Voices

A few myths about speakers of multiple languages

By Nayr Ibrahim

05 February 2015 - 13:59

Is monolingualism the norm? Do bilinguals have two separate language systems? The British Council's Nayr Ibrahim separates the myths from the realities.

Myth: Monolingualism is the norm

You might be forgiven for thinking that most people around the world go about their daily lives using just one language. In fact, over 50 per cent of the world’s population function in two or more languages on a daily basis. In other words, multilingualism, not monolingualism, is the norm.

There are many reasons why someone might be bi- or multilingual: having parents who speak two languages; moving abroad to work; political migration, where individuals and families need to learn the language of a new community while maintaining links to the home country; education, where children pick up foreign or second languages at school; bi- or multilingual communities, where individuals switch between languages on a daily basis; and historical events, such as the 'discoveries’ in the 15th and 16th centuries that led to colonialism, where the language of the coloniser was adopted by the people, and continues to survive in a local variety.

Myth: Bilinguals have equal knowledge in all their languages

It's not unusual to hear someone being described as ‘perfectly bilingual’. But it’s an impossible standard for a bilingual person to meet, as it implies that someone sounds like two or more ‘perfect’ monolinguals in one person.

Using multiple languages depends, first and foremost, on need. It also depends on the amount of exposure, the quality of language interaction, the positive or negative environment in which each language flourishes, and the pressures on, and motivation of, a child.

Bi- or multilingualism can be influenced by contextual and emotional factors such as moving to another country, a change in school, or a negative comment from an unsuspecting adult. These can tip the balance so that a dominant language in one context becomes a passive language in another.

Nevertheless, either language is always available and accessible to the bilingual (or multilingual) speaker, and just waiting for the right moment to be used. Grosjean describes this phenomenon as the 'complementarity principle', whereby ‘bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life normally require different languages’.

Myth: Bilinguals confuse their languages

Sometimes bi- or multilinguals use elements of more than one language when talking to each other. This is known as code mixing or code switching, and it involves the deliberate (not accidental) alternation between language systems within and between sentences in the same conversation.

Mixing languages in this way is a typical characteristic of multilingual communication in multilingual contexts. It is influenced by specific social or psychological factors, such as: a desire to add emphasis or to show ethnic unity; to adapt to a multilingual audience; to compensate for not knowing the word in another language, or the language chosen is more suitable to talk about a given subject; to indicate a change of topic; to include or to exclude someone from a conversation.

Code switching may simply reflect the use of two languages in a particular home or community, or an attempt to maintain a conversation when knowledge of the second language is not sufficient to express the desired message.

Code switching doesn’t happen haphazardly. It is rule-governed and embedded in the syntactical and morphological structure of the languages used. The base language -- the main language chosen for communication -- accommodates the guest language at specific changeover points in a sentence or in a word. This allows multilingual communication to flow.

Myth: Bilinguals have two separate language systems

Individuals have the ability to create and store the most complex mathematical and scientific theories. Yet when it comes to language, there are those who subscribe to the belief that the brain is incapable of retaining two language systems, as one would inevitably push out the other. In fact, the brain manages languages equally and even becomes stronger and more efficient as we learn and use multiple languages on a daily basis throughout our lives.

Cummins has identified a common operating system, which he has called the common underlying proficiency (CUP) that an individual draws on to communicate. The system is based on the general functions of language for communication, and irrespective of the language that one speaks.

For example, learning to read essentially involves understanding that the squiggles on a page -- when they appear in a certain form and in a particular sequence -- have specific sounds and create meaning. Once children have understood the basic principle, they can transfer this knowledge to their other languages, without having to go through the process of learning to read all over again. They simply have to learn the surface level mechanics of different languages -- the phonology, lexical and grammatical structure, and so on -- which make each language unique and fascinating.

Languages are interdependent and children very quickly learn to make hypotheses about the languages in their lives. This process is a complex one of analysing the language systems in place, making informed decisions based on previously gained knowledge, and testing the hypothesis. The result isn’t always ‘correct’ as language is full of exceptions, anomalies and borrowings from different language systems that will alter the patterns the brain is looking to identify. That’s why most children, monolingual and bilingual, end up with ‘maked’ as the past tense of ‘make’. Nevertheless, a three-year-old is capable of this level of analysis and complexity.

Nayr Ibrahim is Head of Young Learners and Bilingual at the British Council in Paris.

Come and talk to us at Expolangues (stand I2) about improving your English or how to prepare for one of our internationally recognised exams. Expolangues takes place in Paris, France, from 5 to 7 February 2015.

Read this article in French.

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