Searching Research Blogging for “bilingualism”, two blogs dominate the recent posts: mine and Language on the Move – a blog started by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Since starting last year, they have been joined by a host of international collaborators. It’s a really well organised blog – they even have separate facebook and twitter officers!
The blog discusses topics on language learning, multilingualism and multicultural sociolinguistics. The writers are bilingual and certainly pro-bilingualism, but it’s good to see a genuine debate over the so-called ‘bilingual edge’ (see Piller 2010- a review of ‘the bilingual edge’ which argues that differences elicited in controlled conditions don’t necessarily translate to the real world where variables are correlated).
There’s been a recent spurt of posts and publications aimed at trying to get people out of a mono-mindset. Alastair Pennycook writes about Metrolingualism (see also, Otsuji & Pennycook, 2010) – the common use of many languages to construct identity. He reminds us that people are most cultural traits are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the majority of people can communicate in many mediums. Despite this, there is a tendency both in research and general opinion to see monolingualism as the norm and bilingualism as exceptional.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the monolingual mindset extends into computational modelling of language acquisition and evolution. Often, there are implicit monolingual assumptions. On the other hand, whole paradigms such as Steels & Belpeame’s ‘Naming Game’ focus on how populations of agents can arrive at the same, single mapping between words and meanings.
In fact, there is much evidence to suggest that children can acquire multiple languages easily. My own research focusses on a simple question – why did we evolve to be able to learn multiple languages? It would be more efficient to have a single human language – especially if it were innately specified. Instead, we have a culturally transmitted system that exhibits a large amount of variation.
I’m looking at two possible answers: Either there is no selective pressure on language and bilingualism is the product of historical accident (drift) or there is an inherent advantage to the flexibility that bilingualism affords, both for communication and for the evolvability of the system. Along the way, I’m hoping to look at whether monolingualism is a legitimate abstraction, or whether bilingualism is a fundamental part of language (for a recent talk, see here).
However, Pennycook points out the paradox of a monolingual mindset in a pervasively bilingual world, suggesting that it may be a political affliction rather than a scientific approach:
“If we take the current sociolinguistic literature on styles, registers, discourses, genres and practices seriously, then monolingualism is also a myth: a monolingual mindset does not emerge from a state of monolingualism, because no such state can exist. If languages are myths, so too is monolingualism!”
Piller, I. (2010). The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (1), 115-118 DOI: 10.1080/13670050802645942
Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: fixity, fluidity and language in flux International Journal of Multilingualism, 7 (3), 240-254 DOI: 10.1080/14790710903414331