LINGUIST List 23.5177

Tue Dec 11 2012

Review: Sociolinguistics: Aronin & Singleton (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 11-Dec-2012
From: Kara Johnson <>
Subject: Multilingualism
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AUTHORS: Larissa Aronin and David SingletonTITLE: MultilingualismSERIES TITLE: IMPACT: Studies in Language and Society 30PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing CompanyYEAR: 2012

Kara Johnson, University of Arizona, Tucson

SUMMARYLarissa Aronin and David Singleton acknowledge that many publications haveaddressed the phenomenon of multilingualism in recent years, and theirobjective is to consolidate current views and treatments of multilingualism inthe global community. They accomplish this by addressing various topics inboth research and debate in multilingualism, as well as the variousperspectives that fall into each. Opening with definitions of terminology andan overview of the attention that multilingualism is receiving globally allowsthe book to be accessible to audiences who are peripherally investigating theissues as well as those who are exploring more in depth what could appear ascontradicting terminologies and research.

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

Chapter 2, “Multilingualism: Some preliminary considerations,” exploresconceptions of language from three points of view: as a possession unique tohumans, as an ability, as a tool. In looking at language as uniquely human,they introduce various features of language found in human and animalcommunication and conclude that certain features of the human languagecommunication system, particularly the ability to operate bi- andmultilingually, are not found in non-human species. Some elements of languageat the disposal of domesticated animals are present only following training oras “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 languageuse. This led into their discussion on other societal issues relevant tobilingualism and language learning, including various degrees or types ofcompetence (e.g., communicative, transitional, interlanguage) in secondlanguage learning. They suggest that the typical measure of a bilingualagainst a “monolingual native speaker” should be re-evaluated to insteadconsider their “communicative versatility … with additional languages” (p.30).

Chapter 3, “Multilingualism as a new linguistic dispensation,” seeks toaccount for the multilingualism we see through descriptions of societal levelshifts in such areas as population mobility and technology advances. Theauthors note the ubiquitous nature of multilingualism today. An increasingnumber of languages are being recognized as languages, despite a lack of setcriteria for distinguishing between “languages” and “dialects,” andmonolingualism is becoming “characteristic of only a minority of world’spopulation” (p. 41). They discuss distinctions between historical andcontemporary multilingualism and introduce the two modern trends: (1) thespread of English as a language of world communication, trade, andinternational development, and (2) the diversity of languages increasing dueto revitalization and giving official recognition to stigmatized languages.They conclude the chapter by identifying that shifting norms have brought tofocus new language issues in which the phenomenon of multilingualism is asocial issue “inextricably intertwined” with globalization (p. 56).

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

Chapter 5, “Multilinguality and Personal Development,” discusses the groupingsand connections between an individual’s language and identity, as well as theimpact of societal issues. For example, speakers of the artificial language ofEsperanto choose to learn this language because they identify with otherspeakers, with the type of person who wants to learn such a language. Theyrefer to Cook (1992), among many other authors, who note that a multilingualis not that sum of several monolinguals, but rather is an individual withdifferent linguistic competencies than a monolingual. They refer to pastresearch as having a consensus that an individual learns a third languagedifferently than they learn a second language in that they have differentlanguage learning strategies, but that beyond a third language, there is notmuch difference in learning additional languages. They also note that factorssuch as education, age, and environment greatly affect language learningoutcomes and life trajectories.

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

Chapter 7, “Classifications of multilinguals, multilingual contexts andlanguages in multilingual environments,” begins with the authors’ ownclassifications 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 terminologyis essentially the same but more comprehensive for the current ranges we seeof conditions in which users employ language. They point out that researchershave difficulty in classifying speakers by how many languages they speakbecause of the variety of languages and proficiencies. They then discussBaker’s (1988) topology of bilingual education, relating to monolinguals,going from weak forms to strong. It is clear that the goals of the differenttypes vary, from subtractive views of the native language to viewing thelanguage learning as enrichment and an opportunity for adding languages to thelearners’ repertoires. In discussing the topologies of languages, they treatthe unequal status languages have in terms of power and statussociolinguistically, addressing the role these languages play in the economicsof some countries.

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

Chapter 9, “Towards a comprehensive view of multilingualism,” examines recentresearch in multilingualism and the conceptualizations and constructs used indeveloping models and studying mono- and bilingualism. They then suggest thatthere is a philosophy for viewing and studying multilingualism that isdistinct from a philosophy of language. As part of considering these, theyinclude cultural, attitudinal, and identity dimensions. They useinvestigations in language acquisition and psycholinguistics (e.g., Herdina &Jessner, 2002) to emphasize the dynamic nature of multilingualism and thequantitative and qualitative differences between monolingualism, bilingualism,and multilingualism, suggesting that future research can lead to “a morecomprehensive 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 humanability. They express certainty that multilingualism is growing as a researchfield and in public awareness, while they also recognizing that speakingmultiple languages is not a new ability. They do not claim expertise in everyform of investigation into multilingualism, such as neurolinguisticapproaches, but note that an increasing amount of research with new avenuesfor investigation is opening with each step taken.

EVALUATIONThis volume functions well as an introduction and overview of multilingualism,past and present. Several recent publications addressing multilingualismapproach the issues from the perspective of examining the languages themselves(Edwards, 2012) or pedagogical practices (Blackledge & Creese, 2010), yetAronin and Singleton’s focus here is on global issues and debates inmultilingualism. They investigate the role that globalization has played inthe rise of multilingualism and suggest that the field is in need of “the mostcomprehensive consideration possible” (p. 1). To achieve this, they outlinehistorical ways that multilingualism has changed qualitatively as well asidentify 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 hascontributed to the debates. There are a couple drawbacks for an instructor orresearcher in the volume’s execution. Organizationally, the advance from onechapter topic to the next does not clearly build upon the previous but insteadeach is largely independent of the other. As a part of this, one chapter(Chapter 4, DLC) is primarily composed of the authors’ own interpretations andunique contributions with surrounding chapters largely reviews of otherresearchers’ contributions and classifications. An instructor would need toconsider how to address such issues if using this as a course book orreference.

A chapter that can be an excellent reference for commonly asked practicalquestions about multilingualism is Chapter 6, “Language development inmultilingual conditions.” The authors cite studies such as Jedynak (2009), whoindicates that with many learners, although not a majority, attain native-likepronunciation of a language depending more on length of time learning thelanguage 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 alearner after puberty speaking in every way like a native. Aronin andSingleton (2012) also address literature investigating the shiftingproficiencies of languages in young multilinguals and the factors thatinfluence one language becoming more proficient than another. Since parents,teachers, and school administrators in various modern cultures assume orquestion whether learning multiple languages in early childhood is harmful fora child, this chapter indicates that children can gain much by earlymultilingualism. Aronin and Singleton (2012) acknowledge that some research isstill inconclusive in determining if childhood multilingual acquisition isslower than that of monolinguals.

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

Larissa Aronin and David Singleton address multilingualism as a contemporaryissue, and they do this well. Because of the historical and backgroundresearch they overview for each topic, this work can be useful a reference orcoursebook for researchers or instructors wanting a consolidated text thataddresses the foundational research and perspectives in multilingualism. Theyidentify some areas of multilingualism and bilingualism as important forgrowth and understanding in this field, such as the significance of reachingan understanding between societies and individuals. They push for aqualitative shift in studies, to looking beyond both bilingualism andmonolingualism.

The drawback of their approach is that while the book compiles much pastresearch into themes, such as the language and classifications developed formultilinguals’ environments, their own unique contribution to the field issparse. Each topic is compiled from previous typologies or classificationswith the identification that they may not be complete to represent thecontexts of many multilinguals, yet they do not offer improved alternativesfor most. Despite this, they make noteworthy contributions. One is theirworthwhile expansion of Edwards’ (1994) division of main elements ofmultilingualism from “speaker,” “settings,” and “language” to the morecomprehensive “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 spokenlanguages--also signers and writers--are analyzed, and much more cancontribute to the environment than the setting, such as the languages spokenbetween the parents and by each parent to a child. They also offer Chapter 4to introduce their Dominant Language Constellation (DLC) as a concept andframework for shifting the focus of multilingual research onto the socialaspects rather than the linguistics ones.

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

REFERENCESBaker, 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. GöttingischeGelehrte 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 mediumschools. In V. G. (ed.), Studies in Reading (pp. 128-134). Dublin: EducationalCo. 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 maintenanceand perpetuation of Non-English Mother Tongue by American Ethnic and Religiousgroups. The Hague: Mouton.

Hall, A. R. (1952). Bilingualism and applied linguistics. Zeitschrift fürPhonetik 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 asecond language? All, some, or non? On the maturational controversy in secondlanguage acquisition. Studia Linguistica, 54 (2).

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

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

ABOUT THE REVIEWERKara Johnson completed her Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Teachingprogram at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She also has researchinterests in intercultural communication and rhetoric, teacher training,materials development, and corpus linguistics.

Page Updated: 11-Dec-2012