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.


  1. Hello, Madam Ferreira. I stumbled upon your blog while browsing subjects related to multilingualism. While looking at your profile (and name), it then dawned on me that I was probably your student a decade ago at the National University of Singapore! I was staring hard at your avatar (not that I could remember your face anymore) and scrutinizing your profile summary, and the key word "Singapore" popped up. Voila, you have got to be the Prof. Ferreira that once gave lectures on the English language! I'm hazarding a guess here, since there couldn't be that many Ferreiras in Singapore talking about multilingualism. But I digress, that sure was one long way to say "hi!".

  2. Anonymous: A pity you didn’t let me know your name.

    I’m always delighted to hear from former students, do use my contact information included in ‘About me’ here at the blog any time?




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