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. 


  1. Multilinguals are better only in one aspect: they can live as many lifes as many languages they know. It doesn't make them better (generally speaking) but for sure it makes their life more interesting.

  2. ‘Stanag 6001’: I agree with you that variety, of all sorts, certainly makes life more interesting. Language variety is just one side of it. You don’t need to be multilingual to lead a life full of excitement – and I’d guess there are as many bored (and boring) multilinguals as monolinguals, out there... :)
    Thank you for this comment!


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