Saturday 28 April 2012

The languages of multilinguals

When Western monolingual researchers came to realise that some of us went about not being monolingual, they surmised that having two languages to deal with was more than enough. That two languages would cause enough damage, that is. The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, for example, had the following to say in his 1922 book Language. Its Nature, Development and Origin:

It is, of course, an advantage for a child to be familiar with two languages but without doubt the advantage may be, and generally is, purchased too dear. First of all the child in question hardly learns either of the two languages as perfectly as he would have done if he had limited himself to one. [...] Secondly, the brain effort required to master the two languages instead of one certainly diminishes the child’s power of learning other things which might and ought to be learnt.”

One of the interesting lessons to take home from this observation is that Jespersen was multilingual himself. He lived in Britain and he wrote extensively about English, among other languages that he was familiar with. But he left no hint that his dismal views about multilingualism held for what his own multilingualism did to him: becoming a multilingual may well have persuaded him that doing so in later years was either not damaging, or less damaging than doing so in early childhood, contrary to current mainstream persuasions. So much for mainstream persuasions, in other words.

Both of Jespersen’s points above find relevance still today. I have discussed the second one, about our brain being there to limit us, in a previous post, so I’ll deal here and in my next post with his first point, about our languages being there to limit us too.

The thought that having two languages may be just about enough endures in current terminology. The prefix bi- in the word bilingualism and its cognates often means, literally, ‘two’ – although these words are as often used to mean ‘more than one’, sometimes with no indication of which meaning is intended. Learning a new language is likewise said to be a matter of second language acquisition, with dedicated acronym, SLA, and all. The idea seems to be that the number of languages in one’s repertoire matters, judging by recent queries that have reached me, from private people and media corporations, about whether findings about bilingualism (where bi- means ‘two’) can, should, or must be extended to tri-, quadri-, penta- or, generalising, n-lingualism.

The idea seems also to be that the order in which you learn your languages matters too. You may well be a (relevantly) different multilingual if you learn Amharic before Icelandic, rather than vice versa, or if you learn both these languages simultaneously, in addition to another language you had before. And so on. This is probably why multilingualism is often described as a “complex phenomenon”. No wonder: we just have to imagine the (roughly) 7,000 languages we believe we have identified in all possible bi-, tri-, and so on combinations, plus whether they’re first language(s), second or third, and so on, plus whether they’re learned simultaneously or sequentially, and so on, to see what the word “complex” is meant to mean. We can also predict that this way of approaching multilingualism is likely to spawn brisk research for n number of years. But I wonder: why don’t we say that monolingualism, in the same (roughly) 7,000 languages, is also “complex”? Why is a monolingual a monolingual, regardless of the particular languages they are monolingual in, whereas multilinguals are all different multilinguals because of the particular languages they are multilingual in? Surely a Portuguese monolingual is a different monolingual from a Swedish monolingual, by the same token. I wonder why different monolingualisms are less worthy of curiosity than different multilingualisms.

The idea, in short, is that the languages of multilinguals are what matters. Jespersen thought so too. His twin concerns mirror today’s concerns: one, what multilingualism does to the languages; and two, what multilingualism does to you. What the language user does is nowhere in sight. I’ll try to work out next time why we came to think of multilingualism in this way.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Language “integrity”. Wednesday 9th May 2012.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Dominant languages and balanced languages

You may have noticed, as I have, that people who talk about balanced multilinguals seem to be talking about people who are dominant in all of their languages, whether “balanced” is taken to mean ‘equally proficient’ or ‘perfectly proficient’. This got me wondering about the usefulness of the concepts that these terms represent to make sense of multilingualism.

Take the association of dominance with proficiency, for example. Defining “linguistic proficiency” is not as straightforward as the everyday use of the term might lead us to believe, and neither is, accordingly, the setting up of fair criteria which may assess proficiency in order to decide on language dominance. For each language, do we count, say, richness (another nebulous concept) of vocabulary, and/or of grammatical resources (shared ones, or specific to each language?), in either active or passive use, or both? Or do we focus on, say, fluency (if we can define this too), and/or versatility, as in the number and type of situations, or people, in which and with which each language is used? Do we count points for all of these, and do we count them in the same way, or do we make qualitative appreciations of our data here and there? Results are likely to vary with each criterion that we choose to take into account, thwarting any hope of finding a single language which ranks tops on all of them, all the time.

To my mind, the issue is whether we need to talk about dominance in order to talk about multilinguals. The term may have gained popularity from perceived analogies with our uses of handedness: although some of us are ambidextrous, most of us have a dominant hand. But it is also true that if my left hand, say, is dominant for holding the pen I’m writing with, this is because my right hand is dominant at holding the piece of paper I’m writing on. Try using your hands the other way around, to see how awkward they both are at doing what they haven’t been trained to do?

Another reason for the endurance of the term “dominance” draws of course on the archaic belief that the natural state of humankind is monolingual: given that the proficiency of monolinguals in their single language is seldom questioned, having a good language became synonymous with having a single good language. Or it could just be that our fixation with dominance simply reflects our enjoyment of war metaphors, inspired on environments where differences get settled by means of territorial claims: 

Photo: © lightmatter (Flickr)

Whichever the case may be, the trouble is that dominance comes complete with its counterpart, subjugation:

Photo: © lightmatter (Flickr)

If we take language dominance to associate with language proficiency, it follows that we must be non-proficient (or less so) in our non-dominant (or less so) languages, whereby we come full-circle back to the paradox that multilinguals have balanced languages, one of which is nevertheless (more) dominant.

The only way I can see the word “balanced” beginning to make sense in this connection is to say that our languages are balanced because they all serve the needs that they are required to serve. (We do this balancing act so well, in fact, that we resort to so-called mixes in order to say what we mean, as I’ve discussed before and will come back to in a future post.) But this means that one language will be dominant where, and when, and with whom another cannot be, as I reported in my book Three is a Crowd?. Everyday alternation of “language dominance” defines multilingualism itself, which amounts to saying that adding ill-defined words like dominance and balanced to discussions of multilingualism adds nothing to our understanding of what multilinguals do with their languages.

Analytical dead-ends such as these stem, yet again, from the persuasion that the languages, instead of their users, are what matters in multilingual matters. I’ll expand on this in my next post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: The languages of multilinguals. Saturday 28th April 2012.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Braving monolingual worlds

If you ever had to fill in an official form, online or on paper, you may have just sat there, wondering how to go about satisfying form fields and/or boxes marked with cute little stars. The stars are there to tell you that they demand obligatory information, but they don’t tell you why they demand that information in an obligatory shape that fails to provide accurate information about you, and they don’t let you do anything about this.

Your name, for example, is a favourite obligatory piece of information, which is often required as “Full Name”. The trouble starts there. Some of us won’t be able to comply, faced with space sizes which appear to have been designed to cater for people whose full names are Bo Ek or Ana Sá. If your official full name, like mine, happens to consist of two first names, followed by mother’s surname, father’s surname and husband’s surname, some of which are in addition double and hyphenated, you are truly in a bind. Attempting rational tricks, like abbreviating some of your names by means of initials, may be greeted with human or electronic brightly flashing rejections. Unless, of course, the form contains a specific field for things like (obligatory) “Middle Initial”, which in turn stumps those of us who have no idea what a middle initial might be, because we are identified by name through first or last initials – or we have no initial(s), or no “surname” counterpart to “first name(s)” at all.

Form-filling and other exciting bureaucratic endeavours have ruled and go on ruling OK. So OK, in fact, that their morphing from hardcopy to digital medium does not seem to have affected their basic design. Official forms reflect the belief that there is a “preferred” (universal?) way of identifying individuals, whoever and wherever you are. But bureaucratic standards, like any standards, vary with time and place. They are certainly not local-size-fits-all. Assumedly cross-national forms (or “global” forms, to use a fashionable word), like the ones we find on the internet, are “global” only in being there for anyone who can access them online. Their make-up draws on the local, often country-bound tenets of the people who designed them. Heather McCallum-Bayliss and Carolyn Temple Adger discuss these matters in an article titled Variability in naming: Database challenges in multicultural and multilingual settings, focusing on database management, which, as they observe, “is especially challenging in settings that are culturally diverse. The consistent handling of names requires their appropriate cultural interpretation.”

Assuming that there is a single variant of people’s names, full or partial, matches the assumption that people have a single nationality and a single language. Those of us who have more than one of each of those things go on staring in dismay at form fields which either allow a single entry, or force us to “Choose One” from among a fixed set. Country lists are sometimes available, more or less updated on those countries that gain or lose official recognition as such. But you can’t list all the languages there are – even if we knew how many and which languages there are (or what is a language, for that matter), which we don’t. So why not give us, form-users, the choice? Why do we users have to serve the tools that are supposed to serve us? 

Languages and countries, and cultures and identities are not luxury commodities, of which you should own no more than one. Treating them as such only serves bureaucracy itself, as the comments to a previous post make clear.

Image: © Chrysaora (Flickr)

Official ideology shows even where users’ individuality appears to have been taken into account: in those cases where forms do allow us to choose all of our languages, we’ll have to rank them. The next post has some more to say about wanting multilinguals to pull linguistic rank.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Dominant languages and balanced languages. Wednesday 18th April 2012.


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