Saturday 27 November 2010

Multilingual woes and joys

Opinions have divided rather neatly about what being multilingual does to you, ever since multilingualism became worthy of attention in Western(-like) parts of the world.

Early views about multilingualism took it as only marginally less noxious than the plague. Today’s views market it as wholesale cure for all human woes, from dissolving cognitive rust to ensuring world peace. Few of us seem willing to agree that multilingualism is about as exciting as monolingualism: you go about your daily business using whatever linguistic resources happen to be relevant for going about your daily business.

Multilingualism is currently good for you: we should pop a couple of tablets of it every day, to keep us healthy. It triggers assorted enhancements, which leads to the interesting conclusion that most of the world’s population must be enhanced. But – there’s always a but – we should also beware of side effects.

Trendy headlines first extol unqualified “benefits” of multilingualism. Then the small print reveals that the research which is invoked to support trendy claims uses very, very careful language: possible correlations are suggested in specific areas, according to experimental investigation of a restricted number of informants of a particular age in particular settings, depending on how the data are analysed. The small print also reveals that there are “costs”.

Benefits and costs are, as usual, calculated against monolingual benchmarks. We are told, for example, that multilinguals are more gifted socially than monolinguals, but take a few milliseconds longer to retrieve names of objects from memory. The reason is attributed to the milli-time that a multilingual brain takes to decide which language is the relevant one to provide the required answer in. Although I am not aware of research showing the impact of millisecond lags on everyday communication, the message is that we trade off instant brain responses for more elaborate social skills, or vice versa. Milliseconds, incidentally, were also found of relevance when comparing the achievements of “late” multilinguals and “native speakers”, an issue to which I will come back in due time.

We are also told that multilingualism vitalises the mind, but results in poorer vocabulary in each language. I confess that I’m not entirely clear about what reports like these are meant to mean. Is it that monolinguals have astonishing vocabularies and dull minds? By the same reasoning, that would be the benefit and the cost of being monolingual, respectively. I also have some difficulty with the labels that are used to announce these reports. Speaking of multilingual response delays and poor vocabulary is, to me, a little too close for comfort to the terminology of suspected language disorder.

The decisive argument pro-multilingualism is usually said to be that, despite any costs, it rewires the brain. But so does motherhood, as reported in studies that, to the best of my knowledge, investigated monolingual pregnancies, and so does driving taxis, including monolingually, in London.

In short, the arguments about multilingual “benefits”, today, strangely remind of those about monolingual “benefits”, almost one century ago. Small print and costs included. We don’t seem to have learned our lesson, because our current beliefs and our current drive are the same as one century ago, only the other way around: everyone should become multilingual. I’ll have more to say about this next time.

© MCF 2010

Next post: “We shall overcome monolingualism.” Wednesday 1st December 2010.


  1. I have never encountered any issues with being a few milliseconds slower than monolinguals in retrieving names from my memory. Neither have my monolingual friends had problems with that. I have a far greater problem with people's habitual lateness, which, uninterestingly enough, takes up more than a few milliseconds.

  2. ms_bobdog: Lateness, of the longer-than-millisecond kind, is a cultural institution in some places, sometimes even associated with politeness. If you arrive on time for, say, a dinner invitation, you give the impression that you are too eager to start eating, which you shouldn’t. Not to mention that if you do arrive on time, the hosts may still be in their undies applying make-up and shaving, because they’re counting on your being polite.
    Those of us who are polite in this way look very odd to those of us for whom being polite means respecting an agreed time on the dot, and vice versa. Those of us who have regular contact with both types of culture need to learn to switch timetable habits, along with language.


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