The bilingual problem revisited

Jagoda Ratajczak, kategoria: Some linguistics...

What seems obvious is not that obvious. The term „bilingualism” is now used quite freely, but do we know what bilingualism really is? Who is a bilingual? When do you become bilingual? Who is a monolingual, and do these people actually exist? A bit of theory supported by the authors who turned my thinking upside down: starting with Bloomfield, to Chomsky and Macnamara, to Grosjean. And a bit of disillusionment to boot ;)

Each time I read the classic works of some distinguished linguists, I am amazed to realize that they presented their concepts with such serene confidence. What amazes me even more is that what followed the presentation of those very concepts was humble acceptance. No doubts expressed and no questions asked: „on what grounds exactly did you draw your conclusions?” This polite inquiry is now the most obvious question to ask someone who presents their viewpoint, be it on linguistics or anything else. Today’s academia have seen and heard it all, so don’t kid yourself that you could advocate your theory with the idealistic „I just believe it to be true”. That would only give the audience a roll on the floor.

Still, early definitions of mono- and bilingualism, the phenomena which need to be defined in the first place before we throw ourselves into the abyss of  SLA[1] research, seemed to be nothing but a manifesto of pure idealism that apparently nobody dared to challenge. The earliest definitions of the phenomena given by linguists weren’t a far cry from what you might hear from random people met in the street. Ask your friend what does he or she think what mono and bilingualism is. What you are likely to hear is some sort of a folk definition: monolinguals are people who speak one language only, bilinguals are people who speak two languages. This definition sounds pretty reasonable and you are tempted to say that’s a clear-cut case. It is- until you ask yourself the following questions: 1) how well must you speak a language/ languages to be able to call oneself a monolingual and then a bilingual person? 2) Are there any people who can’t speak ANY language except their native one, that is- are there any people who are genuine, die- hard monolinguals?

These basic questions can make you feel uncomfortable about the very idea of defining this, one might say, very common and mundane phenomenon. But the field had its brave men who took the challenge; here comes my favourite, radical, pre-war definition of bilingualism devised by Leonard Bloomfield: „bilingualism is a native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933:56). Period. No further comments, love it or leave it. Bloomfield’s triumphant statement seems to do justice to reality, at least as far as common sense is concerned, but here comes the first doubt: how should we define speaking in a „native-like” manner? Tens of papers on bilingualism that I have ever dealt with, include this definition, yet nobody really specified what Leonard meant by the term „nativelike”, maybe from fear of getting lost and ultimately driven insane by this ambitious task. Anyway, we must decide on something so we assume that being „nativelike” means being close to perfection, being the point of reference and this nice example that is imitated.  Ideally, this  „exemplary native speaker” is a monolingual, so a person who somehow avoided „spoiling” and confusion introduced by the second language, a person offering a nice insight into how one language works in our minds, having no competition in the form of a second language. This explanation must ring a bell- isn’t this „ideal native speaker” actually the mythical „ideal speaker-hearer” that Chomsky wrote about?: „(ideal speaker-hearer operates) in a completely homogeneous speech-community (that is, in a  perfectly monolingual one!), who knows its (the speech community’s) language perfectly (we mercifully refrain ourselves from asking Noam what he means by the word „perfectly” since even the knowledge of native language is never finite!) and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors ( that is, by anything which we know to result from the second language acquisition)” (Chomsky 1965: 3). Having digested these „regulations”, we dare say that there is an equals sign between being „the monolingual model” and being an ideal speaker-hearer. Monolingual speaker is said to be perfect- so perfect that he or she serves as a point of reference for a bilingual speaker who, as Bloomfield concludes, shall not be called bilingual until he or she attains the very same perfection in his or her second language. For Bloomfield, being called „-lingual” in general, requires perfection. If he were still alive and kicking in the 1960s, chances would have been that he would have just updated  his 1930s theory with the chomskyan novelty and say that „being bilingual is nothing more than being an ideal speaker-hearer- doubled”.

Yes- if a monolingual speaker is this ideal speaker-hearer, then a bilingual person must be this special creature who is a monolingual speaker times two! Not so…again. Maybe both Bloomfield and Chomsky knew it and therefore decided not to analyse the matter of bilingualism further beyond their „methinks” statements and save their bacon. Why not claim this: a bilingual speaker is a sum of two monolinguals, two monolinguals in one body. The absurd question asked by Ali G during his interview-romp with deadly serious Chomsky; „does being bilingual mean being also bisexual?” probably wouldn’t have sounded that absurd fifty years ago, when the concept of „two monolinguals in one body” was taken seriously and somehow led to the idea that a bilingual is a creature of a split identity, whose mental circuits got somehow xeroxed and then filtered through a bilingual system, leading to the formation of a double-self (Saer et al. 1924, Smith 1923). Then, one might ask, if you can have two identities, then why not have two sexual preferences?

Perhaps the latter idea is yet to be analysed, but the first one has been eventually discarded. Grosjean (2008) dispelled all illusions with a pretty convincing theory which lies at the foundation of what we know to be „the wholistic theory of bilingualism”: „The bilingual is not the sum of two complete or incomplete monolinguals; rather he or she has a specific linguistic configuration. The co-existence and constant interaction of the two languages in the bilingual has produced a different but complete language system (…). The bilingual is a fully competent speaker-hearer; he or she has developed competencies (…) to the extent required by his or her needs and those of the environment” (Grosjean 2008: 14).  It seems that a bilingual cannot be considered a „special edition” of a monolingual speaker who has been just upgraded with some additional functions. He or she belongs to a separate category (Grosjean 1989). If you are a Polish-English bilingual, you are not a Polish monolingual combined with an English monolingual (which would bring us to the theory of coordinate bilingualism that we shall discuss some other time). This again is explained in Grosjean’s reasonable remark: „These competencies (of a bilingual) are in some way different from those of the two corresponding monolinguals” (Grosjean 2008:15). Apparently, one and one is not two, in the case of bilingualism. Two languages sharing one space simply give rise to yet another entity governed by different rules created at the junction of two language systems and by another set of abilities which another fabulous guy with a fabulous female name, Vivian Cook, called „multicompetence” (Cook 1993).

All right then, so this is a unique configuration. But at which point can you say that you have crossed that bridge and your mind has already developed this unique pattern of retrieval and processing, or rather of perception of reality?  How well must you speak two languages to deserve a name of a bilingual?  We have already decided that even our native language is the one we learn until we die- at least in lexical terms. If we are bound to be imperfect as native speakers, how can we be perfect while using our second language? Or can we at least speak two languages equally well? Oller and Eilers (2002) have bad news: bilinguals control smaller vocabulary in two languages than monolinguals do (in one language, obviously). This suggests that our mind has some problems dividing its content between two languages. This also suggests that the second language is actually a distraction (Chomsky, welcome back)  on the way towards linguistic perfection, possibly and theoretically attained in the first language. One might even say that the second language is a mental parasite; take Macnamara’s proposal that each „portion” of development in the second language occurs at the expense of the native language- one gets weaker for the other to get stronger (Macnamara 1966). This pretty scary view brings us to the idea that if you are never good enough as a speaker of either of the two languages, it’s perhaps better to be a decent monolingual rather than an average bilingual.

Perhaps then, a question „how must I speak these two languages to be called a bilingual” should be reformulated into „How must I think in these two languages to be called a bilingual?” Maybe being bilingual is not about speaking fluently but thinking fluently in two languages? We can all remember the first attempts at writing or speaking in the second language- in fact, we stuck to the first language that we simply copied while using the second language, this new thing that we have to tame, preferably with the familiar methods. At the beginning we cannot think in the second language- this comes with time. The moment it happens, as vague as it is, may be the moment we become bilinguals. A bilingual is actually a „bi- thinker” – the special system created in their minds governs both language that we will here assume to be what we produce, and the mental processes, too. After all, bilinguals described by Koven (2007) admit that they think, react and say different things depending on the language currently used. For them, being bilingual means being mentally embedded in the linguistic reality they are currently in, including understanding language-specific sense of humour, and language-specific script without mediating it by means of the first language.  How well must we THINK in two languages to be called a bilingual, then? We must think well enough not to need this mediation.

And another thing. Is it possible to speak ONE language only, to be completely free from linguistic distractions and thus, be this ideal monolingual speaker-hearer? Putting a monolingual speaker in the centre of linguists’ attention comes from the times when bilingualism was considered an exception, a problem (see the titles of the works on bilingualism written before the WWII), the conspicuous property of non-homogenous, and therefore somehow „inferior” communities, consisting of immigrants or mixed families. Now, the tables have turned: people are moving, the borders are disappearing, people come, people go, races and nationalities mix, kids learn languages at schools so as not to lag behind the multicultural- multilingual world. Now monolingualism is somehow considered an exception, if not inferiority- about 70 percent of the world population use more than one language (we deliberately say „they use” instead of „they know”, after all we still do not really know what it means to  „know”).  The remaining 30 percent have certainly learnt or still learns some foreign language which also suggests that their minds got or get their own „fix of distraction” and that they are no longer pure, unspoiled monolinguals. So have monolinguals become extinct, have they hidden in their caves? Or have they just transgressed from reality into myth? My grandparents consider themselves monolinguals since they „no longer speak any foreign language that they learned as kids and just cannot build a single sentence in either of these languages (German and Russian)”. This probably gives us a reason to believe that they are true monolinguals. But they did learn and perhaps even spoke German and Russian as young people, didn’t they? How can we know that the abilities they had ( but simply failed to maintain) didn’t have an impact on the development of their language system? Maybe the second language acquisition did leave some residual traces in the system which makes it more bilingual than monolingual? After all, my grandma still remembers and understands single words in Russian; given a simple text in this language, she can figure out most of its content…and prove that some elements of the language are still there and still create the system which is NOT entirely monolingual.  This idea may sound bizarre or funny, but it definitely didn’t sound either bizarre or funny to Macnamara (1966) who proposed that having (or retaining) basic skills in either of the four basic categories (speaking, listening comprehension, reading, writing), means that you are bilingual. Haugen was even more radical. To him, bilingualism is observed when „a speaker can produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language” (Haugen 1953:7). The essence of his radicalism that would certainly leave Bloomfield deeply moved, is the assumption that constructing a meaningful utterance like „I like milk” and a flamboyant utterance like „I believe milk to be an indispensable component of my diet, which I concluded after reading a scientific article written by a renown researcher” are both equal and both make you a full-fledged bilingual. Needless to say, such theory does very little to convince you that it DOES pay to aim at proficiency and work hard on a language course. It seems then, that if we forget about Bloomfield and adopt the view of Macnamara or Haugen (to name just the two!), we will conclude that monolingualism DOES not exist. Whether you like it or not, you do know something, you do remember something, you do get distracted by the second language, be it a reminiscence of Russian learned 50 years ago or the basic English vocab learned now on the course.

It was not a coincidence that the theories by Bloomfield and Macnamara/ Haugen were made pivotal in this little analysis. The radical nature of their statements makes them very attractive and picturesque- radical statements are a nice point of reference as you can look for their missing points and proudly point to all omissions following.  These two views which are so radically different, prove that there is a serious disagreement on the most basic level of the research on the second language acquisition and- what adds some tragic tinge to the debate- both parties are somehow right. This sometimes makes me wonder whether bilingual studies make sense at all. After all, we encounter a problem at the very kick-off , the definition remains vague, and no matter whether we choose to be radical or liberal, each and every statement in the definition turns out to be another question that needs to be answered or at least addressed.

If bilingualism is that difficult to define, one can only imagine what happens when the third language comes in the picture. Of course, there is this whole „multilingual studies” thing, but as long as making sense of the two languages configuration constitutes a challenge, making sense of the system with three or more languages combined, seems to be quite utopian. Still, each and every linguist proposing a research on mono- bi- or multilingualism has to make the decision regarding the definition and make certain assumptions to be able to elaborate on the topic at all. And this is the time for a researcher to put the most publicised theories together and draw some logical and valid elements from it. Grosjean’s definition seems to make us happy and therefore nicely fit into the vast majority of papers:  “bilingualism is the regular use of two (or more) languages, and bilinguals are those people who need and use two (or more) languages in their everyday lives” (Grosjean 2008). Of course, as neuroscience develops, it will certainly shed a new light on the definition providing some news from the neural background to corroborate or disprove each of the definitions already coined. For the time being, it seems sufficient to rely on common sense and not get seduced by radical theories, which, although impressive, seem to do little for the description of people the way they really are. After all, hardly ever, if ever ,do they fall into one and finite category placed firmly on the one or the other extreme end of the continuum. And there is yet another moral from the story- as much as we need to create „working definitions” that lack precision but serve to „more or less” describe the phenomenon, we should think twice before calling ourselves and other candidates „bilingual”. It turns out that this label requires some more observations, analyses and asking at least a few additional questions. Which by the way applies also to some linguistic moguls- putting an arbitrary definition in a book may look impressive and  result in endless quotations in hundreds of publications, but it won’t bring as anywhere closer to the truth. Which is actually the most impressive thing one can imagine.

For some more…

 Bloomfield, L. 1933. „Language”. George Allen & Unwin Ltd: London.

Chomsky, N. 1965. „Aspects of the theory of syntax”. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Cook, V. 1993. „Linguistics and second language acquisition”. Macmillan: London.

Grosjean, F. 1989.  „Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person”. Brain and Language, 36, 3–15.

Grosjean, F. 2008. „Studying bilinguals”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haugen, E. 1953. „The Norwegian Language in America”. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Koven, M. 2007. „Selves in two languages. Bilinguals’ verbal enactments of identity in French and Portuguese”. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Macnamara, J. 1966. „Bilingualism and Primary Education”. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Oller, D.- R. Eilers (eds.). 2002. „Language and literacy in bilingual children”. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Saer, D. – F. Smith and J. Hughes. 1924. „The bilingual problem: A study based uponexperiments and observations in Wales”. Aberystwyth: University College of Wales.

Smith, F. 1923. „Bilingualism and mental development”. British Journal of Psychology,13, 271–282.

[1] Second Language Acquisition

6 Komentarze/y dla “The bilingual problem revisited”

  1. Weronika napisł/a

    Swietny artykul! Milo czasami przeczytac cos zupelnie „nie z mojej bajki” :)

  2. Jagoda Ratajczak napisł/a

    Ukłon w pas, najlepsze co można usłyszeć to właśnie: „nie z mojej bajki, ale w porządku!” Made my day :)

  3. wirtualny_znajomy napisł/a

    O mój… ty, wykładowco :)
    Wywód z matematyczną konsekwencją próbujący wyprowadzić dość abstrakcyjne pojęcia… w pole. ;)
    Przeczytałem z zainteresowaniem.
    Na razie wiem, że nic nie wiem. A prac z lat 20 czy 30 chyba nie proponujesz serio czytać Autorko?
    SLA. Hmmm. Nowe znaczenie dla trzech liter. Dla mnie kolejne bi.
    Nie wiem, co autor miał na myśli odnosząc się do WWIII. WWII to bym jeszcze po swojemu, intuicyjnie zinterpretował, ale przy WWIII wymiękam.
    Cóż czekamy, czekamy. Głód wiedzy nas męczy, ciekawość jak te wywody potoczą się dalej i czy zaprowadzą do czegoś bardziej namacalnego.
    Głęboki ukłon z prośbą o nieodkłanianie. Niech autorka dba o swój kręgosłup i co najwyżej skinie lekko głową, aby grzywka nie zasłoniła ocząt.

  4. Jagoda Ratajczak napisł/a

    „Wiem, że nic nie wiem..” wiem, że to straszne, ale to jest najwłaściwszy wniosek. On przynajmniej nie pozwala nam spocząć na laurach..ani uwierzyć w swoją nieomylność. Poczucie nieomylności charakteryzowało bowiem właśnie tych, co tworzyli przed WWII…ale i po niej, w końcu legendarny Chomsky też rzucił pewne hasło,a o podparcie go „badaniami terenowymi” nikt go nawet nie poprosił. Obecnie rzecz nie do pomyślenia. Ale za danie właśnie do myślenia, składamy ukłony jemu i całej reszcie „nieomylnych”..Czy zachęcam do lektur z lat 20 i 30? Zachęcam. Oczywiście, że to już inny kosmos, a właściwie zapis naiwności i fantazji, ale czyta się to poniekąd z zapartym tchem: jak oni mogli tak myśleć? Bloomfielda czyta się zresztą bardzo dobrze, choć akurat on bierze na warsztat wszystkie komponenty języka, nie analizując dogłębnie tak naprawdę żadnego…ot, język w pigułce, jak sam tytuł wskazuje. Broń Boże zanurzenie w psycholingwistykę, bo to młoda dziedzina jest. Ale klasykę czytać warto, żeby wiedzieć przeciwko czemu się buntować. Przecież gdyby nie ci idealiści, nie byłoby o czym gadać i czym się oburzać;) a tak to przynajmniej poruszyli jakąś strunę…a poruszanie strun to jest najważniejsza sprawa, i widząc, że wirtualnego znajomego struna się poruszyła, cieszę się niezmiernie, tak jak zawsze się cieszę, że czyta i daje znać!:)
    PS. Grzywka teraz na bok, zasłania tylko jedno oko..w porywach ;p

  5. wirtualny_znajomy napisł/a

    W tekście jest WWIII. Bie masz chyba na myśli wszystkich, którzy cokolwiek i kiedykolwiek napisali o Twoim ukochanym bilingu (tak dla skrótu – wiesz, język ewoluuje :) )? A może masz? A może mnie coś ominęło. Nie czytam prasy, nie oglądam tv, nie słucham radio. Była już III-cia?

  6. Jagoda Ratajczak napisł/a

    a cóż to za chłosta ironii…za małą literówkę?;) nie, nie mogę mieć na myśli wszystkich, bo wszystkich na tym świecie nie czytałam. Ale jeszcze te 50 lat na to mam…

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