) who uses more than one language. This is not splitting hairs: the verbal form “is used” indicates a passive construction, probably familiar from school textbooks in interesting sentences like The bone is eaten by the dog. In language textbooks, the by-phrase is always there, because the purpose of textbook passives is to teach that they must match an active counterpart, in this case The dog eats the bone. Language students apparently need not be taught that we use passives precisely to be able to ignore the by-phrase, either because we have no idea who is actively doing the action represented by the verb, or because we prefer not to say. Exactly as when we define, say, a multilingual school as a school where more than one language is used. By whom? We don’t know.

What we do know is that families or schools, being institutional abstractions, can’t ‘use’ languages: people can. We also know that when we say that a school or a country ‘has’ more than one language, we’re using metaphor. Schools and countries can’t own anything, except metaphorically: people can. Which means that talking about, say, multilingual environments is not the same as talking about multilinguals: a multilingual environment is one where different languages are involved, but not necessarily multilingual people. Multilingual environments can feature monolinguals, as in multilingual schools or clinics where the students or clients are multilingual whereas the staff are not, and that’s why multilingual signs exist for the benefit of those who use only one of the languages in them.

In Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?, Chapter 11
Image © MCF

Failure to realise that multilingualism has to do with *multilinguals* explains the obsession with the languages of a multilingual that has characterised specialist and lay quests into multilingualism. We select multilinguals’ vocabulary sizes, accents, grammar, pragmatic proficiency, for comparison with monolinguals’, to ascertain the presumed state of health, or integrity, or wholeness, of multilinguals’ languages, apparently expecting to find the key to multilingualism in the languages themselves. A bit like saying that the key to Maria João Pires’ performance lies in her pianos. We’ve even started comparing trilinguals to bilinguals, those not-so-exciting-any-more language geniuses of yore, and I’m sure the day will come when we’ll compare octalinguals to heptalinguals, to find out... What, exactly? I wonder, too. This way of looking at multilingualism takes it as a property of languages, which is clearly nonsensical. Languages can’t be multilingual: people can.

If we want to understand what being ‘multilingual’ means, we need to shift our focus from the languages to the language users. Only then can we stop asking useless questions about what different languages do to people and start asking relevant questions about what people do with different languages. Next time, I’ll try to work out what this means, in home, school and clinical environments.

© MCF 2015

Next post: Multilingualism and multilinguals. Saturday 31st October 2015.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Multilingualism and disorders

Norms of conduct, including linguistic norms, are social constructs. They vary in space and time, and they can be of two types. Descriptive norms draw on observation and tell us what people do, for example that interrupting your conversation partners is common in parts of southern Europe (which can be a sign of polite engagement in the exchange), or that fermented herring is a delicacy in parts of northern Europe (which can be a sign of Nordic stoicism). Prescriptive norms draw on judgement and tell us what people should do, for example that we must respect our elders’ conversational turns, or abstain from consuming fermented food in the presence of sensitive noses.

Norms are useful constructs because they help us regulate our behaviour among fellow human beings – although it remains entirely up to us to choose, say, to be a Roman in Rome, or to insist that only Romans should be heard in Rome. Norms are useful also because they underpin comparative analyses which can help us decide what isn’t normal, and act upon that decision. On one condition: that we know what we’re talking about, when we’re talking about norms.

Taking descriptive norms to apply to populations beyond those which supplied the norming standard is a telling sign that we have no idea what we’re talking about: for example, assuming that all Europeans enjoy fermented fish meals. Another is confusing descriptive and prescriptive norms: for example, insisting that we should never interrupt people. Unfortunately, both signs are richly documented in our ways of dealing with multilingualism.

Descriptions of linguistic behaviour that apply to monolinguals because they were normed for monolinguals have arbitrarily, though routinely, been generalised to multilingual behaviour. They provide the benchmarks through which we assess multilinguals, on grounds that would make us cringe if our reasoning hadn’t become so dulled by their familiarity.

When we select multilinguals for comparison with (experimental) populations containing no multilinguals, while never giving a thought to performing comparisons the other way around, we’re doing two things. One, we’re saying that monolingualism is a useful and unquestionable linguistic norm from which to draw useful and unquestionable conclusions about non-monolingual behaviour; and two, we’re singling out multilingualism as the reason for the comparison, thereby self-fulfilling the prophecy that multilingualism is a deviation from those norms. What else could we expect to find from these comparisons, really?? Such practices turn multilinguals into the platypuses of lingualism: they’re funny not because they are funny, but because the norms guiding our taxonomies are. Interrupting people and basking in fermented herring are also deviations from some norm.

Respectable academic publications have indeed taught us that multilingualism is deviant. Only in the last two decades, they have featured, say, the linguistic development of multilingual children alongside linguistic development in clinical conditions such as deafness, blindness, autism, prematurity, specific language impairment and genetic disorders, or socioeconomic conditions such as extreme poverty, under headings titled varieties of development, or development in exceptional circumstances. The thinly veiled political correctness of the italicised words in fact sanctions multilingual development as atypically other. My articles ‘First language acquisition and teaching’ and ‘Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children’ give an overview of these matters.

Conclusions sanctioned by authoritative reports such as these expectedly lead parents and educators to take multilingualism as a disorder, best addressed by specialists.

In Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?, Chapter 1
Image © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena

Mistaking observed norms for prescriptions, in turn, is the natural consequence of our ignorance that descriptive norms, in the plural, must be established for every normal population. A norm describing us, here and now, cannot apply to them, elsewhere and evermore. The dearth of descriptions of multilingual normality explains that discussions about multilinguals concern not what they do, but what they should do, according to monolingual standards. This is why recommended behaviour for multilinguals invariably targets the elimination of multilingualism itself, in the same way that we’d do well to eradicate other pathogenic agents.

To me, the issue is that laypeople and specialists alike seem to have great difficulty understanding that difference is not synonymous with deviation, and this is why we go on maltreating differences. Add to this the misconception that multilingualism has more to do with languages than with the people who use them, and we have the perfect recipe counting multilingualism as an ingredient of clinical conditions: we remain persuaded that multilingualism is about what languages can do to people, instead of what people can do with languages.

Multilingualism is *not* a disorder. Neither does it cause, avoid, worsen, or repair disorders, because it doesn’t even correlate with disorders of any kind. One of the reasons for the widespread belief that it is and it does relates, no doubt, to our additional difficulty in providing precise definitions for the terms that we use. What, exactly, do we mean by the label ‘multilingual’? I turn to this next.

© MCF 2015

Next post: What does ‘multilingual’ mean? Saturday 3rd October 2015.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Language, multilingualism and racism
=Guest post=

by Jean-Jacques Weber

Since the 2008 election of President Obama in the United States of America, we are increasingly told that we are witnessing the end of racism. I would argue, on the contrary, that racism is still all-pervasive but that it has been normalized.

Racism has become such a part of everyday common sense that we often do not even notice it any longer. We do notice it at certain times, as when in Europe and elsewhere, Far Right parties score electoral victories, with increasing numbers of people voting for them and their elected representatives sitting in the European Parliament, or in national parliaments and local communes, whether in Austria, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland, or many other countries.

It is easy, at times like this, to construct those who vote for such parties as the racists and us, by implication, as non-racist. In fact, however, these seemingly opposed views actually exist on a continuum, on which it is easy to slide from softer to harder forms of racism. None of us is immune from racist views and in particular the language racist views that our Western societies are steeped in. Language racism refers to the manifold ways in which language is increasingly used nowadays as a proxy for race in order to exclude people.

Before I discuss some examples, there are two important points that we need to keep in mind about racism. First, racism is not only cognitive but also structural and institutional. Racism is not just a matter of individual beliefs, which can be abolished by changing these beliefs. There are also structures and institutions that are bolstered by the racial ideology and that help to maintain and reproduce racial privilege and inequality. Secondly, the biological racism built around a distinction between superior and inferior races has nowadays metamorphosed into a cultural racism focused on cultural differences, which can be linguistic, religious, etc. In this way, many racial discriminations are also about religion, language, social class or gender. The point is precisely that different types of discrimination overlap, and that race, class, gender, religion and language issues intersect in all sorts of ways.

However, mainstream contemporary discourses are marked by what is usually referred to as ‘colour-blind racism’, which consists in the denial (or erasure) of race and racism. An illustration of this would be the August 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, a small town located within the metropolitan area of St Louis. Long-standing spatial, economic and cultural segregation in Ferguson has involved a high level of distrust between the largely black community and the mostly white police force, which culminated in the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson on 9 August 2014, which in turn sparked off massive protests on the streets of Ferguson and all over the USA.

One widely reported comment after this tragic event was that of the white Republican mayor of Ferguson, who insisted that we need to ‘blame poverty, not race’ (Guardian, 23-08-2014). In this way, he attempted to shift the blame away from white supremacy and the structural racism of the social system, and upon poor people, who could then be looked upon as responsible for their own poverty. Thus the erasure of race and racism involves a number of factors:
  • an emphatic assertion that we, or a particular individual (Darren Wilson), are not racist;
  • an inability – or unwillingness – to see the wider picture of structural racism in the social system;
  • a mistaken belief in the one factor that explains it all: ‘it’s about poverty, not race’.

Language racism works in a similar way. A recent example of it occurred in Luxembourg, the country where I live and work. Luxembourg is a highly multilingual country, with three officially recognized languages (Luxembourgish, French and German). It has a high number of foreign residents (45.3%), with the largest immigrant community being the Portuguese. Many foreign residents speak French (as well as other Romance languages such as Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Cape Verdean Creole). As a result, French, which used to be the language of prestige and of the educated elite, has now become associated with migrants and is being viewed in an increasingly negative light by many locals. They fear that the rapid spread of French may endanger the small Luxembourgish language and, concomitantly, the Luxembourgish ‘nation’ itself.

On 7 June 2015, the Luxembourgish citizens were asked in a referendum to decide for or against extending the right of vote in legislative elections to foreign residents. The government campaigned in favour of a ‘yes’ vote, as a way of reducing the ‘democratic deficit’ in Luxembourg, where only about half of the population are allowed to vote in legislative elections. However, the motion was rejected by 78% of the voters. In the aftermath of the referendum, many of these ‘no’ voters felt the need to defend themselves against possible charges of xenophobia and racism, by arguing (in online comments, letters to the editor, etc.) that theirs was not a vote against foreigners but against the French language. In the following letter to the editor, for example, it is claimed that the sole aim of the ‘no’ voters was to defend the Luxembourgish language against an encroachment by French:
The 80% against voting rights for foreigners is not a vote against foreigners. It was a vote against the further ‘Frenchification’ of the country … That proves: we are not hostile to foreigners. (Luxemburger Wort, 17-06-2015)

Here we have another instantiation of the ‘denial of racism’ strategy (‘it’s about language, not race’), and we are reminded that multilingualism does not automatically tally with tolerance and open-mindedness. Even more worryingly, this form of language racism underlies widespread societal discourses which are ostensibly about language but are often tied up in more complicated anxieties about race, for example the politics of integration in Europe and the English Only movement in the United States. Anybody interested in this topic will find further examples and analyses in my new book Language Racism.

Jean-Jacques Weber is Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg. He has published widely in the areas of discourse analysis, multilingualism and education, including Language Racism (Palgrave, 2015), Flexible Multilingual Education: Putting Children’s Needs First (Multilingual Matters, 2014) and Introducing Multilingualism: A Social Approach (Routledge, 2012).

© Jean-Jacques Weber 2015

Next post: Multilingualism and disorders. Saturday 5th September 2015.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Textbook languages

Wanting to learn a language doesn’t always result in learning the language that we want. This is so even when the language that we want to learn and the one that we end up learning go by the same name – let’s call it X. One reason for this is that most language teaching proceeds through what we’ve come to identify as the language’s holy writ, namely, the X textbook.

A textbook is a book. Like all books, it uses printed modes of language, with two consequences: first, that textbooks can’t serve those of us who wish to learn to speak X, because spellings do *not* represent actual speech. The printed nature of textbook languages is what explains, among other things, the proverbial failure of X learners to acquire X-like accents – for which the learners are conveniently blamed, by the way. Is it any wonder that accents learned through print remain print-like?? The second consequence is that only those of us who are literate can access textbooks. This includes e-books and other e-novelties in written form, in that technological innovations seem to have had no noticeable effect on pedagogical innovation.

Lärobok i tyska språket (1858)
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

A textbook is also a grammar of X. Rather than real-life X, it offers boring, trite, irrelevant, at worst embarrassing, at best infantile examples of dialogues (sentences, situations, narratives, descriptions) for learners to memorise and/or enact, which are tailor-made for the sole purpose of introducing points of X grammar. The etymological relationship of the word grammar to printed modes of language is the likely reason behind this strange pedagogy. The facts are that we’ve been teaching languages in this way since the Ancient Greeks.

A textbook is, further, a preview of things to come, namely, its twin sidekicks tests and exams, also holy writ. Textbooks contain the correct answers that we learners will need to provide to printed assessment questions, in order to have our learning of X certified, also in print. The teaching-to-the-test nature of language textbooks is what explains that certified X learners can’t use X. On my first visit to an English-speaking country, Britain, I brought along nine solid years of enviable marks in my school English. As soon as I landed, I realised that I could both describe the past perfect continuous and declaim perfectly grammatical sentences like ‘My sister’s bookcase is taller than mine’ to anyone who would listen (no one would), but that I couldn’t order a snack or communicate with bus drivers, receptionists, or anyone else in sight. I had no idea what language they were speaking over there, I’d never heard it before. Or seen it, for that matter: brochures, placards, newspaper articles, were as unintelligible to me. And I won’t bore you with what happened in my later encounters with this ‘same’ X in places like India, Hong Kong, Australia or Singapore, for example.

A textbook is, finally, a publication. Like all publications, textbooks have editions, copyrights, publishers, distributors, marketers, advertisers, sellers, prices, and they are dated, in both senses of this word. They also have authors who, in the case of language textbooks, are often monolingual. What language textbooks seem to lack is a specific readership. Since the ideal publication must appeal to ‘any’ consumers, they’re invariably geared to “anyone seeking to improve their X”, or “X learners from any language background”. The problem is that one-size-fits-all language products fail to serve any consumers, for the simple reason that real life is anything but one-size-fits-all: language users, in real-life times and real-life places, are what makes up any X.

Through their equally time- and space-bound makers, textbooks serve the languages that they feature in their titles, rather than the language learners, who are instead brainwashed into believing that they must accept what ‘the market’ has on offer. This is why textbook languages disregard local cultures, as Ross Forman reports in How local teachers respond to the culture and language of a global English as a Foreign Language textbook, or John Gray discusses in The Construction of English. Culture, Consumerism and Promotion in the ELT Global Coursebook. This article from The Economist, The mute leading the mute, shares equally interesting insights on this matter.

This is also why textbook languages allow no room for learners’ engagement with them, to make them theirs by building the common ground that using a language means, not least where accents are concerned. You need to follow the book: questioning (textbook contents, methods or goals) and thinking (about alternative language uses and how they might work), which define healthy learning, are discouraged as a waste of precious time needed to prepare for almighty assessment pieces. 

I see no reason why we should remain in awe of the magic of printed symbols and go on teaching languages the way we were taught. No reason, in fact, to let any one-size-fits-all standard symbology constrain our engagement with people and their languages. This seems to be common practice in clinical settings, for example, and I’ll come back to this specific issue very soon. Meanwhile, the next post, authored by a guest whom I’m delighted to welcome to this blog for the second time, offers broader reasons for ways in which we currently engage with fellow human beings.

© MCF 2015

Next post: =Guest post= Language, multilingualism and racism, by Jean-Jacques Weber. Saturday 8th August 2015.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The perfect multilingual

In case you’re wondering, let me reassure you straight away that yes, the title of this post is meant to be sarcastic. Perfect multilinguals do exist, of course, though only in the minds of those of us who mistake ideals of perfection for reality.

Multilingual perfection awardees must satisfy a number of criteria. If you are, or were, a language learner as an adult, forget it: not having acquired all of your languages as a young child automatically makes you a non-multilingual. Either your accent, or your choice of words, your delivery, proficiency, fluency, grammar, conversational skills, in one or more of your languages, or your physical appearance, or all of the above, won’t pass the perfection litmus test, which is a match to native(-like) standards. This is an intriguing criterion, because it assumes that we know what native users are, look like, and do with their languages. I recently came across a very entertaining report in Nature, about the woes of having articles submitted to journals anonymously peer reviewed in order to assess their scholarly quality, where I found this gem: “Another reviewer suggested that the [article] authors should find ‘someone who speaks English as a first language to proofread the paper’, even though all four authors – including two tenured professors – were native English speakers.”

If, on the other hand, you’re a child acquiring your languages from birth, you may stand slightly higher up the qualifying ladder. But only slightly, because even though you might technically qualify as a native multilingual, there have been studies on such children reporting on their foreign accent in one or more of their languages, numbering their languages L1, L2, Ln to suggest sequential language learning, or arguing that one of their languages is dominant across an often unspecified board. As a young child, you are also bound to fail the LSRW condition, stipulating that being multilingual means proficiency in Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing all of your languages. This acronymic criterion does two things: first, it disregards all of us for whom language use involves neither listening nor speaking; and second, it adds the ‘RW’ twist, drawing on the well-attested confusion between languages and their printed counterparts. If I read and write Latin, but don’t speak it, am I multilingual with Latin? If I’m a native user of Singlish, but never wrote anything in it, am I multilingual with Singlish? Fascinating questions, and fascinating criterion, because it means that young multilinguals, as well as multilinguals who are illiterate, or happen to use one or more of the vast majority of the world’s languages which lack printed versions, aren’t perfect multilinguals either.

So who is? The issue is not so much that defining multilinguals looks pretty much like an exercise in shooting at a moving target: every time you think you’ve answered a question, about yourself or others (Am I multilingual? Are you?), you find that the question has changed. The issue is that the perfect multilingual matches the mythical being that I’ve called multi-monolingual and that can be represented like this:

Cover of Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?
Image © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena

Perfect multi-monolinguals, in short, have complete, unmixed, and parallel command of all of their languages. If taken seriously, this means, for example, that they must be dominant in all their languages which, if taken seriously, makes one wonder about the seriousness of the paradoxical claim that multilinguals must develop a single dominant language.

Instead of taking seriously claims about multilingualism which make no sense at all, let’s leave the sarcastic mood and take a serious look at what these criteria imply: they say that there are perfect, and therefore imperfect, uses of language, which means that those uses are best judged rather than observed. They say that living up to language standards is what steers our language uses, which means that languages exist independently of their users. And they compound the myth that being multilingual means being lesser lingual. There is one good reason why questions about the perfect (real, proper, true, etc.) monolingual aren’t ever asked: they would just make us laugh. Which monolingual has perfect command of their single language, according to the criteria that should define a perfect multilingual?

Real-life multilinguals are as linguistically perfect as their monolingual counterparts. All of us draw on all of the linguistic resources at our disposal in space and time, whether we label these resources mono- or multi-. And all of us are fair game for judgement and deprecation according to someone else’s and, not least, our own ideals of perfection.

The questions that make sense aren’t about linguistic perfection, they’re about why claims of linguistic perfection go on being made. Asking these questions is important also because the mix of ingredients in funny criteria purporting to define multilingualism carries over to funny methods that we go on using to teach and assess those who are (becoming) multilingual in school. I turn to this next.

© MCF 2015

Next post: Textbook languages. Saturday 11th July 2015.


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