Wednesday 1 December 2010

“We shall overcome monolingualism.”

The title of this post is not, but could be, a slogan befitting the pro-multilingualism campaign of the day. If you do an online search for “being multilingual”, as in the innocent title of this blog, and then count the number of advantage, boost, reward, enhance, benefit, improve, good, opening, and other affirmative-action words that collocate with these two, you’ll see what I mean.

Let us think for a little while, in the quiet of our own heads. Why are people monolingual, or multilingual? This is like asking why do people use chopsticks to eat their food, or why do people organise rodeo shows to entertain themselves. So the answer cannot be that it is because they wish to achieve enhancements by doing the one, or because they don’t know that enhancements can be achieved by not doing the other. The answer must be that chopsticks and rodeos are what makes sense around them. The languages that you use must therefore also make sense in the contexts where you live.

We’ve all learned that multilinguals and monolinguals are different, because differences between them are what’s apparently interesting to focus on, nowadays. Findings from sociology, psychology, neurology, and so on, and from their hyphenated counterparts with linguistics, constantly remind us of this. But the people who typically use chopsticks and the people who typically enjoy rodeos are different too. Findings about differences are bound to be replicated for anything we are, do, or live through. So what else is new?

Differences in cognitive, social or whatever behaviour reflect our adaptation to our environments. Adaptation is precisely the reason why expecting multilinguals to behave like monolinguals, or forcing them to do so, is unnatural. I’ve said this time and again in this blog. So I fail to see why we should strive to achieve the converse, and turn monolinguals into multilinguals, in order to “enhance” their quality of life. Introducing multilingualism for its own sake in a monolingual community, for example, isn’t likely to “benefit” either multilingualism or the community.

I don’t think either that the way to redress the (many) injuries done to multilinguals is to increase their numbers. Promoting is not synonymous with understanding, and being multilingual doesn’t necessarily mean having insight about being multilingual, as I’ve noted before. We need to understand what multilinguals are, which, to my mind, leads to understanding of what we all are, regardless of our respective linguistic resources. Highlighting differences hasn’t got much to speak for itself. We’re all familiar with the old quip:

and its small print:

Rash claims about multilingualism simply perpetuate the myth that multilinguals are special in some way or other. Saying that “special” nowadays means ‘beneficial’ instead of ‘detrimental’ in turn persuades multilinguals of their entitlement to the same kind of smugness that monolinguals flaunted about in older times. Feuds, whether drawing on what my great-great-grandmother did to your not so great ancestor, or on the number of languages that we happen to need to use, are pointless and never-ending. The see-saw of opinions about multilingualism is clear evidence of this.

Contradictory and fuzzy messages like these keep us baffled about what multilingualism is, and seeking shelter among the herd of the day. The first victims of this insecurity, and I mean victims quite literally, are our children. The twin myths of the ease, speed, perfection, with which children acquire languages, and of unquestionable multilingual bliss urge us, responsible and caring adults, to make our little ones as multilingual as possible, as soon as possible. Perhaps we should turn away from the “effects” of multilingualism to the effects, without scare quotes, of myths about child learning. I’ll do that, in my next two posts.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Child prodigies. Saturday 4th December 2010.


  1. Gracias, Melanie! Or should I say Obrigada? I can’t tell, from the spelling...
    Great to see you here!

  2. I've just discovered your amazing blog! You're really active and one can easily see you have a lot to say! Thanks for your interesting views on multilingualism.

    I have the luck of living in a multilingual country, Catalonia. Here, monolingualism is really rare and not precisely good seen. Everybody speaks at least catalan and spanish and in addition most young people speak english (with different degrees of profficiency). So the "normal" thing here is to be trilingual. There are many people that have as well learned french or other languages. I'm 19 and speak 5 languages, but in my city, Barcelona, it is seen as something normal. I hope it was this way in other places of the world where monolingualism "wins" and sometimes threatens other languages...
    So... boas noites et bonne chance avec dieses tolles blog!

  3. linguodiversitat: I do have lots of things to say, and I’m very glad you’ve found them relevant to you!
    What you say about “normality”, quotation marks and all, matches my view that the meaning of this word varies depending on where we happen to be (born). I think that’s the core message, for those of us who tend to assume that what is “OK” is what we are used to do and to see done around us.
    You are lucky indeed: Barcelona is one of my absolute favourite places. I love the city and I love listening to Catalan and attempting to decipher it on the fly.
    Gràcies per your kind words about the blog!


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