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.


  1. Hi Madalena,
    In case you don't read BBC news every day:

    1. Thank you for this, Information Hungry Mother! Here is the link to the original article, published online just a few days ago.

      This article comes in the wake of a current research paradigm finding differences between monolinguals and multilinguals, to the advantage of the latter. It’s a welcome change from the earlier paradigm, which also compared monolinguals and multilinguals to find the opposite. See for example this earlier post of mine, Multilingual woes and joys.

      I firmly believe that brain workouts, through linguistic or other stimulation, as current research also finds, is the way to go to favour our development and our achievements as human beings.



Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...