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Review of  Multilingualism

Reviewer: Kara Johnson
Book Title: Multilingualism
Book Author: Larissa Aronin David M. Singleton
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 23.5177

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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, USA

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. 30).

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 populations.

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 processes.

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 reference.

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 monolingualism.

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. Continuum.

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), 557-591.

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. Continuum.

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: Pergamon.

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.