Bilingualism: Bane or Boon?

Hungarians in Romania

Up until a few decades ago, the academic consensus – along with public opinion – was that bilingualism is detrimental to the individual and society. Nowadays, that has all changed and the new consensus is that bilingualism is enriching and advantageous both for the individual and society. Unfortunately, both sentiments are facile and reductive. Bilingualism – just as monolingualism – is neither good nor bad in itself. What matters is what we make of it, as a recent article about language policy and language ideologies in Székely Land (Kiss, 2011) reminds us.

Székely Land is a region of three counties with a bit over 800,000 inhabitants in Transylvania in Romania (the large green part in the center of the map). Also known as Székelyföld in Hungarian, Ținutul Secuiesc in Romanian, Szeklerland in German and Terra Siculorum in Latin, its many names are indicative of the region’s complex history. Since medieval times, Székely Land has been settled by Székely Hungarians and formed an autonomous region within the Hungarian Kingdom until the middle of the 19th century. While Székely Land lost its autonomy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it continued to form part of Hungary until it was awarded to Romania after World War I with the Treaty of Trianon. In the 1940s, Székely Land became again part of Hungary for another five years and has been part of Romania ever since 1946. For most of the 1950s and 1960s, Székely Land was administered as the Hungarian Autonomous Province within Socialist Romania. The Hungarian Autonomous Province was dissolved in 1968, one year after Ceaușescu became head of state. For the next 20 years, the Romanian authorities pursued a policy of “Rumanization,” which involved the mass resettlement of ethnic Romanians in Székely Land and the resettlement of Székely Hungarians with higher education outside of Székely Land in other parts of Romania. A quick way to sum up the history of Székely Hungarians throughout most of the 20th century might thus be to say that they have been messed around.

In post-communist Romania, the minority rights of Székely Hungarians are being protected by the constitution, as this was a key requirement for EU ascension in 2007. Furthermore, Székely Hungarians constitute the most vocal and best organized minority group in contemporary Romania. Despite the fact that their numbers continue to shrink due to emigration, the position of Székely Hungarians in Romania is often considered exemplary in contemporary Eastern Europe, as in this quote from US President Clinton in the 1990s:

Who is going to define the future of this part of the world? Slobodan Milosevic, with his propaganda machine and paramilitary forces which compel people to give up their country, identity, and property, or a state like Romania which has built a democracy respecting the rights of ethnic minorities?

So, how does this ‘model minority’ fare when it comes to bilingualism? Not great, according to Kiss (2011). Székely Hungarians, like minority groups elsewhere, aspire to full socio-economic participation through high-level bilingualism in the ethnic language (Hungarian) and the state language (Romanian). Indeed, full participation through bilingualism is a constitutional right Székely Hungarians enjoy in democratic Romania. However, in reality, bilingualism is difficult to achieve and social mobility is currently tied to either giving up Hungarian and becoming monolingual in Romanian or giving up the ancestral homeland and emigrating to Hungary.

Why is it that bilingualism does not work for most Székely Hungarians despite the fact that that is what they want and that it is state policy? The problem is slightly different for each language and I will discuss each in turn.

Hungarian, the mother tongue of Székely Hungarians, has been severely damaged by decades of more or less active anti-Hungarian policies. Thus, contemporary Hungarian-medium education suffers from a lack of qualified teachers, appropriate teaching materials and specialized dictionaries. Vocational teachers whose mother tongue is Hungarian, for instance, feel they cannot teach vocational subjects in Hungarian because they lack the technical vocabulary. Since the end of communism, many advanced textbooks have been translated into Hungarian but this has been done in an ad hoc manner and there is a lack of standardization as textbook translations are neither moderated nor are translators necessarily technically competent.

It would seem that these problems of Hungarian teaching could be easily solved with the provision of professional development by teacher training institutions in Hungary and through importing teaching materials from Hungary and/or standardizing local textbooks with reference to norms operating in Hungary. However, this seemingly straightforward solution is not an option because the Romanian state insists on its educational sovereignty and prohibits these measures – the fact that Hungary is a fellow member of the European Union notwithstanding! In sum, despite constitutional language rights, Székely Hungarians in practice largely lack the opportunity to extend their mother tongue into the domains of vocational and higher education.

Romanian doesn’t fare much better but for different reasons. In those parts of the country where they constitute a minority, Romanian Hungarians usually attend Romanian-medium schools and use Romanian on a daily basis outside the home – and more and more of those Hungarians are finding it more convenient to simply switch to Romanian altogether. However, the situation is different in Székely Land, where Hungarians continue to constitute more than three quarters of the population and where Hungarian-medium education is widely available. Lacking the opportunity to practice Romanian in everyday life, Székely Hungarians rely on the school to learn Romanian. Romanian is indeed a compulsory subject throughout the entire education system and some subjects such as Romanian history have to be taught through the medium of Romanian even in Hungarian-medium schools. Even so, the Romanian proficiency of many students is so poorly developed that they fail final school examinations at the end of 8th grade and even at the end 12th grade they often don’t speak Romanian “as correctly and fluently as expected” (p. 241).

The reasons for the unsatisfactory outcomes of Romanian instruction lie in teaching methods, which Kiss (2011: 257) terms ‘worst-practice.’ In Székely Land schools, Romanian is taught not as a foreign language but as a first language, including a heavy emphasis on literary analysis. Consequently, comprehension is limited and students only succeed by memorizing. For instance, a teacher of Romanian Language and Literature in a Székely Land high-school comments as follows:

Competence in Romanian doesn’t develop even in twelve years’ time. Naturally, this can be explained by the fact that the textbook that we use was written for Romanian students, and they do not expect that students will possibly have any difficulties with them, and none of the textbooks concentrate on communicative language use. So, our students learn by heart everything they have to know for the exams. (p. 256)

Again, it would seem that there is a straightforward solution for this problem, namely to employ foreign language teaching methods rather than mother-tongue teaching methods. However, the term ‘foreign language’ with reference to Romanian is apparently so ideologically laden that context-appropriate teaching methods have largely become unthinkable on the national level.

Székely Hungarians aspire to high levels of bilingualism as a resource for socio-economic participation in Romania and Europe. Despite constitutional guarantees, however, in practice their bilingualism is a barrier to full participation. The problems they are facing have nothing to do with bilingualism per se and everything with ideologies about what it means to be Romanian. These ideologies disallow pragmatic solutions to local problems and ensure that, for the time being, bilingualism remains a problem for Székely Hungarians. Kiss, Z. (2011). Language policy and language ideologies in Szekler Land (Rumania): A promotion of bilingualism? Multilingua – Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication, 30 (2), 221-264 DOI: 10.1515/mult.2011.010

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • I can’t agree more with the statement, “Bilingualism – just as monolingualism – is neither good nor bad in itself.” However, the ideology of bilingualism as good for everyone, as you start this post with, is so strong that in some places it’s become almost impossible to even suggest that there could be some contexts where bilingualism may not work, or work against certain groups of people. The study like Kiss’s is so important – it illuminates who misses out and why at the intersection between language policy and the construction of national identity. It also urges a context-specific approach to the notion and practice of bilingualism – that’s just what we need to resist the blind worship for multilingualism.

    • I sure would like to know more about what you say. It adds another layer to the whole scheme. I know that ‘mixed’ populations, divided by language and ethnic background, are easier to manipulate and exploit, but the idea that the forces always pressing for that condition might press for some positions linquistically is–astonishing! But of course!

  • Many thanks Ingrid for this most welcomed post. I perfectly agree that we definetly need to reconsider our position as a researcher concerning the ways in which we tend to too easily create some kind of too simplistic equations like monolingualism = bad; multilingualism = good. This create some new doxa which tend to silence and erase the fact that multilingualism isalso a constitutive part of the construction of social differences and potentially social inequalities. I also totally agree with Kimie that we need to move beyond the blind worship and promotion of multilingualism and rather ask under which circumstances and with what consequences language (in monolingual of multilingual terms) is instrumentalized in order to recreate boundaries, hierarchies and inequalities. We should also bare in mind that in many places on the world multilingualism is politically and now more than ever economically exploited. Thank again.

  • While I’m definitely not for blind worship of multilingualism — all human practices ought to be critically (re)considered on a regular basis, it’s difficult for me to see how monolingualism, taken from a value perspective, is “better” than multilingualism, or, more broadly, that comparative mono-cultural practices, ways of seeing, doing, being, are “better” than multiple ways of seeing, doing, being. Yes, from a “practical”, contextual perspective it might be that a certain group of people would appear to be “better” served, in terms of their material interests, by monolingualism. But, from a values perspective — and, ultimately, I believe there is no such thing as an outside of values perspective, I will always believe that multilingual, multicultural living, being, seeing, practicing are better. Though, of course, these multi-ways of being, living, practicing must constantly be critically interrogated and re-assessed.

    • Thanks, Christof! I wasn’t actually going out batting for monolingualism … but arguing for dispensing with these comparative value judgements altogether. I think Alexandre is summing it up quite nicely: multilingual language ideologies and practices are as frequently instrumentalized to create inequalities as are monolingual ones. While this is a social view, I think you are making a cognitive/individual point, and there you’re right, of course. As Goethe reminds us: “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von der Eigenen.”

      • Do you think it’s possible to dispense with value judgements altogether?

  • Banafsheh

    Dear professor Ingrid,

    Thanks for your helpful and interesting post.It contains very good points for research work.
    Thank you for illuminating the way for researchers.


  • Golnaz

    Dear Professor Ingrid ,
    Perfect ! and really insightful .


  • khan

    …. “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251). While the the quote highlights the note of subjective interpretations of phenomeon, it leaves out an important aspect involved in interpretation and that is the socio-economic forces that shape and reshape emerging realities and decsions. You are absolutely right in maintaining that Bilingualism is neither good or bad. I think it the level of bilingualism which is largely controlled through education and through structural barriers. In case of the Kiss’s study, we are reminded once again through your post that the way high level bilingualism is controlled across speakers of Székely Hungarians.
    I actually see state promoted monolingualism and bilingualism as fraud because they are often used to obscure the the diverse and complex ways throgh which individuals colloborate or contest with institutional discursive practices.

  • Arshad Baig (Karachi, Pakistan)

    I I believe that bilingualism is good in more than just speaking two languages, it is good in that we learn to think in other cultures, values and tradition. We can process better, and are less likely to stereotype or be racially inclined. In my view being bilingual is a beneficial for both for society as well as for individual.
    I am Multilingual. My mother language is “Shina” spoken in the northern part of Pakistan (Gilgit Baltistan), in school I have studied in “Urdu” the national language of Pakistan, studied and learn English in University. I think language paves the wave to promote diversity and pluralism. It is really good to know and interact with several cultures.

  • Asma Fatehali (Karachi, Pakistan)

    Thanks for sharing this thought provoking issue. Language is our heritage, so naturally no one wants it to die for acquiring other. I also think if we are getting education in bilingualism that is strength that we may get exposure of new language also which may give us flavour of diversity.

  • @Christof and @Arshad: I think knowing different languages is “good” in the same way that it’s “good” to have all kinds of knowledges and skills. The more knowledgable and skilled an individual is, the better – and that applies to languages, too. Whether that knowledge and and those skills are valued by others is an entirely different matter and often we find that speaking certain languages is not particularly valued vis-a-vis speaking others.

    However, I think we have to be really careful not to talk about multilingualism in terms of moral “goodness”: there is a trend to think that multilinguals are more open-minded, integrative, peaceful etc. These dispositions may be inculcated in certain forms of bilingual education but I don’t think it’s reasonable to claim that bilingualism per se results in these dispositons and that multilinguals as such are morally superior. Just think of Stalin – he grew up bilingually (Georgian and Russian) and was an accomplished linguist …