“Is bilingualism a superpower?” (Why this question makes me rant)

This spontaneous essay (hence, not posted on a Wednesday) was prompted by an annoying Youtube video that came up on my feed titled “Is bilingualism a superpower?” I don’t provide the link because there are a gazillion other posts/videos online (usually American) suggesting the same idea. Such a question can only be taken seriously in societies where monolingualism is the norm.

According to a colleague, Jeff MacSwan, bi/multilingualism is actually the default condition of humanity, monolingualism being the aberration—a product, I would add, of 19th/20th century colonial powers and nation states. Jeff also claims that monolinguals are bi/multilinguals in a narrower sense, in that the same psycholinguistic processes underlie both conditions, so one is not more “genius” than the other.

Now, this claim is not undisputed truth in the field of Linguistics, but I’m willing to buy into it, because I think it is not only a scientifically true, but highly ethical belief that also points to promising research directions. First, the logic to suggest it is true. I have often explained on this blog that bilinguals who grew up with two languages from birth have a magical ability to mix their languages in a sentence without breaking the grammatical rules of either. This is achieved by recasting the vocab of Language A in the grammar/syntax of Language B, or the vocab of Language B in the grammar/syntax of Language A. For example:

  • Naa-achieve ito kapag rene-recast ang Language A sa vocab ng Language B. (English words, Filipino grammar structure)
  • This is aaboted by pagbago-ing lenggwaheng A in the bokabularyo of lenggwaheng B. (Filipino words, English grammar structure)

How do monolinguals have this language-mixing ability in a narrower sense, but with no greater or lesser amount of “genius” than bi/multilinguals? Answer: They can recast ANY words from ANY language according to the grammar of their first language (L1). This includes nonsense words as well as foreign words, as shown in (i) the famous Wug test experiment with English L1 children, and (ii) the poem Jabberwocky. In the Wug test, young American children in the 1950s were presented with prompts like:

…and they would correctly answer “wugs” and “ricked” even before they had started school, showing that this was implicit rather than taught grammar knowledge. Similarly, the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” from Alice in Wonderland has been “translated” into many languages, e.g.,

’Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
Es brillig war. Die schlichte Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben
Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux
Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (1994), p. 112

Can’t help sharing my own, maybe the first in Tagalog: Mabrillíg, at ang mga siliting na tobe / Ay gumagay at gumigimbol sa loob ng huweb.

  • Bi/multilingualism is the default condition of humanity, monolingualism being the aberration.
  • Monolinguals are bi/multilinguals in a narrower sense, in that the same psycholinguistic processes underlie both conditions.
  • One is not more “genius” than the other, just as recasting Jabberwocky in your L1 if that is Hebrew is not more ingenious for a Hebrew monolingual than it is ingenious for a Hebrew-English bilingual to do what’s known as psycholinguistic code-switching.

Why is the above not just scientifically plausible but also ethical and promising for future research in applied linguistics? As a sociolinguist, or someone who studies the social contexts of language learning and use, rather than its psychological properties, I find MacSwan’s argument useful in my field. Consider two things that applied linguistics scholars present as “ideal” or “amazing” in their academic papers and presentations:

  • The monolingual performance of “native” speakers who speak only one language, which bi/multilinguals can never measure up to. (= A lot of “traditional” research in Second Language Acquisition)
  • Bi/multilingualism and bi/multilingual performances (= translanguaging, plurilingualism, metrolingualism, polylanguaging scholarship)

In terms of psycholinguistic processes and everyday social performances, bi/multilingualism, translingualism, or plurilingualism don’t impress me more than monolingualism. Or vice versa. I feel this is an ethical way of seeing things because it allows me to value almost entirely monolingual people’s language skills and very balanced bi/multilingual language skills alike, and everything in between. That impartiality would not stop me from upholding multilingualism when it is denigrated, or when people are measured only in terms of their English ability.

Despite the banality of both monolingual and bi/multilingual phenomena, what requires more sociolinguistic investigation, in different situations and populations, is how human beings create rapport with each other and build communities “against the odds,” for example in situations when they have little linguistic overlap and communicative potential, or in classrooms/workplaces consisting of different ethnic and social class backgrounds, precisely because they have used language (monolingually? bi/multilingually? translingually?) in ways that flout the ways in which it is normally used… and in doing so, brought out their best (superhero?) selves.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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