Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Balancing (f)acts

Immigration scenarios, such as the ones described in a previous post, are probably among the first that come to mind when we think about “unbalanced” uses of languages. But the term “unbalanced” crops up to characterise the languages of multilinguals who stay put where they happen to be born too. The appropriateness of this term to (assumedly) describe multilingualism bears some thinking. This is why I thought of dedicating a post to it, following up on other grudges of mine against obscure terms which persist in appearing collocated with the term “multilingualism”, like here, or here, or here.

The first observation is that the term unbalanced does not aim at description at all. It draws on comparisons, because one thing can only be said to be unbalanced in comparison to another. This is interesting, in that it reflects the odd fate of past and current approaches to multilingualism, which have had a really, really hard time breaking loose from the vicious circles of comparative methodologies. Multilingual competence (or incompetence, often) has mostly been ascertained through comparison of each of the languages of a multilingual with monolingual uses of the same languages. An additional layer of comparison comes through comparing the languages of a multilingual among themselves, in order to decide whether they are “balanced” or not – which, if those languages are developing as they should and are being used for what they are meant to be used, they cannot be.

Let’s see why. Comparing the different languages of an individual to find that they are used in unbalanced ways is about as interesting as comparing the same individual’s two or three mobile phones, or four or five pairs of shoes, to find that they are also used in unbalanced ways. The reason must be obvious: if you didn’t need to use different phones and shoes and languages in different ways, you wouldn’t need different phones or pairs of shoes in the first place. Or languages. The languages of a multilingual are “unbalanced” by definition, not because of linguistic (or multilingual) incompetence, but because of pragmatic competence: the real-life situations for which multilinguals need their languages are unbalanced.

We use our different languages in different ways, for different purposes, with different people, at different times, and in different places because that’s what we have different languages for. As I’ve argued before,“If multilinguals could (or should) use all their languages in exactly the same way, they would not need several languages: one all-purpose language would be enough. ‘One all-purpose language’ defines a monolingual, not a multilingual”. The interesting questions to ask about multilingual uses of languages must surely be whether and how those uses fit their purposes – which are also the interesting questions to ask about different mobile phones and different pairs of shoes. The reason such questions are important is that their answers are the ones which can shed light on whether and how multilingual uses are typical or disordered.

A second observation concerns the meaning of the term “balanced” itself, which isn’t ‘of equal weight’. If it were, I would be a balanced multilingual in Japanese and Swahili, because I can say Thank you in both languages and that’s about all I can say in them. When applied to languages, “balanced” means ‘full weight’, across the board. Which is in its turn quite interesting, for three reasons. First, that we should expect to find users of several full-weighted languages as often as we find fire-spitting dragons racing down from the skies. Not even professional multilinguals, such as translators and interpreters, can claim to have “balanced” command of their languages: each of their languages also serves specific purposes in specific situations. Second, what should we make of the apparently desirable multilingual goal of having several full-weighted languages, against the paradoxical but equally desirable multilingual goal that one of the languages must be dominant? And third, what exactly do words like “full”, or “complete”, or their synonyms mean, applied to languages? I’ll deal with this last bit next time – which means I’ll go on ranting some more about the funny terminology that goes on sticking to multilingualism.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Half-linguals and semilinguals. Wednesday 23rd November 2011.

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