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.