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LINGUIST List 23.5177

Tue Dec 11 2012

Review: Sociolinguistics: Aronin & Singleton (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 11-Dec-2012
From: Kara Johnson <karajemail.arizona.edu>
Subject: Multilingualism
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-1213.html

AUTHORS: Larissa Aronin and David Singleton
TITLE: Multilingualism
SERIES TITLE: IMPACT: Studies in Language and Society 30
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2012

Kara Johnson, University of Arizona, Tucson

Larissa Aronin and David Singleton acknowledge that many publications have
addressed the phenomenon of multilingualism in recent years, and their
objective is to consolidate current views and treatments of multilingualism in
the global community. They accomplish this by addressing various topics in
both research and debate in multilingualism, as well as the various
perspectives that fall into each. Opening with definitions of terminology and
an overview of the attention that multilingualism is receiving globally allows
the book to be accessible to audiences who are peripherally investigating the
issues as well as those who are exploring more in depth what could appear as
contradicting terminologies and research.

The introduction sets the scene with terminology and definitions of what has
been considered “multilingualism” or “bilingualism.” They identify views from
Braun’s very narrow definition that multilingualism involves “active,
completely equal mastery of two or more languages” (1937, p. 115) to Hall’s
rather liberal definition that it is “at least some knowledge and control of
the grammatical structure of the second language” (1952, p. 14), as well as
less extreme views. Since the comparisons of additional languages are so often
made to the “mother tongue” or “native language” (p. 3), they raise the
problem of defining these terms. These terms are often used interchangeably,
but each carries connotations, such as the language being spoken by one’s
family or being associated with some degree of proficiency. They further
identify the debate in the literature over such terms as “multilingual” and
“bilingual” and what each denotes, and they discuss how they will use the
concepts and terms. The chapter concludes by outlining the book’s structure.

Chapter 2, “Multilingualism: Some preliminary considerations,” explores
conceptions of language from three points of view: as a possession unique to
humans, as an ability, as a tool. In looking at language as uniquely human,
they introduce various features of language found in human and animal
communication and conclude that certain features of the human language
communication system, particularly the ability to operate bi- and
multilingually, are not found in non-human species. Some elements of language
at the disposal of domesticated animals are present only following training or
as “departures from the norm” (p. 17), and they give a dog’s response to
“sit!” and apes’ use of sign language as examples. Taking language as a tool,
they discuss the social and identity issues that are connected with language
use. This led into their discussion on other societal issues relevant to
bilingualism and language learning, including various degrees or types of
competence (e.g., communicative, transitional, interlanguage) in second
language learning. They suggest that the typical measure of a bilingual
against a “monolingual native speaker” should be re-evaluated to instead
consider their “communicative versatility … with additional languages” (p.

Chapter 3, “Multilingualism as a new linguistic dispensation,” seeks to
account for the multilingualism we see through descriptions of societal level
shifts in such areas as population mobility and technology advances. The
authors note the ubiquitous nature of multilingualism today. An increasing
number of languages are being recognized as languages, despite a lack of set
criteria for distinguishing between “languages” and “dialects,” and
monolingualism is becoming “characteristic of only a minority of world’s
population” (p. 41). They discuss distinctions between historical and
contemporary multilingualism and introduce the two modern trends: (1) the
spread of English as a language of world communication, trade, and
international development, and (2) the diversity of languages increasing due
to revitalization and giving official recognition to stigmatized languages.
They conclude the chapter by identifying that shifting norms have brought to
focus new language issues in which the phenomenon of multilingualism is a
social issue “inextricably intertwined” with globalization (p. 56).

Chapter 4, “The Dominant Language Constellation (DLC),” introduces Aronin and
Singleton’s concept for shifting the focus from the linguistic features of
multilingualism to the social aspects. They differentiate their framework from
what they call Fishman’s (1966) “dominance configuration” and de Swaan’s
(2001) “language constellation.” They suggest that although multilinguals can
have many languages to draw from, there are 2-4 that they are dominant in and
use for most purposes, and any others are used only for very specific
purposes. They introduce this construct as a theoretical and practical way to
analyze multilinguals’ language communities and look at multilinguals as

Chapter 5, “Multilinguality and Personal Development,” discusses the groupings
and connections between an individual’s language and identity, as well as the
impact of societal issues. For example, speakers of the artificial language of
Esperanto choose to learn this language because they identify with other
speakers, with the type of person who wants to learn such a language. They
refer to Cook (1992), among many other authors, who note that a multilingual
is not that sum of several monolinguals, but rather is an individual with
different linguistic competencies than a monolingual. They refer to past
research as having a consensus that an individual learns a third language
differently than they learn a second language in that they have different
language learning strategies, but that beyond a third language, there is not
much difference in learning additional languages. They also note that factors
such as education, age, and environment greatly affect language learning
outcomes and life trajectories.

Chapter 6, “Language development in multilingual conditions,” addresses the
environments in which multilinguals develop one or two or more languages. They
offer several authors’ attempts to categorize them, such as by whether the
parents speak one or more languages at home and which language they speak
outside the home. They note a debate in the literature over whether
multilinguals develop a single system of language or separate systems, whether
some words are available only in one language but not in another. They refer
to Macnamara’s (1966) study which indicates that children who learned multiple
languages at an early age learned neither very well, but Aronin and Singleton
identify opposing studies (e.g., Cummings, 1977) that show children learning
multiple languages actually improve their overall language development and
particularly in respect to metalinguistic awareness and creativity due to
their “increased perceptual awareness of words (p. 111).

Chapter 7, “Classifications of multilinguals, multilingual contexts and
languages in multilingual environments,” begins with the authors’ own
classifications for monolingualism studies as “user,” “environment,” and
“language.” This differs from Edwards’ (1994) division of the elements as
“speaker,” “settings,” and “language,” but they argue that their terminology
is essentially the same but more comprehensive for the current ranges we see
of conditions in which users employ language. They point out that researchers
have difficulty in classifying speakers by how many languages they speak
because of the variety of languages and proficiencies. They then discuss
Baker’s (1988) topology of bilingual education, relating to monolinguals,
going from weak forms to strong. It is clear that the goals of the different
types vary, from subtractive views of the native language to viewing the
language learning as enrichment and an opportunity for adding languages to the
learners’ repertoires. In discussing the topologies of languages, they treat
the unequal status languages have in terms of power and status
sociolinguistically, addressing the role these languages play in the economics
of some countries.

Chapter 8, “A multilingual monolith?”, addresses the interplay that languages
have in adult multilinguals. They look at arguments and evidence from
researchers who suggest that languages in a multilingual are largely separate,
with users’ word searches happening in each language separately. Much of the
support for this separatist perspective has come from studies of brain
injuries and disorders in which a single language was lost while another was
untouched. They suggest another contribution to this argument for separation
are cases of individuals growing up with one language and choosing to abandon
it for another. The authors balance this with the notion of “multicompetence”
(e.g., Cook, 1992) in which users negotiate between languages, oftentimes with
the lines between them blurred (Harris, 1998). Rather than attempting to
settle the debate, they present research and experiments suggesting first one
interpretation of the evidence and then another and conclude that
cross-linguistic language awareness is a necessary and complex set of

Chapter 9, “Towards a comprehensive view of multilingualism,” examines recent
research in multilingualism and the conceptualizations and constructs used in
developing models and studying mono- and bilingualism. They then suggest that
there is a philosophy for viewing and studying multilingualism that is
distinct from a philosophy of language. As part of considering these, they
include cultural, attitudinal, and identity dimensions. They use
investigations in language acquisition and psycholinguistics (e.g., Herdina &
Jessner, 2002) to emphasize the dynamic nature of multilingualism and the
quantitative and qualitative differences between monolingualism, bilingualism,
and multilingualism, suggesting that future research can lead to “a more
comprehensive theoretical understanding of multilingualism and [yield]
practical results in the teaching of multiple languages” (p. 185).

Chapter 10, “Concluding thoughts,” briefly summarizes the previous chapters,
pointing to the creativity and uniqueness of language as a trait of human
ability. They express certainty that multilingualism is growing as a research
field and in public awareness, while they also recognizing that speaking
multiple languages is not a new ability. They do not claim expertise in every
form of investigation into multilingualism, such as neurolinguistic
approaches, but note that an increasing amount of research with new avenues
for investigation is opening with each step taken.

This volume functions well as an introduction and overview of multilingualism,
past and present. Several recent publications addressing multilingualism
approach the issues from the perspective of examining the languages themselves
(Edwards, 2012) or pedagogical practices (Blackledge & Creese, 2010), yet
Aronin and Singleton’s focus here is on global issues and debates in
multilingualism. They investigate the role that globalization has played in
the rise of multilingualism and suggest that the field is in need of “the most
comprehensive consideration possible” (p. 1). To achieve this, they outline
historical ways that multilingualism has changed qualitatively as well as
identify the perspectives that have contributed to research in the field.

Aronin and Singleton give an admirable compilation of the relevant issues,
leaving the reader with an overall picture of the research that has
contributed to the debates. There are a couple drawbacks for an instructor or
researcher in the volume’s execution. Organizationally, the advance from one
chapter topic to the next does not clearly build upon the previous but instead
each is largely independent of the other. As a part of this, one chapter
(Chapter 4, DLC) is primarily composed of the authors’ own interpretations and
unique contributions with surrounding chapters largely reviews of other
researchers’ contributions and classifications. An instructor would need to
consider how to address such issues if using this as a course book or

A chapter that can be an excellent reference for commonly asked practical
questions about multilingualism is Chapter 6, “Language development in
multilingual conditions.” The authors cite studies such as Jedynak (2009), who
indicates that with many learners, although not a majority, attain native-like
pronunciation of a language depending more on length of time learning the
language rather than age beginning to learn it; and Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson
(2000) who counter this noting that there has never been a recorded case of a
learner after puberty speaking in every way like a native. Aronin and
Singleton (2012) also address literature investigating the shifting
proficiencies of languages in young multilinguals and the factors that
influence one language becoming more proficient than another. Since parents,
teachers, and school administrators in various modern cultures assume or
question whether learning multiple languages in early childhood is harmful for
a child, this chapter indicates that children can gain much by early
multilingualism. Aronin and Singleton (2012) acknowledge that some research is
still inconclusive in determining if childhood multilingual acquisition is
slower than that of monolinguals.

A chapter that can be particularly useful for researchers is Chapter 7,
“Classifications of multilinguals, multilingual contexts and languages in
multilingual environments.” In this chapter, Aronin and Singleton classify
multilinguals into the three categories they recommend for research: users,
environments, education. Within each of these, they review each of the
classifications and topologies of researchers (such as Cenoz, 2000) who have
already similarly attempted to classify multilinguals or bilinguals. Their
approach consolidated the classifications that have been made for bilinguals,
and they how they may be inadequate for classifying multilinguals. The
categories give future researchers in this area meaningful ways to capture the
essence of the issue under consideration while leaving room to expand the
classifications and topographies to fit the multilingual environments they
wish to explore. The authors conclude with a look at language types, as
divided by language families, and focusing on sociolinguistic differences.

Larissa Aronin and David Singleton address multilingualism as a contemporary
issue, and they do this well. Because of the historical and background
research they overview for each topic, this work can be useful a reference or
coursebook for researchers or instructors wanting a consolidated text that
addresses the foundational research and perspectives in multilingualism. They
identify some areas of multilingualism and bilingualism as important for
growth and understanding in this field, such as the significance of reaching
an understanding between societies and individuals. They push for a
qualitative shift in studies, to looking beyond both bilingualism and

The drawback of their approach is that while the book compiles much past
research into themes, such as the language and classifications developed for
multilinguals’ environments, their own unique contribution to the field is
sparse. Each topic is compiled from previous typologies or classifications
with the identification that they may not be complete to represent the
contexts of many multilinguals, yet they do not offer improved alternatives
for most. Despite this, they make noteworthy contributions. One is their
worthwhile expansion of Edwards’ (1994) division of main elements of
multilingualism from “speaker,” “settings,” and “language” to the more
comprehensive “user,” “environment,” and “language.” As they note,
perspectives have broadened in the last 20 years, and “user” and
“environment” are a meaningful expansion since more than spoken
languages--also signers and writers--are analyzed, and much more can
contribute to the environment than the setting, such as the languages spoken
between the parents and by each parent to a child. They also offer Chapter 4
to introduce their Dominant Language Constellation (DLC) as a concept and
framework for shifting the focus of multilingual research onto the social
aspects rather than the linguistics ones.

This volume can be an excellent starting place for researchers seeking an
accessible way to engage the topics and classifications of multilingualism.
Since the challenges and shortcomings of research topologies in the field are
addressed in each chapter, future researchers will have the opportunity to
address those issues themselves. The book’s greatest contribution is
highlighting the need to recognize the complexity of multilingualism and the
ambiguity that current research allows since this awareness can prompt and
challenge the development of approaches that can lead to a more comprehensive
understanding of the phenomena of multilingualism. Multilingualism as a
research field is relatively young, so their efforts to increase awareness of
the issues and research needs are commendable.

Baker, C. (1988). Key Issues in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education.
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Blackledge, A., & Creese, A. (2010). Multilingualism: A Critical Perspective.

Braun, M. (1937). Beobachtungen zur Frage der Mehrsprachigkeit. Göttingische
Gelehrte Anzeigen, 115-130.

Cenoz, J. (2000). Research on multilingual acquisition. In J. Cenoz, & U.
Jessner, English in Europe: The Acquisition of a Third Language (pp. 39-53).
Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cook, V. (1992). Evidence for multi-competence. Language Learning , 42 (4),

Cummings, J. (1977). A comarison of reading skills in Irish and English medium
schools. In V. G. (ed.), Studies in Reading (pp. 128-134). Dublin: Educational
Co. of Ireland.

de Swaan, A. (2001). The Words of the World: The Global Language System.
Cambridge: Polity Press.

Edwards, J. (1994). Multilingualism. London: Routledge.

Edwards, J. (2012). Multilingualism: Understanding Linguistic Diversity.

Fishman, J. A. (1966). Language Loyalty in the United States. The maintenance
and perpetuation of Non-English Mother Tongue by American Ethnic and Religious
groups. The Hague: Mouton.

Hall, A. R. (1952). Bilingualism and applied linguistics. Zeitschrift für
Phonetik und allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, 13-30.

Harris, R. (1998). Introduction to Integrational Linguistics. Oxford:

Herdina, P., & Jessner, U. (2002). A Dynamic Medel of Meltilingualism:
Perspectives of Change in Psycholinguistics. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Hyltenstam, K., & Abrahamsson, N. (2000). Who can become native-like in a
second language? All, some, or non? On the maturational controversy in second
language acquisition. Studia Linguistica, 54 (2).

Jedynak, M. (2009). Critical Period Hypothesis Revisited: The Impact of Age on
Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language. Frankfurt:
Peter Lang.

Macnamara, J. (1966). Bilingualism and Primary Education. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press.

Kara Johnson completed her Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching
program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She also has research
interests in intercultural communication and rhetoric, teacher training,
materials development, and corpus linguistics.
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