Myths and Paradoxes About Multilingualism

by multilingualmania on June 1, 2010

in Bilingual Myths and Misconceptions, bilingual parenting, Bilingualism, Books, Monolingualism

Author: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Ph.D.

In order to be able to function normally in our respective environments, we all use exactly as many languages as our everyday needs require us to. Monolinguals use one language, and multilinguals use more than one. Nevertheless, “using more than one language” has somehow become near-synonymous with “being odd”, despite multilinguals being the majority of the world’s population and despite multilingualism being a recorded fact of life since the very beginnings of human history.

The purpose of this article is to present discussion of this strange state of affairs in my latest book on multilingualism. The book draws on solid academic research on this topic, but is intended for a general public: anyone, families, educators, clinicians, monolingual as well as multilingual, who ever wondered about multilingualism and multilinguals. The book is titled Multilinguals are …? and was published by Battlebridge Publications in January 2010.

If we wish to understand why multilinguals have come to be treated as unusual people, we may start by asking ourselves why there are studies, research teams, networks, blogs, websites, journals and books dedicated to multilinguals, but not to monolinguals. The reason must be that we assume monolingualism to be a normal, default condition of humankind, because normal conditions do not need special attention. Which in turn means that multilingualism is somehow not normal. But we also need to ask who was it that called attention to the noteworthiness of multilinguals in the first place. The answer is that the first studies about multilingualism, dating from the early 1900s, were carried out by people who were either monolingual, or subscribed to monolingual views about language, or both. Which means that multilingualism was not normal to the people dealing with it. We all tend to marvel, or cringe, at whatever falls out of our everyday habits and experiences.

Findings, research methods and assessment instruments derived from the publication of these first impressions about multilingualism percolated through to lay people and professionals alike. Opinions did too. They have stayed firmly put, as most first impressions tend to do, almost one century down the road. This is why we find, still today, research which compares language data from multilinguals to language data from monolinguals, whose benchmark status is indisputably taken for granted, never the other way around; educators and clinicians who worry about the effects of multilingualism, but never of monolingualism, on child overall development, whether linguistic, cognitive, emotional or social; or caregivers, even when multilingual, who fret over whether the use of several languages in the home will impair, instead of foster, the multilingual competence that they wish their children to attain.

In addition, monolingualism is taken as the hallmark of linguistic, cognitive and social excellence and, conversely, multilingualism as the probable cause of various disabilities. This is why we find opinions, from lay people and specialists alike, that multilingualism either causes or worsens anything from speech disfluencies (e.g. stuttering), through language impairment (e.g. language delay) to socio-cognitive disorders (e.g. autism), and also why we find the associated recommendation to adopt monolingualism as the cure or the palliative for these ailments. If monolingualism were indeed a solution, then the incidence of linguistic and cognitive disorders among monolinguals would be non-existent, or significantly lower, than among multilinguals. There is no evidence that this is so.

Paradoxically, however, multilingualism is also said to be the cause of assorted intellectual over-abilities. Multilinguals are ascribed unquestionable advantages, or gifts, or skills, for whose attainment the acquisition of new languages is emphatically recommended, across the board. Whichever way we look at it, the bottom line is that multilinguals are not normal, because nobody attributes enhanced or diminished abilities to monolinguals, across the board. If multilinguals were indeed special in some way, then the majority of our fellow human beings would be special. This would then mean that being special is in fact the norm, a conclusion which, to say the least, is rather peculiar.

Multilinguals are not, cannot be, and cannot be made to be, monolinguals: multilinguals are found odd, not because they are indeed odd, but because odd claims keep being made about them. It is therefore no wonder that multilingual behaviour finds itself described, prescribed, praised and berated in ways that are in fact paradoxical. Explaining the roots of myths and paradoxes in our purported knowledge about multilingualism was one of my purposes in writing this book. My second purpose was to alert readers to the role that issues such as the ones briefly touched upon in this article can play to (mis)guide decisions about language uses in the home, about educational policies, assessment practices and remedial therapy.

We still don’t know what multilinguals are, as the question mark in the title of the book makes clear. If we want to find answers to this question, we need to shed the monolingual bias that has so far shaped our quest for knowledge about multilingualism and start looking at what multilinguals actually do. Multilingualism is not about what several languages can do to people, it is about what people can do with several languages. This means that only multilinguals can tell us what multilingual normality is all about.

About the Author: Madalena Cruz-Ferreira is a multilingual scholar, educator and parent. She holds a PhD in Linguistics and Phonetics from the University of Manchester, UK, and is the author of several books and research pieces on child and adult multilingualism. Madalena can also be found on the Multilingual Living website, providing expert advice to parents who are raising multilingual children. Her contact information and details of her work can be found on The Linguist List. Information for ordering Multilinguals are…? in the U.S. can be found here. The table of contents and a look inside the book can also be found on Amazon.

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