The monolingual myth

The monolingual myth

This critique has been an important one but it runs into a problem when we consider the idea of monolingualism itself. At the same time that this critique of monolingual mindsets has aimed to stir up the multilingual pot and get us thinking about multilingualism as the norm, “sociolinguists of multilingualism have started to question the language ideological strategy which tries to overcome the monolingual mindset by enumerating languages” as Ingrid Piller put it in Multilingualism 2.0. Sinfree Makoni and I, for example, have argued that a problem with much discussion of multilingualism is that it rests on a pluralization of monolingualism: Multilingualism as often understood in both popular and academic discourse suggests that we speak multiple mono-languages. In line with these arguments, other scholars, such as Jan Blommaert in his recent book The Sociolinguistics of Globalization have been urging us to move away from the idea of enumerable and separate languages, and instead to look at registers, styles, discourses, genres and practices. In a similar vein, Emi Otsuji and I have been talking of “metrolingualism” rather than “multilingualism.”

While these two critiques – of the monolingual mindset and of multilingualism as multiple monolingualisms – might seem to be fairly compatible with each other, at another level they are at odds. The critique of monolingualism and the monolingual mindset addresses the lack of pluralism in both practice and ideology: “Monolinguals exist and the world would be a better place if they didn’t!”

The critique of the language ideologies that maintain the notion of multilingualism as an enumerable capacity (“I speak five languages!”), by contrast, focuses on the need for an account of language diversity based on semiotic resources rather than languages. This is not because speaking only one language is seen as OK but rather because it is as impossible as speaking several mono-languages. Languages do not exist in this way, either as single entities or as collections.

In the end, we would have to conclude that the critique of the monolingual mindset derives from the same language ideology that it is critiquing.  The idea of a monolingual mindset is based on the fiction of monolingualism. If we take the current sociolinguistic literature on styles, registers, discourses, genres and practices seriously, then monolingualism is also a myth: a monolingual mindset does not emerge from a state of monolingualism, because no such state can exist. If languages are myths, so too is monolingualism!

Blommaert, J (2010) The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Makoni and Pennycook (2007) ) Disinventing and reconstituting languages. In S Makoni and A Pennycook (Eds) Disinventing and reconstituting languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1-41.

Otsuji, E and A Pennycook (2010) Metrolingualism: Fixity, fluidity and language in flux. International Journal of Multilingualism, 7(3), 240-254.

Author Alastair Pennycook

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  • That was a long article. I enjoyed reading it, but it may have been over my head. So, please excuse my ignorance.

    Like here in the U.S. lots of people speak Spanglish where they mix Spanish and English. It is usually frowned upon because people say you should only speak one language at a time, and mixing languages is not a good thing. Or they see it as meaning that you must be mixing two languages because your skill in either language is lacking.

    So, does this article imply that mixing languages is normal?

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