Saturday 30 July 2011


I should start by saying that I unquestionably prefer the word multilingualism to the word bilingualism, to refer to uses of more than one language. I nevertheless thought that BLING, rather than MLING, would make better sense in the title of this post. What I want to talk about is the compulsion that some of us feel to wear their multilingualism.

Throughout history, people have enjoyed finding reasons which, in their own eyes, make them better than other people. This penchant takes several forms, from small children sneering at classmates that their daddy is a policeman and hence above all common mortals, or that they own at least one more wristwatch/mobile phone/TV channel than whatever number the competition claims to own, to bigger children trumping cocktail party-mates with having connections above law enforcement authorities, or having shed more body fat at their latest workout binge.

Multilingualism has nowadays entered the fray, as a tell-tale sign of superiority: if you have one language and I have more languages than you, I win. Among willing players of this game, ‘have’ seems to be the keyword. What people like to boast about is naturally bound to change, with the times and the places, but certain game rules seem to endure. For example, that what you have is what defines you, and that having more of whatever you can have is a good thing.

Multilinguals, whether going by that name or not, have indeed been associated with good things, like higher education and social breakthrough, at least judging from what Western history has kept in its records for us. Those who ‘made it’ were the ones who had more than one language in their repertoire, because they had to learn the language(s) of the intellectual elite of their time, in order to make it. According to Jean de Drosay’s Éléments de la grammaire quadrilingue (Grammaticae quadrilinguis partitiones, 1544-1554), Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French were a must in the Renaissance, for example. But history often concerns itself with, well, elites, and what we know now is that the common people are mostly multilingual. It thus seems odd to me that, nowadays, we should wish to claim privileged intellectual status for a majority of the world’s population.

Take, for example, those of us who happen to be multilingual and describe themselves as amazing or astonishing, by describing multilingualism with these very words. The only term of comparison that comes to my mind for expressed wonderment of this kind is ‘monolingualism’. Are multilinguals remarkable because they are not monolingual, then? And conversely, of course, are monolinguals unremarkable because they are not multilingual? I’ve tried to imagine, really hard, what would be accomplished for our understanding of human language uses and human language users, by having monolinguals describe monolingualism as amazing and astonishing.

Images: David Shankbone; David Vignoni/Stannered
(Wikimedia Commons)

I think the problem might be that human beings appear to have difficulties dealing with difference. Qualitative differences between us are routinely interpreted as quantitative items which make some of us better or worse (off) than others, and which the privileged ones should duly decorate themselves with, in case no one notices any difference otherwise. To me, wearing number of languages like chattels, for this purpose, simply perpetuates the myth that multilinguals are ‘special’. Being multilingual was special when we were persuaded that being monolingual was the norm, and being multilingual goes on being special when we found out that being multilingual is the norm. Using whatever number of languages we need to use to function appropriately in our respective environments cannot be special, because we all do it.

We all adapt, in other words, which is a good thing to be able to do. Or is it? In some cases, the results of proficient adaptation arouses frowns instead of smiles. Like, for example, adapting uses of language to new technology. I’ll have a few things to say about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Breaking rules, or making them? Saturday 13th August 2011. 

Saturday 16 July 2011

Mobile multilingualism

Being multilingual and in need of using mobile technology is not easy. Especially if you’re literate. Current mobility means access to cyber stuff, which means that you can move around the whole wide world without leaving your couch, but which also means that you must be conversant with printed forms of language. We interface via portable gadgets through the manipulation of keyboards, whose output shows instantly on screens, through which we also monitor the output of keyboards that are manipulated elsewhere.

Being both literate and able to adapt literacy skills to what new technologies may have in store for us is all fine, of course. The trouble is that cyber-technology is monolingual, in ASCII-Language. ASCII is a set of codes devised to represent text in computers, among other communication devices, from which most character-encoding standards have since derived. The acronym stands for ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’, so it is easy to guess which (printed) language the said codes and text are based on. I’m not sure how to pronounce “ASCII”, by the way, because this is one of many words that I’ve only seen, and never heard.

Computer keyboards and screens are ASCII-friendly. So is the internet. Its creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee (can one say Sir “Tim”??), is British, and his invention naturally speaks ASCII too. Now, it is a fact of development that, in technology as elsewhere, we prefer to evolve from origins rather than break off from them in order to serve new needs. This is why motor vehicles still use the unsettling explosion-based engines that their inventors came up with centuries ago, and this is why we have only recently started seeing (literally) signs of tildes, cedillas, å, ø, and ü being granted rights of citizenship in cyberspeak, instead of undergoing transliteration to ?iso-8859-1?, =F6, unknown, , or   . Related illegibility endures, though. Just look to your right (yes, as you’re reading this), at the Recent Comments panel of this blog, where typed so-called “smart” double quotation marks, for example, appear as ", which is really smart.

Or take my daily cyber-routines as an example. I need to switch among three different keyboard layouts, in order to be able to engage usefully with any portable keyboard. Even so, some of the symbols that I need to use refuse to reveal themselves, unless I click open lists of “special characters”, scroll down and click them, or press a number of keys in a specific order which is, of course, different for each keyboard layout, and/or involves, of course, different keys in each. All this is again different, of course, if I use a Mac or a PC. 

Multilinguals mix their languages in print too (of course), as a previous post illustrated, which means that being multilingual when you’re facing a computer screen, fingertips at the ready, can involve quite sophisticated logistics. And don’t get me started on what happens to your texts when you’re typing away fluently and forgot to turn off the AutoCorrect function that reverts automatically to some random language every time you open the word-processing or text-messaging software that you’re using at any given time. I have an additional problem, in fact: I also need to use IPA symbols in much of my writing, not because I’m multilingual, but because I do phonetics. Web browsers and mail servers disapprove of them as much.

One related issue is that many other readers/writers (not just mechanical, either) have become persuaded that cedillas & Co. are not the legitimate representations of spoken language that they indeed are, but symptoms of some ornamental compulsion on the part of the scribe. Let me put the record straight here: in Portuguese, for example, força means ‘strength’ and forca means ‘gallows’; e means ‘and’ and é means ‘is’; têm is the verbal plural of tem; and à is not the same as a. Assuming that they’re all the same is like assuming that a d might as well be printed a because the thingy sticking up from the back of it is just batty flourish. A ñ is not ‘an n with a tilde’, as little as a j is ‘an i with a tail’, or an m is ‘a three-legged n’. A ñ is a ñ.

¿Hablas computadora?
Image: Marco Regueira (Wikimedia Commons)

I shouldn’t complain, really: I’m one of the lucky few, because all of my languages share a single script, the Roman one. And I have blind faith in development: not so long ago, we didn’t even know what “cyberspace” could possibly mean.

Not so long ago either, we wouldn’t have dreamt that multilingualism is something that people can, and perhaps should, brag about. I’ll have a few things to say about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: BLINGualism. Saturday 30th July 2011. 

Saturday 2 July 2011

The effects of monolingualism

If someone tells you that coffee keeps you awake, or makes you sleepy, or has no effect whatsoever on its drinkers, and you didn’t know this, then now you know what coffee does. This piece of information tells you nothing about the effects of Cuba Libre, herbal tea, plain water, or any other drink. The statements are about coffee.

If someone tells you that multilingualism is good for you, or causes language delay, and you didn’t know this, then now you also know that monolingualism is not good for you, or that it doesn’t cause language delay. This is because human beings are traditionally seen to come in two complementary sets, those who use more than one language and those who use only one, so that what applies to the one does not apply to the other, and vice versa.

For historical (and bizarre) reasons, comparison has been the method of choice to gather information about multilinguals, an issue that I address in my book Multilinguals are ...?. The core point is that comparisons are one-way: multilinguals are compared to monolinguals, but never the other way around.

There is no methodological reason for choosing one of the complementary sets as benchmark, or for not using comparison both ways around. And there is the good statistical reason that multilinguals outnumber monolinguals, which would make multilingualism a natural benchmark. Nevertheless, monolingualism took on this role, with two consequences: that the benchmark is unquestionable, and that we are therefore entitled to ask questions of multilingualism that we don’t ask of monolingualism.

Making statements about multilingualism through comparisons with monolingual benchmarks further misleads us to believe that such statements indeed concern multilingualism, and multilingualism alone. But the assumption that takes multilinguals and monolinguals as complementary sets tells us that this cannot be so: statements about multilingualism, like statements about monolingualism, are statements about both multilingualism and monolingualism, as I’ve noted before.

This being so, I suggest probing monolingualism in the same way that multilingualism has been probed, through a set of popular FAQ: 

  • What are the effects of monolingualism on language development?
  • Does monolingualism affect the development of a child’s single language?
  • Will children grow up confused with a single language in their environment?
  • How does exposure to a single language affect cognitive and social development?
  • Should parents speak their one language to their children?
  • What is the best method to raise children monolingually?
  • At what age should a child start learning a single language?
  • How do people become monolingual?
  • Should we expect delays in monolingual development?
  • Does monolingualism cause speech-language disorders?
  • If children are at risk of speech-language disorder, should they switch to several languages?
  • If a child is underachieving academically, should we recommend schooling in several languages?
  • What do we know about the monolingual brain?
  • What reasons are there to nurture monolingualism?
  • What are the advantages of monolingualism?
  • What are the disadvantages of monolingualism?

Questions like these have two things in common with their counterparts that go on being asked about multilingualism, both to do with ignoring contexts. First, they disregard the context in which the questions were originally asked, usually within the framework of experimental or fieldwork research. Second, they disregard the context in which the use of one or more languages is relevant. This is why, in my view, both sets of questions make as much sense.

The other problem with questions like the above is that you can’t answer them without, yet again, comparing multilinguals and monolinguals. Choosing description, instead of comparison, might be a good idea. We can then start asking questions about multilinguals, similar to the ones we ask about coffee. Like, for example, what do multilinguals do?

The next post asks a number of such questions about multilinguals’ use of mobile communication modes.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Mobile multilingualism. Saturday 16th July 2011. 


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