Saturday 16 October 2010

Not being monolingual

As far as I can tell, multilinguals are quite ordinary human beings: they’re many and they’re ancient. There are more multilinguals than monolinguals the world over, and the use of several languages by the same individuals has been documented as far back in time as historical sources allow us to peer into our linguistic habits.

Those of us who use a single language throughout life are monolinguals. Multilinguals are, therefore, not monolinguals, as Monsieur de La Palice might have been credited with saying. Nevertheless, and strangely enough, there are cumulative indications that multilinguals should in fact behave like monolinguals. To me, this is about as reasonable as wishing that a monolingual behave like a multilingual. To Jacques de La Palice, this would be proof that sometimes it makes sense to spell out truisms.

I’m sure I am not alone in having been confronted with musings such as: “I see, so you speak several languages. But which one is your mother tongue?”, or “Multilingual, you say? Oh. In which language do you think, then?” Questions of this kind all have one thing in common: they attempt to extract the monolingual from within the self-described multilingual. They reach for the-expected-user-of-only-one-language that somewhere, somehow, must be lurking in there and struggling to surface for air.

We owe the reasoning behind such questions to the Ancient Greeks. Their enduring trend of thought about language uses (they must have thought in Ancient Greek) is best described by their endearing label, “barbarian”, which applied to anyone who failed to make themselves understood to educated users of Ancient Greek-only. Several centuries down the line, the assumption appears to take the form that if you’re human, you’re by definition a user of one language. Using several languages is therefore the special case.

Examples of monolingualism taken as default state of humankind crop up everywhere that it matters. At home, parents in mixed families are told to stick to one language each to address their children, even if they are themselves multilinguals. Better still, they should see to it that their offspring grow up with one main language (or a dominant one, or a primary one, or a first one, and so on). This is probably to make sure that the little multilinguals that they insist on nurturing also have a fair chance of becoming proper big monolinguals. In school, behavioural quirks, difficulties with academic performance and other signs of non-conformity are attributed to a child’s multilingualism. In clinic, confirmed signs of linguistic or cognitive disorder in a multilingual child result in the recommendation to switch to a single language, usually the mainstream language, in the child’s home.

Even on the understanding that multilinguals cannot be monolinguals, the expectation is that they should behave like several monolinguals, as many as the number of languages in their repertoire. This (rather unsettling) view of some human beings as composed of other human beings does not describe multilingualism: it describes something that I have no idea what it is, and that I call multi-monolingualism just to be able to talk about it. I suspect that taking multilingualism for multi-monolingualism is what makes people take multilinguals for patchwork: expressions like incomplete command of languages, semilingualism, split personality, deficient exposure, come to mind.

Monolingualism thus seems to be, still today, a programmatic approach to linguistic and other well-being, with both preventive and curative effects. Against monolingual mindsets and monolingual benchmarks, it is clear that multilingualism will emerge as special. But this cannot be right, because the majority of the world’s population cannot be exceptional. There must be default behaviours among multilinguals too. So what is it that makes a multilingual a multilingual? This is what I’ll attempt to work out in my next post.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Typical multilinguals. Wednesday 20th October 2010.


  1. Hi Madalena,
    Congratulations on the blog! (Jean-Marc referred me to it.) I am also familiar with your posts on Multilingual Living, very informative. One thing in your post above particularly stood out for me: 'Even on the understanding that multilinguals cannot be monolinguals, the expectation is that they should behave like several monolinguals, as many as the number of languages in their repertoire.' I look forward to your next post. :-) Kind regards, Ron

  2. Hello, Ron! This thing about multi-monolingualism is indeed fascinating. I’m putting together a few thoughts about adult language learning for coming posts, where the whole idea takes intriguing turns. I hope you will want to comment on what I’ll have to say, from the perspective of your own research. I checked it out from your post here. Serial learning of languages and beliefs about language learning certainly caught my attention.
    Please say thanks to Jean-Marc for having told you about this blog!

  3. What about the obvious bias that this brings into PISA comparisons in Europe?

  4. Thank you for raising this issue, “Anonymous”. Matters of assessment are one of my core concerns, and assessment of multilinguals tops it.

    For those of us unfamiliar with EU reports, here are the results of the latest
    PISA survey, welcomed by a EU Commission which deals with multilingualism, among other issues. The next survey is due this year.


  5. Oh my god I'm so glad you mentioned about "mother tongue"! I talked to my sister about this (as we are both bilinguals), a simple question such as "what is your mother/native tongue" can breed very complicated answers and usually do not justify one's language ability/fluency. Just because a child spoke in a different language in the first few years of his/her life, that doesn't mean this "mother tongue" will become the dominate language one will use later in adult life.
    Take myself for example, I was born in Macau (shame I didn't learn Portuguese) and moved to the UK at the age of 12, now I'm 24. Even though Chinese was the first language that I learnt, my Chinese writing fluency has stuck at a 12 year's old level, and yet my "second language" English is as fluent as a normal British university graduate can be. So by saying that Chinese is my first language does not justify that I am more fluent in it than I am in English.
    Whenever people ask me what is my mother tongue, I would try to explain that I’m bilingual and I'm slightly better at reading and listening in Chinese, but I can express myself slightly better in English through speaking and writing. It seems that the concept of one being able to speak 2 or 3 languages as fluently as each other is fairly alien to most monolinguals, and the only way they can (sort of) understand our bi/trilingual abilities is to make us "pick a tongue".

  6. mslamlam: So right! Pick a tongue, pick a nationality, pick an identity, pick your first/main/best language, and so on, all expecting singular answers. It would seem that monolithism is a “norm” of some kind, wouldn’t it?....

    You may enjoy these other posts of mine:

    Mother tongues

    First, main, best


  7. Thanks, Madalena! I really enjoy reading your blog as you give some really insightful analysis of being a multilingual.

    I think our society need to understand that being multilingual or multi-citizens are not the same as polygamy. It is legal, and usually the more (tongues or nationalities) we have, the better! But I guess to some people, it automatically makes us disloyal and an outsider if we have more than one identity. And quite often, we ended up being the rejects of all the societies we associated ourselves with.

  8. I have the same (unsettling) feeling as you, mslamlam, that other people think of multilinguals / multi-culturals as outsiders because they don’t fit into pre-assembled judgements shaped by abstract things like “languages” or “countries”.
    I wonder why we’ve let abstract concepts take over what we think about people?? Surely we, people, matter, regardless of official labels that someone decided should matter instead??

    Muito obrigada for letting me know that this blog is relevant to you. And I forgot to say in my previous reply: never too late to learn Portuguese! I strongly recommend this language :-))


  9. Hi!
    Madalena, how fantastic to find your views! I just came discouraged from a meeting with the teacher of one of my twins (trilingual Scandinavian/latin too! Sp, No, Fr) started searching in this oracle called Internett.
    In your experience, what is the most critical age in schooling? One twin is super confident in her skills and super keen in the 4th Language (Eng), the other not so although his work is still good.

    Thanks for sharing your views,
    Helena Gaytan

  10. Helena, I wasn’t sure what you meant by “most critical age” in schooling – most critical for which purposes? If by critical you’re referring to the so-called “critical period” controversies, have a look at these two posts of mine:

    Little Perfect-lingual and the Big Bad Funny-lingual

    Age, decay, and missed opportunities

    I understood schooling to mean schooling of language subjects and, if so, you may be interested in a coming book, Early Years Second Language Education, which provides rich empirical evidence of practices and goals behind successful school language teaching to very young learners, and whose foreword I was delighted to be invited to write.

    I also got curious about why your parent-teacher meeting discouraged you.

    Thank you so much for letting me know that my work is relevant to you! Do come back any time?



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