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.

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