Saturday, 3 October 2015

What does ‘multilingual’ mean?


What, exactly, do we mean by the label ‘multilingual’? I don’t mean dictionary-sanctioned definitions of the word, nor what the word should mean according to more or less entitled opinions, I mean what linguists mean when we talk about word meanings: what does the observation of uses of the word ‘multilingual’ tell us about its meaning? In order to find out, we can do what linguists do, which is to collate a sample of contexts where we find the words that interest us.

We observe, first, that ‘multilingual’ appears in contexts such as “... bilingual and/or multilingual ...”, implying a core distinction between two and more than two languages. The dichotomy, however, seems exclusive to bi- vs. multi-, in that we don’t find contexts such as “trilingual and/or multilingual”, “quadrilingual and/or multilingual”, and so on. The reason might well be that two languages were long thought to be the crowning achievement of human linguistic ability. Evidence of this belief lingers on in our current terminology, where we still talk about SLA (Second Language Acquisition) to refer to any number of languages learned beyond our native ones, or about L1 to refer to a (single) language learned from birth, the assumption here being that there must be some L2 politely waiting in line to become part of one’s linguistic repertoire. Habitual use of cardinal/ordinal 2-related words in these contexts, lacking relationship to the meaning of ‘2’, explains why the word bilingual has come to mean ‘more than one language’ or ‘two or more languages’. Which is rather confusing, to say the least: just imagine using words like bifocal or bilateral to refer to ‘two or more’ focal lengths or sides, respectively. This is why I prefer multi-words to refer to ‘more than one’.

We observe, second, that the word ‘multilingual’ collocates with family, school, clinic, on the one hand, and with child, teacher, clinician, on the other. This sample shows that the word is used as a qualifier (we could call it an adjective) of another word (a noun). The same goes for contexts like The family/child/ ... is multilingual. More uncommon are collocations such as A multilingual is ..., multilinguals are ..., or a/the multilingual., where a final stop follows the word: I am / They are multilingual is sanctioned by use, but I am a multilingual / They are multilinguals apparently isn’t. Not all that long ago I had to add the plural form multilinguals to the dictionary in my word processor, which kept marking it with a no-no wavy red line. We’re not comfortable using this word as a noun – yet: it could well be only a matter of time for multilingual/multilinguals to become as noun-worthy as bilingual/bilinguals, given that our attention to non-monolinguals dates from quite recently.

A third observation is that when we’re talking about, say, multilingual schools and multilingual teachers, we’re talking about two different multilingualisms – and yes, my word processor also had issues with this plural. A multilingual T, including families, schools, clinics, countries, environments, is a T(hing) where more than one language is used, whereas a multilingual P, including children, parents, teachers, clinicians, individuals, is a P(erson) who uses more than one language. This is not splitting hairs: the verbal form “is used” indicates a passive construction, probably familiar from school textbooks in interesting sentences like The bone is eaten by the dog. In language textbooks, the by-phrase is always there, because the purpose of textbook passives is to teach that they must match an active counterpart, in this case The dog eats the bone. Language students apparently need not be taught that we use passives precisely to be able to ignore the by-phrase, either because we have no idea who is actively doing the action represented by the verb, or because we prefer not to say. Exactly as when we define, say, a multilingual school as a school where more than one language is used. By whom? We don’t know.

What we do know is that families or schools, being institutional abstractions, can’t ‘use’ languages: people can. We also know that when we say that a school or a country ‘has’ more than one language, we’re using metaphor. Schools and countries can’t own anything, except metaphorically: people can. Which means that talking about, say, multilingual environments is not the same as talking about multilinguals: a multilingual environment is one where different languages are involved, but not necessarily multilingual people. Multilingual environments can feature monolinguals, as in multilingual schools or clinics where the students or clients are multilingual whereas the staff are not, and that’s why multilingual signs exist for the benefit of those who use only one of the languages in them.

In Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?, Chapter 11
Image © MCF

Failure to realise that multilingualism has to do with *multilinguals* explains the obsession with the languages of a multilingual that has characterised specialist and lay quests into multilingualism. We select multilinguals’ vocabulary sizes, accents, grammar, pragmatic proficiency, for comparison with monolinguals’, to ascertain the presumed state of health, or integrity, or wholeness, of multilinguals’ languages, apparently expecting to find the key to multilingualism in the languages themselves. A bit like saying that the key to Maria João Pires’ performance lies in her pianos. We’ve even started comparing trilinguals to bilinguals, those not-so-exciting-any-more language geniuses of yore, and I’m sure the day will come when we’ll compare octalinguals to heptalinguals, to find out... What, exactly? I wonder, too. This way of looking at multilingualism takes it as a property of languages, which is clearly nonsensical. Languages can’t be multilingual: people can.

If we want to understand what being ‘multilingual’ means, we need to shift our focus from the languages to the language users. Only then can we stop asking useless questions about what different languages do to people and start asking relevant questions about what people do with different languages. Next time, I’ll try to work out what this means.


© MCF 2015

Next post: Multilingualism is about multilinguals. Saturday 31st October 2015.

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