Wednesday 24 November 2010

There are multilinguals and multilinguals

If you are a linguist, you’ve probably been asked the same old question over and over again: “So how many languages do you speak?” True, the word linguist can mean ‘polyglot’, a user of several languages, in some varieties of English. But in other varieties and in other languages it doesn’t, and the question never fails. If you are a multilingual, on the other hand, the questions are different: “But which one is your first language?”

Now I happen to be both, and I’m usually at a loss about how to deal with these questions. The linguist-questions appear to want to elicit a quantity. Numbers are usually seen as factual, aseptic, although I have yet to test this assumption if I answer something like “73, and counting”. Whatever the answer, the next question never fails either: “But (these questions usually start with “but”) can you understand and speak and read and write all of them?”, followed by: “But in exactly the same way?”, followed by frowns of disbelief or smug grins depending on what you say. So both the linguist-questions and the multilingual-questions in fact attempt to elicit qualitative judgements about your languages from you. A multilingual is therefore not someone who uses several languages, but one who does so properly, fluently and in other adverbially commendable ways. Some of us are more multilingual than others, it appears. George Orwell’s pigs would be pleased.

There seems to be no way out of this multilingual trap. You may be fluent in all your languages, but there is some vocabulary missing from each one. You may write in all your languages like a goddess, but your accent in one of them is not up to (someone’s) par. You may be multilingual from birth, but you may become more, or less, or more or less multilingual by retirement age. You may speak Portuguese and Spanish and Italian and Rumanian, but that’s not being as multilingual as speaking Arabic and Icelandic, or Arabic and Icelandic and Hungarian. Or conversely. Whatever you say, you lose. You are not worthy of the label “multilingual”, but you may well be worthy of labels like “unbalanced” or “semilingual”. Not conversely.

I wonder what makes a monolingual worthy of the label “monolingual”, and I also wonder whether the virtual absence of this label from language discussions reflects similar difficulties in defining monolinguals, or has some other profound significance that thoroughly escapes me. The fundamental insecurity about what multilingualism is comes from multilinguals too. “Are we OK?”, we question ourselves. “Are we entitled to say that we are what we are?”, “Hadn’t we better agree that we have one “good” language, just to save face?” Unless the querier is, say, a head-hunter, I never understood the probing purpose of questions about language quality which, if you are head-hunting, you also ask of monolinguals. But for employment purposes, qualitative competence in your language(s) is as much an asset as qualitative competence in the job you’re seeking. You won’t get employed without either of them.

Questions like these assume that damage is being done to languages: bits and pieces are missing from them, or being pasted onto them, or both, unlawfully. And we cannot assume injury to languages if we don’t also assume that languages are the idealised, confined, boxed-up objects that have shaped thinking about them for (too) many years. Languages have been confused with what some people take to be their building blocks, words and sounds and phrases, that reside in stable edifices somewhere within us. Refreshing our thought pathways along the languaging lines that I suggested earlier might help: languages are ongoing human interaction. Roy Harris makes this clear, with his insight that linguistic practices are necessarily integrated with other human practices. As he puts it, all communication demands “continuously monitored creative activity”.

We can choose to use language, or a language, to communicate; we create tools and words to serve our needs; we turn nouns into verbs and verbs into adjectives, just like we can use a stone as a hammer and toothpicks as cocktail decorations, as and when we see it fit, which means fit for our purposes. Languages are what we all do with them, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual: we shape them to our needs because we need them in order to make them work for us.

Assuming that languages have definable contents, and therefore definable boundaries, and that they therefore exist in definable numbers, is what baffles us about the “many languages” of multilinguals. No wonder, then, that we find mind-boggling fluctuations in the appraisal of the “effects of multilingualism”, to use a popular expression. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Multilingual woes and joys. Saturday 27th November 2010.


  1. It's not easy to be recognised as multilingual. Even in an officially bilingual (Dutch and French) city like Brussels, perfectly bilingual people (say, with one French-speaking and one Dutch-speaking parent) must officially choose one of the two languages, and this choice in turn determines which politicians they can vote for and how much weight their vote has.

  2. Gregor: Really interesting what you say, I didn’t know this. Is it so that someone chooses this one language for you, for example when you start school?
    I’ll be talking about so-called “mother tongue” choices next month, here at the blog, so you got me wondering. In the cases I’m familiar with, the person/child assigned to a language has no say in the matter. And it is, like you write, always just one language.
    It looks like “officially” multilingual means just that, 'officially'.

  3. Your next post on Mother Tongues should be very interesting in the Singapore educational context, considering that Mother Tongues are apparently assigned based on the child's ethnic group!

    By the way, how can we be so sure that a monolingual doesn't have "bits and pieces missing"?

  4. ms_bobdog: Good question. My take is precisely that questions that don’t make sense about monolingualism don’t make sense about multilingualism either.


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