As far as I can tell, multilinguals are quite ordinary human beings: they’re many and they’re ancient. There are more multilinguals than monolinguals the world over, and the use of several languages by the same individuals has been documented as far back in time as historical sources allow us to peer into our linguistic habits.
Those of us who use a single language throughout life are monolinguals. Multilinguals are, therefore, not monolinguals, as Monsieur de La Palice might have been credited with saying. Nevertheless, and strangely enough, there are cumulative indications that multilinguals should in fact behave like monolinguals. To me, this is about as reasonable as wishing that a monolingual behave like a multilingual. To Jacques de La Palice, this would be proof that sometimes it makes sense to spell out truisms.
I’m sure I am not alone in having been confronted with musings such as: “I see, so you speak several languages. But which one is your mother tongue?”, or “Multilingual, you say? Oh. In which language do you think, then?” Questions of this kind all have one thing in common: they attempt to extract the monolingual from within the self-described multilingual. They reach for the-expected-user-of-only-one-language that somewhere, somehow, must be lurking in there and struggling to surface for air.
We owe the reasoning behind such questions to the Ancient Greeks. Their enduring trend of thought about language uses (they must have thought in Ancient Greek) is best described by their endearing label, “barbarian”, which applied to anyone who failed to make themselves understood to educated users of Ancient Greek-only. Several centuries down the line, the assumption appears to take the form that if you’re human, you’re by definition a user of one language. Using several languages is therefore the special case.
Examples of monolingualism taken as default state of humankind crop up everywhere that it matters. At home, parents in mixed families are told to stick to one language each to address their children, even if they are themselves multilinguals. Better still, they should see to it that their offspring grow up with one main language (or a dominant one, or a primary one, or a first one, and so on). This is probably to make sure that the little multilinguals that they insist on nurturing also have a fair chance of becoming proper big monolinguals. In school, behavioural quirks, difficulties with academic performance and other signs of non-conformity are attributed to a child’s multilingualism. In clinic, confirmed signs of linguistic or cognitive disorder in a multilingual child result in the recommendation to switch to a single language, usually the mainstream language, in the child’s home.
Even on the understanding that multilinguals cannot be monolinguals, the expectation is that they should behave like several monolinguals, as many as the number of languages in their repertoire. This (rather unsettling) view of some human beings as composed of other human beings does not describe multilingualism: it describes something that I have no idea what it is, and that I call multi-monolingualism just to be able to talk about it. I suspect that taking multilingualism for multi-monolingualism is what makes people take multilinguals for patchwork: expressions like incomplete command of languages, semilingualism, split personality, deficient exposure, come to mind.
Monolingualism thus seems to be, still today, a programmatic approach to linguistic and other well-being, with both preventive and curative effects. Against monolingual mindsets and monolingual benchmarks, it is clear that multilingualism will emerge as special. But this cannot be right, because the majority of the world’s population cannot be exceptional. There must be default behaviours among multilinguals too. So what is it that makes a multilingual a multilingual? This is what I’ll attempt to work out in my next post.
© MCF 2010
Next post: Typical multilinguals. Wednesday 20th October 2010.