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
Check out these other translations, from Afrikaans to Yiddish! And there are translations into non-European languages on this Wikipedia page, and even in American Sign Language!
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.
To reiterate Jeff’s argument (I don’t have the citations because I’m a sociolinguist, not a psycholinguist):
- 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)
Laypeople think these two things are ideal and amazing too. And yet, psycholinguistically, it isn’t a marvel how you produce nativelike utterances in your L1 untainted by any other language if you are a monolingual. Nor is it really psycholinguistically surprising how you can do psycholinguistic code-switching if you grew up with two languages from birth. What about emergent or limited bi/multilingualism, which wouldn’t involve psycholinguistic code-switching but just language mixing? Again, to hold it up as “ideal” or “better” isn’t a fact; it’s a value judgment. However, in a social context such as a formal education setting where one type of language performance (e.g., mixing of resources from two named languages) is looked down upon, OF COURSE we should create a counter-discourse showing what’s valuable about it. And this is where translanguaging scholarship has critical potential. It allows us to “re-see” and “re-hear” (to borrow terms from Kate Seltzer) people’s language performances in asset-based rather than deficit-oriented ways. Is someone telling a story in a lively way? Making a clever joke? Bi/multilingual linguistic acts can be valuable on a human level, and SHOULD be recognized as such, without needing to be unusual, or superior to any other type of linguistic acts… much less theoretically new. (For instance, when the applied linguist Jenna Cushing-Leubner was asked whether bilingualism was a superpower, she said it was more like a “taproot,” connecting people to their heritage and communities. That was a GREAT answer.)
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.
Instead, what impresses me is the capacity of human beings to 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 in ways that flout the ways in which it is normally used. As an example, take one of the major pieces of translanguaging/plurilingualism scholarship: Pennycook and Otsuji’s (2014) ethnography of a restaurant. What impressed me intellectually, and moved me emotionally, was not so much that the restaurant’s communication was multilingual given the urban setting (Sydney) and the diverse staff with complex migration histories… but the fact that, instead of ONLY seeing themselves as individuals from different ethnic groups, the staff saw themselves as a bi/multilingual family with bi/multilingual norms. They transcended the cultures that they “brought along” to create a “brought about” culture that did not exist prior to their coming together. Their bi/multilingual interactions with customers—banal!—did not interest me, because these were transactional (e.g., just to get orders) or instances of advertising/stylization (French = posh). What moved me were the staff members’ interactions with each other: appropriating each other’s languages, or sharing pieces of culture they affiliated with (e.g., Beyoncé) that were not representative of the ethnicity of anyone in the group. It’s what I see again and again in a joyful class, or a joyful workplace.
They didn’t need to do that. They could have just formed their own language groups, as my brother-in-law observes in his company, or as my student reported in their workplace. Or, if doing so was unlikely given the wide range of languages spoken in the restaurant, they could have just communicated in English (thereby excluding those staff who were less English proficient). What Pennycook and Otsuji never explained was who, or what, shaped the workplace small culture so that it evolved in that way! They discuss at length the forces of globalization without addressing the interactional and discursive choices that may have gone into “making” that family.
If bi/multilingualism is the default condition of humanity, monolingualism being the aberration, we cannot make too much of bi/multilingualism theoretically, because it is so common. It is not a pathology, but then neither is it a superpower. And monolingualism is the same thing, but narrower. Psycholinguistic performances like borrowing (e.g., Jabberwocky) and code-switching are commonplace, and can occur both within and across languages. Sociolinguistic phenomena such as storytelling, joking, and punning (in which bi/multilinguals translanguage and monolinguals translanguage between dialects and registers) are likewise commonplace, not theoretically new, but nonetheless valuable for our day-to-day relations, as you see in Pennycook and Otsuji’s study.
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.
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