Wednesday 9 March 2011

Language percentages

Amounts of language can be measured. We can measure number of words, for example – assuming that we all know what a word is, of course. (Have you tried asking yourself this question, by the way?) We can measure length of utterances, counted in words or in assumedly less dodgy units that linguists call morphemes (do a Look Inside! search for morpheme here). We can measure number of utterances, phonemes, metaphors, syntactic constructions, and/or sequences of all of these.

We then compare our observations about these amounts to amounts that are available from standardised averages or norm-referenced databases, to reach conclusions about the relative state of health of an individual’s linguistic repertoire. Some people even like to do this to support claims about rich(er) and poor(er) languages, or sophisticated and primitive ones, and label their users accordingly, on the understanding that languages own things and that their users are owned by them (in more than one sense of owned).

Measuring amounts of language is different from measuring amounts of languages, that I touched upon previously, but both issues end up raising issues to do with multilingualism. One recurring question I get from worried parents in multilingual families, second only to the question of which single language they should model in order to secure proper child multilingualism-to-be, concerns how much language they should use. How many and how much thus top the list of perplexities about multilingual interaction.

The suggestions that the queriers themselves submit to my appreciation speak of the bewilderment that we’ve allowed to run loose about being multilingual. Should they hire tutors, nannies, or both, strictly sworn-in to scheduled and exclusive use, to the child, of one of the languages of the parents, so that the parents can in turn pledge themselves to use another of their languages (one each), in order to nurture healthy multilingualism at home? Should the parents themselves switch languages (those who dare defy the OPOLicy, that is) and, if so, who should speak what at what times of day, or days of the week, to avoid confusion in developing brains? Shouldn’t they stick (those who daren’t) really, really to one language each, and so expose their children to really, really health-inducing parental dialogues where one parent always says things in language X and the other always responds in language Y?

OK, some people do tend to get a bit worked up about the latest health-related fads they read about in the local newspaper. We should all currently rinse our nasal cavities with specially crafted implements and saline solutions offered in a range of prices that serve plebeian and aristocratic noses, for example, or think twice about antioxidant contents before brewing our daily cup of tea. Or hire monolingual tutors and nannies to talk to multilingual children in the languages that multilingual parents should not talk to them in. But these questions also speak of the anguish, the guilt, the daily burden of making language decisions before daring to open one’s mouth, that we can but glimpse through them. I’ve had parents begging me for help about what to do when they wake up in the morning, every morning, with no idea about which language to use to their own children.

All this may not be surprising, in fact, in view of comments, from lay and specialist sources alike, to the effect that, for example, bilingual children get only half the input in each language. By extension, we may reason that trilingual children get ⅓, quadrilingual children ¼, and so on. Who will want to be blamed for providing incomplete linguistic input to their children? Aren’t incomplete languages the very essence of semilingualism, and isn’t multilingualism but a fancy name for semilingualism? Fractional maths is also popular in other multilingual settings, those involving language learning in later life, where amounts of exposure to language(s) and whole vs. partial language input also come into question. I will have quite a lot to say about this in coming posts, but what both settings have in common is first, that the percentile gold, 100, is represented by one language, all of the time; and second, consequently, that no matter how much language is used in multilingual settings, “how much” never means ‘enough’.

It is therefore interesting to think a while about why questions concerning best languages, or main languages, also crop up so often in discussions of multilingualism. Upon which of the language fractions of a multilingual should this honour be bestowed, how and why? I’ll try to work this out next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: First, main, best. Wednesday 16th March 2011.


  1. Intrigued by your comment about the percentages. I hear and read so many articles claiming that: bilinguals only get half the exposure a monolingual gets. It is troubling me but I am not sure what to respond. My daughter is quadrilingual: english, portuguese, french, german. Poor her! She only gets 25% in each!.... Can you explain what you mean? Wat my daughter hears in Portuguese is her 100%. Am I right?

  2. Annabelle, last point first: yes, your daughter gets all the input that she needs, in Portuguese and in each of her other languages, because she uses each language for different purposes.
    So do you, and I, and all of us multilinguals, and that’s what being multilingual is all about :)

    “Percentage” games arise from the monolingual-inspired myths that we all should ideally use only one language, and that if we really, really must use more than one, then we should use each one as if it were a single language – this is what I’ve called multi-monolingualism elsewhere in this blog, and this is *not* multilingualism.
    See one of my very first posts, Typical multilinguals, and this more recent one, Half-linguals and semilinguals.

    The trouble with wasting time calculating language percentages is manifold:

    1. Multilinguals outnumber monolinguals, worldwide, so why should monolingualism be a lingualism “norm”?

    2. Those who talk about language percentages are monolinguals (often monolingual in English, the currently so-called “language of science”), or trained in monolingual-bound traditions of thought, or both.

    3. How do we define a 100% input, in monolingual settings?? What is “100% of a language”, when we have no idea how to define “a language”?

    4. Talking about language percentages *is* a waste of time. Relevant questions to ask about multilingualism are, for example, what is multilingualism, not how multilingualism isn’t monolingualism.

    Thank you for raising these crucial questions!!
    Volte sempre, e um abraço!


  3. Thank you for your reply. Even 100% in monolinguals is not the same thing from one person to another, I guess.

  4. Absolutely, Annabelle. Monolinguals also use their one language differently. This is what sociolinguistics teaches us, among other things. So language A of monolingual X is not “the same” language A that monolingual Z also uses.

    Multilinguals vary their uses, too, for each of their languages. This is why I find it so difficult to make sense of percentages of something which cannot be a “whole” in any sense.



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