Wednesday 23 November 2011

Half-linguals and semilinguals

Speaking of semi-things assumes that it is possible (and possibly relevant) to speak about whole-things, so I think it is certainly relevant to check out what whole-things might mean, language-wise.

One way to start working this out could be to ask what whole-lingualism might mean. Luckily, we don’t need to ask this question any more, because it has already been answered. Over 25 years ago, in an article titled Semilingualism: A Half-Baked Theory of Communicative Competence, Marilyn Martin-Jones and Suzanne Romaine showed that characterising linguistic competence in terms of wholes and parts amounted to “the container view of competence”, whereby ideal (i.e. mythical) monolinguals have a full linguistic container, ideal multilinguals (ditto) have as many full ones as the number of languages they say they use, and semilinguals have a mishmash of containers, all half-filled to different % %.
Image: © Alti 2007 (Wikimedia Commons)

Container views of linguistic competence miss the point on two counts – which in fact are all counts. First, by assuming that languages take up space, literally or metaphorically. And second, by assuming that whatever space they take up is finite, is therefore liable to overcrowding, and therefore affects a cognitive potential that is finite too. I refer to a previous post for clarification on both matters, and I refer now to the example of my children. As they were growing up, their use of the two languages they had at the time, Swedish and Portuguese, naturally waxed and waned as our family shuttled among different countries in rapid succession. This meant that they did sound funny, at times: you can see for yourself, in one of the episodes that I report in my book Three is a Crowd? (scroll down to the Book Preview, click on Contents, and look for pages 74-75).

My children’s productions, as well as those of other children and adults in similar situations, were evidence that linguistic input plays a crucial role in language development and language maintenance. Their “less than whole-proficiency” reflected the (almost) exclusive parental input they had, at the time, in their two languages. It didn’t help things that those users of their languages with whom they could have sporadically honed their budding linguistic skills, relatives and friends alike, invariably met their productions with commiserating body language, or silence, or exclamations and comments, in languages that the children understood, about whether “everything” was “all right” with them. There were even attempts, believe it or not, to use English with my children, a language they at the time had no idea even existed, apparently on the conviction that some languages, but not others, come nicely whole-packaged from birth.

The half-stated assumption was that multilingualism was taking its (predicted) toll: the children were well on their way to “semilingualism” instead. This term, and the concept it supposedly represents, are as conveniently ill-defined as the many others whose only claim to fame lies in having become synonymous with disparaging remarks about multilingualism, on account of profound ignorance of what multilingualism is. You may well wonder why I chose to dedicate a whole post to an obsolete misnomer such as this one. I did it for two reasons. One, that ignorance tends to revive itself by feeding on its own bliss; and the other, that ignorance tends to hurt those who depend, in part or in whole, on its executives.

Next time, I’ll deal not so much with ignorance, but with confusion, also quite profound. What, exactly, does the English word language mean?

© MCF 2011

Next post: Language and language. Wednesday 30th November 2011.

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