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Re: Multiligualism as the norm?

>If everyone on earth spoke all the languages on earth, there might be
>peace on the earth.  Robert McNamara's new book about the Vietnam War
>begins with a guide to correct pronunciation of the names of the North
>Vietnamese officials, maintaining that if you can't pronounce their
>names properly, you can't hope to understand their point of view.

This is a great ideal; unfortunately it isn't borne out empirically, in all
cases.  Like
anything else, multilingualism learned in a less-than-intellectually-free
context becomes infected (if I might speak figuratively) with the virus of
Slave traders learn the language of their victims in order to subjugate
them.  Enemies
learn the language of their rivals in order to propagandize them.  And so
on.  Human
beings will use any means at their disposal to carry out their ends, and
when their
ends are evil, their use of multilingualism will be too.  History has given
us many
examples of this.

I think McNamara, well-meaning though he is, ascribes much too much to
"proper pronunciation".  It's simplistic to imagine that learning how to
move your
vocal tract the right way can affect your world-view more or more
than learning about the ethical values, mythological and other histories,
practices, etc. of the country involved.  Language is a medium of culture;
is important, an important marker of being part of the linguistic community
and by
implication the social community, but it doesn't substitute for actual
cultural and
ethical knowledge.  World peace depends on what we do, not what language we
while doing it.  It's unfortunate that learning about the culture and
society of other people
doesn't automatically bring appreciation and empathy with it, anyway.

>I am nearly monolingual and consider it
>a real disability.  It requires treatment at an early age, or else may
>be intractable, no?  To learn extra languages if you have grown up with
>two or three is somehow fairly accessible; if you have grown up hearing
>only English and the version of French your parents use when they don't
>want you to understand what they say at the dinner table is to leave a
>whole part of your brain unexercised, and that part of your brain may
>soon wither.

As for the question of whether monolingualism can be remediated in
adulthood, take heart.
Though theorists in language acquisition generally believe that the
"acquisition window"
closes with the end of adolescence, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence
to suggest
that the window narrows but doesn't close.  For instance, my brother and I
were bilingual
in Spanish and English in our first couple of talking years, but lost the
Spanish entirely by the
time we were 4 or 5; studied German in high school; didn't use much
thereafter. Brother
emigrated to France in his mid-twenties, after taking an intensive French
course in the U.S.,
and lived and worked there with French that people suspected was Swiss in
origin:  no one
picked him as an "ugly American", and he didn't reveal it if he didn't have
to.  The point is,
in adulthood he picked up French and a smattering of Italian and Dutch
after a very attenuated
childhood/adolescent bilngualism, and a whole lot of motivation.  I ascribe
my own essential
monolingualism to a lack of similar motivation, not to a slammed window of
acquisition.  (It's
now known that new neural connections can be grown in adulthood, so the
notion that
'that part of your brain may soon wither' is not literally true, though
experientially it feels
that way when you're trying to learn a language in adulthood.)  The method
of second
language acquisition is also a big factor in learning:  three hours a week
in a classroom
isn't going to do it, and of course is about as far from a natural process
of language acquisition
as you can get.  I think a lot of the evidence of adult second-language
learning is confounded
by this logically independent factor:  the people who are studied may be
tryhing to acquire
their language in artificial situations, i.e. classroom learning.  When
adults learn language in
an immersion situation, as with immigration, there are other compounding
factors, e.g. the
stress of economic hardship as immigrants struggle for jobs, possibly the
emotional stresses
associated with loss of the homeland and the prejudice associated with
their encounters
with members of their new speech community; etc.

I also want to make a point related to another posting:  the prestige of a
language spoken is
related to the prestige of the culture it's associated with:  my brother's
English was appreciated
as a "third language" by those who thought he was Swiss; but if it had been
identified as his "first language", and he thereby revealed as an American,
things would
have gone quite differently for him, or so he thought.

Bringing up children bi- or tri-lingual does seem to give them an
unmitigated advantage,
in that learning a language is much easier early in life, and (anectodally
it seems to be that)
it makes adult learning of another language easier.  But like most other
skills, language
competence isn't just learned; the languages have to be used through
adolescence to
be retained as knowledge.  My own labored reading of the postings to this
list in Spanish and
French attest to that.

Dr Claudia Brugman
Linguistics Section, School of Languages
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

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