Saturday, 2 April 2016

Attitudes to multilingualism – or to multilinguals?

The human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects any instances that confirm it, and though the contrary instances may be more numerous and more weighty, it either does not notice them or else rejects them, in order that this opinion will remain unshaken.
            Francis Bacon (1620), Novum Organon 1: XLVI

Few of us might nowadays wish to voice out loud doubts about the ‘benefits’ of multilingualism, or about how and why this current choir of praise came to be. Not all that long ago, however, equally loud choirs were as adamant about the ‘disadvantages’ of multilingualism.

The pendular backlash that we witness today comes from realisation that research supporting multilingualism-is-bad vogues was in fact no research at all, in that it failed to control variables. For example, it compared multilingual children from lower socio-economic strata with monolingual children from higher ones. The turning point dates from 1962, and is credited to Elizabeth Peal and Wallace E. Lambert’s study The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. It also compared multilinguals to monolinguals, but it removed confounding variables to find that “bilinguals performed significantly better than their monolingual controls” on intelligence tests.

From then on, we seem to have decided that if multilingualism isn’t bad after all, then it must be good. Why? Because it doesn’t seem to cross our minds that multilingualism can simply be. Because we can’t but find deviation, which we then label as good or bad, when we randomly take one instance of natural behaviour as ‘the’ instance of natural behaviour: monolingualism has served as this benchmark for far too long. Because when we compare, we look for what’s not there. Multilingualism is bad when we look for what’s not there in multilinguals. Compared to monolinguals, they ‘lack’ vocabulary, for example. Human beings also lack four legs, compared to horses. In contrast, multilingualism is good when we look for what’s not there in monolinguals. Multilinguals ‘outperform’ monolinguals in social empathy, for example. Human beings also outperform horses in vertical locomotion. I find this habit of listing absences a bit like putting in our CV what we haven’t done: not very enlightening, and probably quite wordy.

The question then arises of whether this seesawing of opinions about multilingualism calls into question Francis Bacon’s insight about our understanding. I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, because we go on mistaking opinions for facts which, to me, is the core of Bacon’s observation: we seem to find it exceedingly difficult to look at things without judging them. And second, because the view that multilingualism is special, that is, not normal, and therefore in need of ‘special’ treatment, remains unshaken: we remain comforted that the current ‘findings’ nicely confirm our current expectations, and blissfully immune to whatever facts may shatter our convictions – in which connection I must hail the inclusion of faktaresistens in the list of new Swedish words for 2015, courtesy of Språkrådet.

The current consensual ‘goodness’ of multilingualism, however, doesn’t somehow seem to extend to multilinguals. If it did, why would so many of us keep advising multilinguals to become monolinguals, or treating them like disordered or failed (multi-)monolinguals, or all of the above? Multilingualism is good, but being multilingual apparently isn’t.

This intriguing paradox is rooted in an equally intriguing refusal to deal with multilingualism from a multilingual perspective. Evidence? Look for the sources of judgements about multilingualism and check whether and how they refer to real-life multilinguals. Look for the resonators of these judgements and check their familiarity with real-life multilinguals. Not least, look for the languages in which these sound bites originate and propagate, and check their relationship to real-life multilinguals. Does it show that research on multilingualism (as on virtually anything else) goes on being published and disseminated in a single preferential language? As Anthony J. Liddicoat argues in Multilingualism research in Anglophone contexts as a discursive construction of multilingual practice, this gives “the impression that research communicated in other languages is of marginal relevance for researching the multilingual world. [...] The monolingualism that exists within the research field is not only a linguistic phenomenon, but can also be understood as the development of a monoculture of knowledge [my emphasis].” Liddicoat concludes that “research into multilingualism largely constructs multilingualism as a subject to be studied from a perspective that lies outside the phenomenon of multilingualism itself”. That is, outside of what multilinguals do.

This is why we’re not being multilingual, we’re being rude, or showing off, or refusing to answer ‘simple’ questions like in which language do we think, dream, swear or count, or like which country (or better still, nationality) do we plead allegiance to. This is why schools favour curricular multilingualism in the (desirable) languages that matter to the school over actual multilingualism in the (real-life) languages that matter to the children, as Jasone Cenoz showed in a guest post to this blog, and I’ve also discussed here.

This is why having to ‘deal with’ multilinguals appears to raise adrenaline to such levels that intelligent, sensible people lose their linguistic bearings – and their commonsense. One example: my family’s friends, speakers of either Portuguese or Swedish, knew that our children, then aged 2 or 3, were being raised in both languages. The children naturally used Swedish or Portuguese according to interlocutor and, as naturally, used 2-3-year-old versions of each language. But, because the children were known to be ‘special’, being multilingual, some of these friends used to apologise to them for not being able to use “their language” (i.e., ‘the other one’), and they did this in English, a language that they also knew wasn’t part of the children’s repertoire at the time. The persuasion that multilinguals must have one and only one ‘good’ language, which never is the one that they are using at any given time, was shared by our relatives, and unsurprising to me. But I had to marvel at the additional assumption that English might well be a sort of innate language that everyone who acts linguistically less conventionally understands by default.

Such attitudes to multilinguals stem from judgemental discussions of multilingualism which pay lip service to the stylised -ism contraption that results from dysfunctional reverse engineering of bits and pieces of imaginary multilinguals. From there to assuming that real-life multilinguals must abide by idealised conceptions of multilingualism is but a small step indeed. We keep looking at what’s not there.

Which reminds me of another quote, this time from my fellow countryman and Nobel laureate José Saramago, in his novel about the death of one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis: “não somos o que dizemos, somos o crédito que nos dão” (‘we aren’t what we say, we are the credit we’re given’ [my translation]).

Paul Klee, O! die Gerüchte! 
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next time, I’ll deal with creativity. Are multilinguals also ‘specially’ creative?


© MCF 2016

Next post: Multilinguals and creativity. Saturday 30th April 2016.

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