Saturday 31 October 2015

Multilingualism is about multilinguals

Multilinguals are quite ordinary people. Not only do they outnumber monolinguals, worldwide, they’ve also been around for quite a while and they’re all over the place. Why is it, then, that specialist and lay outlooks alike continue to associate multilingualism with loaded words such as ‘challenge’, ‘complexity’, ‘(super)diversity’, ‘cost’, ‘benefit’, and to collocate the word with vocabulary evoking deviation, like ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’?

I can think of one reason: we’ve somehow lost track of the meaning of the word multilingualism to designate the status of being multilingual, as in the title of this blog, although there is no multilingualism without multilinguals. The result has been that multilingualism, like other -isms before it, acquired a life of its own, whereby we feel free to talk about it without needing to refer to the people that it supposedly describes. Simply using the word, for example, is nowadays a must, in ways that sometimes remind of the reverential tributes we feel we ought to pay to things that we do not really understand, -isms included. The abstract of Hervé Adami and Virginie André’s recent book, De l’idéologie monolingue à la doxa plurilingue: regards pluridisciplinaires, precisely captures the current awed stance about multilingualism, of which this excerpt is worth quoting in full:
Le vent ayant tourné en faveur de la “pluralité”, sous toutes ses formes, le plurilinguisme est devenu une notion à la mode puisqu’il s’inscrit dans le sacro-saint “respect de la diversité” qui constitue le socle idéologique de la bien-pensance d’aujourd’hui. Dans cette communion collective autour des bienfaits et des avantages du plurilinguisme, on a oublié qu’il devait constituer un objet d’étude plutôt qu’un objet de culte.

Cult objects tend to develop (evil? benevolent? mysterious?) strangleholds on us common mortals, making us do things and be things that we’re powerless to control. Multilingualism does or doesn’t do this and that to us, ought to be something but mustn’t be the other, we should and should not, can and cannot do so much or so little about it – is this what being multilingual is all about? Do we really want to go on stockpiling opinions about multilingualism until this -ism fad inevitably burns itself out and the next one enters the stage?

Or do we want to start dealing with multilingualism for what it factually is, the natural linguistic state of over half of humankind, across time and space? This means start dealing with people, not words, because multilingualism is about multilinguals. It means start looking at what multilinguals do, how they do it and why, to find out what’s going on, not what we’ve been told must be going on. It means focusing away from two myths which have compounded the purported intractability of multilingualism.

First, the myth that monolingualism is an unquestionable norm of linguistic behaviour, as Liz Ellis was among the first to question in a collection titled Monolingualism. Monolinguals use their single language for all purposes, with all people, at all times. This is not what multilinguals do, whether with all their languages or just one of them. The only similarity between multilinguals and monolinguals is that all of us go about our daily business making use of our full linguistic repertoires.

Second, the myth that observing the languages of multilinguals means observing multilingualism. What we call ‘languages’ exist only in our collective imagination. What we call ‘features of languages’ exist only in linguistic theories – all of which are monolingual-based, by the way. In a collection of essays edited by Anwar S. Dil and titled The Ecology of Language, Einar Haugen reminded us that “[t]he concept of a language as a rigid, monolithic structure is false, even if it has proved to be a useful fiction in the development of linguistics” and that “[a language] has no life of its own apart from those who use it”.

Languages are tools that we create, develop and mould to serve us. They’re not straitjackets to which users must accommodate, a misconception which isn’t exclusive to research on multilingualism but which continues to shape this research. Languages aren’t there to be reproduced and respected as-is, because language users aren’t language curators.

Language users interact with their environment, their linguistic environment included. They are the real-life people that we parents, teachers, clinicians, encounter in our everyday lives, whose real-life language needs we feed, and whose real-life language uses feed back into our own. Language users are, in short, what we need to address. I’ll do that in the next couple of posts, dealing with home, school and clinical environments.

Ellis, E. (2008). Defining and investigating monolingualism. Sociolinguistic Studies, 2 (3). DOI: 10.1558/sols.v2i3.311

Haugen, E. (1972). The ecology of language. In Dil, A.S. (ed.). The ecology of language. Essays by Einar Haugen. Stanford: Stanford University Press (pp. 325-339).

© MCF 2015

Next post: Being multilingual at home. Saturday 9th January 2016.

Saturday 3 October 2015

What does ‘multilingual’ mean?

What, exactly, do we mean by the label ‘multilingual’? I don’t mean dictionary-sanctioned definitions of the word, nor what the word should mean according to more or less entitled opinions, I mean what linguists mean when we talk about word meanings: what does the observation of uses of the word ‘multilingual’ tell us about its meaning? In order to find out, we can do what linguists do, which is to collate a sample of contexts where we find the words that interest us.

We observe, first, that ‘multilingual’ appears in contexts such as “... bilingual and/or multilingual ...”, implying a core distinction between two and more than two languages. The dichotomy, however, seems exclusive to bi- vs. multi-, in that we don’t find contexts such as “trilingual and/or multilingual”, “quadrilingual and/or multilingual”, and so on. The reason might well be that two languages were long thought to be the crowning achievement of human linguistic ability. Evidence of this belief lingers on in our current terminology, where we still talk about SLA (Second Language Acquisition) to refer to any number of languages learned beyond our native ones, or about L1 to refer to a (single) language learned from birth, the assumption here being that there must be some L2 politely waiting in line to become part of one’s linguistic repertoire. Habitual use of cardinal/ordinal 2-related words in these contexts, lacking relationship to the meaning of ‘2’, explains why the word bilingual has come to mean ‘more than one language’ or ‘two or more languages’. Which is rather confusing, to say the least: just imagine using words like bifocal or bilateral to refer to ‘two or more’ focal lengths or sides, respectively. This is why I prefer multi-words to refer to ‘more than one’.

We observe, second, that the word ‘multilingual’ collocates with family, school, clinic, on the one hand, and with child, teacher, clinician, on the other. This sample shows that the word is used as a qualifier (we could call it an adjective) of another word (a noun). The same goes for contexts like The family/child/ ... is multilingual. More uncommon are collocations such as A multilingual is ..., multilinguals are ..., or a/the multilingual., where a final stop follows the word: I am / They are multilingual is sanctioned by use, but I am a multilingual / They are multilinguals apparently isn’t. Not all that long ago I had to add the plural form multilinguals to the dictionary in my word processor, which kept marking it with a no-no wavy red line. We’re not comfortable using this word as a noun – yet: it could well be only a matter of time for multilingual/multilinguals to become as noun-worthy as bilingual/bilinguals, given that our attention to non-monolinguals dates from quite recently.

A third observation is that when we’re talking about, say, multilingual schools and multilingual teachers, we’re talking about two different multilingualisms – and yes, my word processor also had issues with this plural. A multilingual T, including families, schools, clinics, countries, environments, is a T(hing) where more than one language is used, whereas a multilingual P, including children, parents, teachers, clinicians, individuals, is a P(erson) who uses more than one language. This is not splitting hairs: the verbal form “is used” indicates a passive construction, probably familiar from school textbooks in interesting sentences like The bone is eaten by the dog. In language textbooks, the by-phrase is always there, because the purpose of textbook passives is to teach that they must match an active counterpart, in this case The dog eats the bone. Language students apparently need not be taught that we use passives precisely to be able to ignore the by-phrase, either because we have no idea who is actively doing the action represented by the verb, or because we prefer not to say. Exactly as when we define, say, a multilingual school as a school where more than one language is used. By whom? We don’t know.

What we do know is that families or schools, being institutional abstractions, can’t ‘use’ languages: people can. We also know that when we say that a school or a country ‘has’ more than one language, we’re using metaphor. Schools and countries can’t own anything, except metaphorically: people can. Which means that talking about, say, multilingual environments is not the same as talking about multilinguals: a multilingual environment is one where different languages are involved, but not necessarily multilingual people. Multilingual environments can feature monolinguals, as in multilingual schools or clinics where the students or clients are multilingual whereas the staff are not, and that’s why multilingual signs exist for the benefit of those who use only one of the languages in them.

In Cruz-Ferreira, M., Multilinguals are ...?, Chapter 11
Image © MCF

Failure to realise that multilingualism has to do with *multilinguals* explains the obsession with the languages of a multilingual that has characterised specialist and lay quests into multilingualism. We select multilinguals’ vocabulary sizes, accents, grammar, pragmatic proficiency, for comparison with monolinguals’, to ascertain the presumed state of health, or integrity, or wholeness, of multilinguals’ languages, apparently expecting to find the key to multilingualism in the languages themselves. A bit like saying that the key to Maria João Pires’ performance lies in her pianos. We’ve even started comparing trilinguals to bilinguals, those not-so-exciting-any-more language geniuses of yore, and I’m sure the day will come when we’ll compare octalinguals to heptalinguals, to find out... What, exactly? I wonder, too. This way of looking at multilingualism takes it as a property of languages, which is clearly nonsensical. Languages can’t be multilingual: people can.

If we want to understand what being ‘multilingual’ means, we need to shift our focus from the languages to the language users. Only then can we stop asking useless questions about what different languages do to people and start asking relevant questions about what people do with different languages. Next time, I’ll try to work out what this means.

© MCF 2015

Next post: Multilingualism is about multilinguals. Saturday 31st October 2015.


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