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Re: mono-lingualism is curable

>Robert Phillipson author of Linguistic Imperialism, (1992) wrote me in an
>e-mail the following:
>My wife (Tove Skutnabb-Kangas) has told me that in bilingual
>education circles in California a popular T-shirt proclaimed "blessed
>with bilingual brains". And once when she was lecturing about the
>joys of multilingualism, some participants went out and had a T-shirt
>made for her with the inscirption "I do not suffer from monolingual
>stupidity". Likewise the phrase "monolingualism is curable" is also
>becoming popular.
>I see this little story as significant in the struggle over linguistic
>pluralism.  Bi-lingual and multi-lingual situations are rather the norm
>and not the exception around the world. In fact a mono-lingual context is
>rather the result of severe linguistic politics and a part of European's
>I am very curious to read more about this fact.

I'd like to point out that monolingualism is not a result of stupidity.
Nor is multilingualism
a sign of intelligence:  as Phillipson points out, the majority of the
world's societies are
bilingual or multilingual, at least historically:  therefore it's not a
sign of particular intelligence, but a response to necessity and

Choosing to remain monolingual in the face of increasing opportunity and
the increasing
advantages of multilingualism is also not a sign of stupidity, but may be a
sign of ignorance,
fear, or prejudice.  It may be something which happens because the benefits
of multilingualism are not shown to be greater than the inconvenience of
learning a second language where that language is not part of the society
(i.e. can't be learned by immersion/natural acquisitional processes).

Let's start this discussion with some clarity in the terms of reference:
e.g. the difference between
being monolingual/bilingual, etc., and the move to legislate or enforce
monolingualism, bilingualism, etc.  It seems to me that any individual
should be free to be monolingual (to the extent that they can still
function thereby as a member of their society), but monolingualism should
not be extolled as socially superior or socially protective, which is what
I understand the California legislation to have been.

I'd be unwilling to support any political or social movement that tries to
encourage multilingualism by calling monolinguals "stupid" or suggesting
they have a disease ("monolingualism is curable").

Furthermore, the slogan "blessed with bilingual brains" is problematic.
Though accurate, perhaps, on one level (with some recent research
suggesting that true bilinguals store their two languages in
separate regions), it connotes or suggests a couple of unfortunate things:
first, that a bilingual
brain is something one is blessed with rather than something that one
acquires (and that's
what every bilingual *does*); second, as above, that bilinguals have
"brains" (not just a brain, i.e.
the conventional expression for being smart), as distinct from monolinguals.

Surely people who want to put forward the case of multilingualism can do it
without unrealistically
elevating the status of bilinguals and without denegrating monolinguals.
That's no way to convert people to a cause.  This denigration of
monolinguals smacks very much of other means of disguising disdain for
social/ethnic groups by ridiculing their linguistic behavior.  Again,
there's no reason to attack monolinguals.  What is subject to attack is the
prevention of multilingualism by either legislation or social pressure.

Bilingual educators should not encourage these practices, however
well-meaning, of people who are just formulating kneejerk responses to a
frustrating situation.

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

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