Monolingualism is a term used to define individuals who speak only one language. The number of bi- and multilingual people is increasing constantly. However, even nowadays, monolingualism is considered a norm whereas, bi-and multilingualism is viewed as unusual. With the increase of globalization and cultural diversity, the importance of speaking multiple languages continues to rise. In a discussion on the topic of changing the monolingual mindset, Yaron Matras, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Manchester and Honorary Professor at the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, shared his valuable insights and experience about languages and language learning.
The Story of Yaron Matras
Professor Matras’ passion for languages developed at an early age. He grew up in a multilingual household and spoke between four to five different languages in the multilingual city of Jerusalem. This inspired him to learn languages and to build a bridge between cultures and nations. Later he moved to Germany to study, and took interest in Germanic languages and dialects, Middle Eastern languages of migrants, and Diaspora communities such as Persian, Kurdish, and Turkish, among others. For Prof. Matras, linguistics was a way to connect with languages while building bridges and a social justice agenda.
Prof. Matras is the founder of the Multilingual Manchester Initiative, where researchers, local stakeholders, and government community groups raise awareness of multilingualism, investigate challenges and huge opportunities that languages offer locally and beyond borders. In cooperation with healthcare providers, the local government, schools, community initiatives, police, and emergency services, Multilingual Manchester designs research and shares valuable practices about language diversity. The initiative addresses current issues raised by practitioners and communities, ensuring equal access for everyone to their services as well as Manchester’s 153 home languages.
Separation and Influence of Languages
Can languages influence one another? According to Prof. Matras, languages change when the habits of language users change. In other words, when people who speak multiple languages begin to change the way they apply them, that is when the change takes place. Dictionaries, formal grammar, the question of “What is right and what is wrong” do not always keep up with the evolving changes.
Languages themselves do not get in contact by themselves. Users are the cause of how languages change and influence each other when they utilize them. Even infants acquire the ability to use one or more languages in a multilingual setting. However, it takes quite some time until they can separate the languages, and that is a matter of socialization. Prof. Matras states, “What we call ‘Separation of Languages’ means that the user is drawing on a kind of an integrated repertoire or a resource of different structures, words, sound patterns, patterns of putting words together into sentences, patterns of organizing the conversation, what is polite, what is impolite and so forth.” In brief, the separation of languages of bilingual users always depends on the situation, purpose, topic, and people. Hence, they become acquainted with the expectations of that situation, purpose, topic, or person as well as what works well in communication and what does not.
Monolingual Mindset and Societal Attitudes
The question of changing the monolingual mindset depends on what the monolingual mindset and the societal attitudes towards languages are. In most nation-states, one language is tied to the identity of a person, and it is a unifying factor socially, economically, and emotionally, which can be described as a monolingual mindset. To bring people together, build bridges, incorporate them economically and socially, we need to embrace multilingualism more productively. According to Prof. Matras, the brain is not wired either monolingually or multilingually. It is a socialization aspect. People collect languages through socialization and changing their social attitudes towards language diversity.
Forensic Linguistics and Its Association with Bilingualism
Forensic Linguistics is the application of linguistic science in judicial proceedings such as property rights, asylum, and immigration, to mention a few of them. One of the many tasks of forensic linguistics is the identification of voice samples to confirm whether it matches with that of a suspect or not. Furthermore, refugees coming from war zones are further subject to forensic linguistics to determine the place of origin or the socialization of a person based on their speech and language. By analyzing their language, it can be determined whether the refugee comes from a war country like Syria or a neighbouring country. This is where bilingualism holds a particularly significant role. To have higher accuracy in determining the origin of a person they use a cross-reference of various languages known by the subjects. This profession can often be stress-intensive since even a tiny error in identifying the language of a refugee can lead to deportation and other significant consequences for the people involved. It is often a life-altering scenario.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle that many multilinguals face is the mixing of languages. Even professionals such as Prof. Matras make mistakes. He states that he enjoys mixing languages and feels most comfortable when talking to families or friends who share several languages that he also speaks because he can switch freely between the languages. Mixing languages is a natural process. It is only an issue if it impedes comprehension or comfort. People who suffer from certain types of brain damage also face issues separating languages. To improve and prevent such situations from happening it is important to acquire and train mental concentration and control.
Every city on this planet has its own language diversity. By embracing the multilingual diversity found in cities, we can increase the value of languages and build a bridge between nations, people, and cultures. Languages provide many qualifications in diverse fields such as education, business, travelling, or simply for daily activities and communication. Speaking languages does not being proficient in each language we speak. It means enjoying what we have, cherishing and celebrating them, and building friendships. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Final words: SIETAR Austria and The Multilingual Garden would like to express their appreciation and gratitude to Prof. Yaron Matras for participating in this journey of spreading awareness on the importance of languages and sharing the diversity of languages and their values. More information about Prof. Yaron Matras can be found here.
We are also grateful to Dr Karin Martin for leading The Multilingual Garden and continually acknowledging the value of multilingualism for our societies.
References and Sources:
YouTube Link to Expert Talk with Prof. Yaron Matras:
Information about The Multilingual Garden: https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-multilingual-garden/?trk=ppro_cprof&originalSubdomain=at
Information about the Multilingual Manchester: http://mlm.humanities.manchester.ac.uk/
Definition of Monolingualism: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/240764644_Defining_and_investigating_monolingualism