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.