Language. Mobility. Environment.

B for Bilingualism

Aneta Pavlenkos’s Emotions and Multilingualism is at the moment the linguistics book that is keeping me company on my daily journeys to campus. Or while I’m working at the Gallery, during some occasional dead shift. I must admit I have just started it, therefore it’s very likely that my next articles will be affected by the amazing discoveries I will make every now and then, page after page.

Still, since the very beginning I have come across a bunch of particularly interesting points. Including a parenthesis on names and definition, a hodgepodge of letters and numbers, like a series of equations. In short, we have L1 (Language 1) i.e. the language acquired first, regardless the individual’s competence, at any phase of their life. It may happen that that this individual hasn’t been speaking L1 for decades. The latter is actually a very specific case, as generally L1 corresponds to one’s mother-tongue. L2, L3 and L4 (and so on) come afterwards, i.e. other languages acquired in everyday life contexts, NOT in educational environment. In the latter case, Second Language Acquisition scholars speak about FL, Foreign Language. Most recent studies have redetermined the linguistic vocabulary, as it now takes into account discussions on bilingualism o multilingualism; the phrase L2 user sounds by far more politically correct than ‘non-native speaker’. But hang on, the best is yet to come.

At university I have met quite a few multilingual mates whose ‘case’ were to me pretty bizarre. They designate a certain language as L1, nonetheless their competence is, grammar- or phonetics-wise, much higher in their L2. How come? I ask myself.  Is it then possible to speak about mother-tongues, even though their grammar knowledge is clearly weaker if compared with their mastery of L2?

Case n. 1.  (The awkward moment when your friends turn into ‘cases’)

L1: Dutch ; L2 English ; L3: German ; FL1: Spanish FL2: Chinese ; FL3: French

Case n. 2.

L1: Dhivehi ; L2 English ; FL1: French ; FL2: Arabic

These two cases are quite impressive, associated by a common element: the prevalence of L2 over L1 – unusual form of dominant bilingualism. My reaction might seem rather superficial yet – I reiterate – I really couldn’t comprehend the oddity. I was probably used to an Italian educational reality, where the system stresses on a cultural monolingualism, accompanied (sporadically) by a tentative pragmatic bilingualism driven by trade necessity. The possible scenario where one’s mother-tongue is almost ousted by the second-comer seems to be bizarre as unfair. Why does this happen? Easy, I tend to think from a merely monolingual point of view, an approach that can also be observed in Chomsky’s linguistics theories. I will quote a relevant passage:

Traditionally, linguistics has treated L1 competence of individual speakers as a stable property, meaning that once the speaker’s language system has ‘matured’, linguistic competence would no longer be subject to change. […] (According to MacWhinney) once a local brain area “has been committed, it then begins to accept input data that lead toward a fine-tuning of the activation weights governing processing. If a second language is then to be imposed upon this pre-existing neural structure, it would directly interfere with the established set of weights. In fact, the use of transfer in second language learning allows the learner to avoid such catastrophic interference of L2 back upon L1.

As stated later on in Pavlenko’s argument, recent studies have revolutionised the way people conceptualise bilingualism. Competence in L2 is actually a ‘much more dynamic process, subject to the influence of L1 at to its attrition on L2″. Therefore this argument modernises the idea of ‘native speaker’ breaking the frames of mind hitherto imposed by traditional linguistics. We are now encouraged to think outside the box, i.e. outside our inherently monolingual mindset. We are used to think about languages as separated entities, generally detached from one another (although we still appreciate the interconnection between them). Nevertheless this perspective analyses language adding a more realistic analytical framework. I found particularly interesting how creativity and creative writing made their way into the argument. Pavlenko mentions personalities like Joseph Conrad and Ha Jin, but really, there is no need to look into classic literature. Multilingualism enhances those abilities that are employed when shaping the language for creative reasons. Case 1 is a writer in every sense, case 2 is into journalism (and her articles are pretty good, to be fair). Ultimately, I am not saying that multilingualism creates an alternative ‘language dimension’ where different languages blend together. And I am not saying that L1 and L2 become a confusing mixture of the two either. Yet I believe that the interaction between L1 and L2 especially boosts the ability to engage with language in a more diverse spectrum of aspects.

Again, L1 shapes language competences primarily, L2 completes the work. And the final outcome may result in a particularly impressive mastery of the language, backed up by a previously existing language knowledge which, eventually, works as strengthening factor. This is a much more positive perspective of the issue, where L2 is considered an ‘expansion’ rather than a deficit. Language purists tend to look at the phenomenon as the death of L1, consequently giving L2 a negative, destructive connotation. But fortunately, this is not how things really work.

Nähdään pian!

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