Saturday, 13 December 2014

The multilingual scapegoat

Scapegoating has historically been instrumental in alleviating consciences. The fact that scapegoating, as historically, has had no effect whatsoever on what caused those consciences to become burdened in the first place doesn’t seem to deter its continued practice.

Multilingualism has served as a handy goat candidate for a good while now. In typically recurrent scenarios, if a child presents with a (suspected) language-related disorder, and that child is multilingual, then the child’s multilingualism is to blame for the disorder. It happened in my family, too. A few weeks into one of my children’s first preschool experience, her teachers reported to me their concern about her behavioural issues. Among other things, she preferred to entertain herself on her own rather than seeking group play, she grabbed at the faces of both children and adults who addressed her, and she was disruptive at story time, when everyone sat on the floor around the reader. The teachers completed their report by sternly advising me that the burden, as they put it, of dealing with two languages from birth might well have started taking its toll on her.

You may have guessed what was really going on: the specialist test that I requested at the next paediatric check-up showed that my girl had 40% deafness. If you can’t hear in an environment meant for typical hearing, if you need to have other people face you when they talk to you in order to lip-read and, likewise, if you can’t see their lowered faces when they’re reading to you, my child’s behaviour becomes no issue after all.

Throughout my children’s early schooling years, other rounds of this Blame Multilingualism game only served to confirm that the multilingual scapegoat, like its predecessors, didn’t arise out of inherent goat properties but out of our propensity to explain what we don’t understand by means of what we understand even less. In the words of David L. Rosenhan’s report On being sane in insane places: “Whenever the ratio of what is known to what needs to be known approaches zero, we tend to invent ‘knowledge’ and assume that we understand more than we actually do. We seem unable to acknowledge that we simply don’t know.”

The reason we don’t understand multilingualism is that we refuse to deal with it as multilingualism: we prefer to check it out as an indicator of (in)conformity to other linguistic behaviours, as is evident from the profuse academic and lay literature reporting findings about multilingualism through the bias of monolingual lenses. Taking other-than-multilingual as a norm expectedly results in assessments of multilingualism as ‘special’, whether special-bad or special-good. Special things demand explanations which depart from the ‘ordinary’ explanatory norms which made them special, and thus self-fulfil their special status. Add to this our readiness to explain things by means of causality, and we’re ready to conclude that some of us are special because we’re multilinguals.

Blaming multilingualism for a (suspected) problem is equivalent in practice to diagnosing people with multilingualism. Multilingualism is a problem and must therefore be banished: that’s why so many of us, parents, educators, clinicians, advise monolingualism as a cure. Proclaiming that we’ve found an answer to a problem has an immediate effect, which is to stop asking questions, our own and especially others’: our quest is ended and we may sleep with a clear conscience. Anything, in other words, feels and looks better than simply acknowledging our ignorance. This is why typically developing multilingual children continue to be over-referred to specialist care, wasting precious time as well as human and financial resources. Not to speak of the stigma attached to those diagnosed as ‘special’, of course. As Rosenhan’s unsettling study crucially found, simply entering the special care circle is enough to confirm that special care was needed in the first place, and so that the special diagnosis was warranted: once a special label sticks to you, whatever you do will serve as proof that you deserved to be labelled.

Mythologies typically generate their own evidence in this way. This is why scapegoating goes on saving both our faces and our prejudices. Is it so that we care more for upholding our ingrained beliefs than for the people who come to us for help? What seems to matter is to make the stray sheep return to the normality fold of our collective imaginary: what matters is conformity to an illusionary norm. As Thomas Szasz compellingly shows in The Manufacture of Madness, “Safety lies in similarity”.

Believing that multilingualism is the problem further prevents us from accepting it as a norm in itself, blinding us to disordered multilingualism. As Annick De Houwer, Marc H. Bornstein and Diane L. Putnick argue in A bilingual-monolingual comparison of young children’s vocabulary size, if there are any concerns about bi-/multilingual children’s language development, “reasons other than their bilingualism should be investigated.”

Next time, I’ll keep to matters of gathering knowledge about multilingualism.

DE HOUWER, A., BORNSTEIN, M., & PUTNICK, D. (2013). A bilingual–monolingual comparison of young children's vocabulary size: Evidence from comprehension and production Applied Psycholinguistics, 35 (06), 1189-1211 DOI: 10.1017/S0142716412000744

Rosenhan, D. (1973). On Being Sane in Insane Places Science, 179 (4070), 250-258 DOI: 10.1126/science.179.4070.250

© MCF 2014

Next post: Multilingual neuromyths. Saturday 24th January 2015.


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