You have probably heard the following joke, or a version of it. What do we call a person who speaks three languages? A trilingual. And a person who speaks two languages? A bilingual. And someone who only speaks one language? An American. For the joke to work, even mildly, the listener has to buy in to the idea that multilingualism / plurilingualism is a ‘good thing’, and that too many Americans are monolingual.
Not everybody would share these views. Some would prefer the US (and other countries of immigration) to be more of a language graveyard than less of one. Negativity about multilingualism can be extreme, as in the wrath of those on Twitter who found a Coca Cola advertisement profoundly un-American, supportive of communism and terrorism. The advert in question showed a multicultural bunch of people sharing a Coke in perfect harmony while singing a multilingual rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’. To make things even worse, the commercial was shown at that homage to all things American, the Super Bowl.
Enthusiasm for multilingualism is, in part, a liberal reaction to the reactionary monolingualism of the ‘if-you-can’t-speak-our-language-go-back-to-your-own-fucking-country’ variety. Countering the post- 9/11 rise in monolingual linguistic prescriptivism in some countries (Cameron, 2013), tolerant multilingualism indexes visions of perfectly harmonious communities and the rhetoric of human rights and autonomy (Gramling, 2016: 205). It values diversity for its own sake.
It is also, in part, a reaction (see, for example, the Wikipedia entry or Maher, 2017) to a number of clearly widespread myths and misconceptions (e.g. that multilingual societies are less harmonious than monolingual ones or that bilingually raised children are cognitively disadvantaged). Going further than mere rebuttals, advocates of multilingualism argue, with some evidence, that it is good for critical and creative thinking, beneficial for problem-solving and decision-making, makes us more open to new ideas, more tolerant, more embracing of divergent thinking, and it can help stave off dementia. What is there not to like?
Most enthusiasts of multilingualism will list and expand on all the advantages of multilingualism that I have already mentioned, but many will also be interested in its market potential. Linguanomics, the title of a book by Gabrielle Hogan-Brun (2017), is the exploration of the economic aspects of multilingualism, the links between linguistic diversity and economic growth, and the ways in which linguistic capital may be converted into monetary capital. Citing Hogan-Brun, a blog post (Hardach, 2018; see also Hardach, 2021) for the World Economic Forum suggests that companies which invest more in languages do better in export markets; that countries with better language skills have higher GDP; and, therefore, countries should do more to tap the ‘vast, linguistic resource [of] migrant families’. Diversity has become human capital. Multilingualism is not just an end in itself, but a tool ‘in global collaborations to make the world a better place’ (Stein-Smith, 2021b) primarily through economic growth. In this framing, becoming multilingual (i.e. learning another language) is acquiring the ultimate 21st century skill (Stein-Smith, 2021a), so long, of course, as the language has value in the market place. English, for example.
Like all 21st century skills, multilingualism appears to have a readily obvious meaning, but does not, in fact, lend itself easily to a simple definition. Perhaps the defining feature of all 21st century skills is precisely the lack of precision, allowing the idea to be embraced by different people, from critical theorists to investment bankers, for different reasons. The European Commission (2007:6) defines the term as: ‘the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage, on a regular basis, with more than one language in their day-to-day lives’. It leaves unanswered the key questions of what a language is, which languages are being referred to, and in which aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. But answers of a sort can be found when we look at the reasons for the European policy of multilingualism. In addition to the importance of diversity and respect for identities, the policy is intended (1) on a collective basis, to contribute to European unity (reflecting the EU’s motto ‘United in Diversity’) and (2) on an individual basis, to develop human capital and job mobility.
Can a policy of multilingualism be both a celebration of diversity and a tool for linguanomics – the development of human capital through languages? Problems arise when we look for the answer to the question of which language. Are we differentiating languages and dialects, and, if so, how? When the European Commission (2005: 4) says that it would like all European citizens to have ‘practical skills in at least two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue’, it’s fairly clear that this means ‘foreign languages’. And if part of the purpose of learning ‘foreign languages’ is to develop human capital, the language of choice is likely to be English most of the time. A particular kind of English. Closely related is the question of what is meant by ‘mother tongue’. If your home language is not the national language of the country in which you live, you’re unlikely to get much help from European states in developing your competencies in it. In practice, when development of human capital is weighed against diversity, the former takes precedence every time. Multilingualism in this European context is overridingly concerned with languages associated with nation states and is tied ‘to a future anterior of successful language learning among new citizens’ […] it ‘fulfils all the characteristics of neoliberal self-making: horizontal, voluntaristic, entrepreneurial, opportunity-rich, privatizable, decentralized, team-oriented, and, at turns hopeful or mute about structural poverty and other forms of socio-economic precaritization’ (Gramling, 2016: 204). In other words, interest in diversity may only be skin-deep: advocacy of multilingual policies may, in fact, be mostly about ‘targeting the anxiety within the [white, privileged, monolingual] majority about social and linguistic pluralism’ (McNamara, 2011: 38).
‘Language’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multilingualism’ are all strategically deployable shifters (Moore, 2015): their meanings shift in relation to the purposes for which the terms are being used. Multilingualism can stand in opposition to the bigotry of people in MAGA caps, but it can also stand in opposition to ‘unassimilated’ monolingual, migrant populations who haven’t learnt the language of the ‘host nation’. This is all rather problematic for those who do not want their espousal of multilingualism to be associated with xenophobia or a neoliberal agenda, and for those who want to dissociate diversity from human capital (Flores, 2013). Multilingualism, therefore, needs to be disambiguated, so that the multilingualism that is oriented towards social justice is not appropriated by those whose main interest in language learning is linguanomics (Katznelson & Bernstein, 2017).
This, I think, is what is behind the so-called ‘multilingual turn’ in applied linguistics, a turn that tries to bring social justice to the fore. In an attempt at terminological smash-and-grab, critical applied linguists set about reclaiming the term (May, 2013; Conteh & Meier, 2014). There are differences in interpretation between them (Meier, 2017), but the common denominator is a desire to redefine ‘language’ – not as a fixed and largely territorial system owned by native-speakers, but as a dynamic, complex, social, deterritorialized practice owned by its users. There is ample evidence to indicate that various forms of linguistic intermixing are more characteristic of everyday spoken communication than the orderly use of what we might call ‘monolanguages’ – separate, individual, named languages. The multilingualism of the multilingual turn contends that lingualism (Block, 2013) – the belief in the existence of monolanguages – is contrary to the evidence, and must be dispensed with in order to get away from the social injustice of native-speaker norms, of accentism, and linguistic prejudice.
In this light, the term ‘multilingual’ is problematic. It denotes countability and plurality. If we want or need to distance ourselves from lingualism – the idea of languages as bounded entities (e.g. English, Hebrew, Xhosa), ‘language’ needs to become a verb: ‘languaging’ or ‘translanguaging’ (see my previous post). The multilingual turn has led us to translanguaging and ‘few voices in applied linguistics have found fault with this positive counter-distinction of translanguaging over multilingualism’ (Gramling, 2021: 29). It is translanguaging, rather than multilingualism, that is now being offered as a, even the, theory of language (Li Wei, 2018).
For a strong critique of the idea that named languages (like English) do not exist, you could do worse than read a recent post by Geoff Jordan. Or you could simply try asking someone who’s about to take a TOEFL exam what they think of the idea (Gramling, 2021: 26). Even if we cannot clearly define the boundaries of what constitutes a named language like English, we cannot simply disinvent it. Our lives can be shaped by language exams, our online interactions are shaped by our choice of named language, and many of us invest a significant part of our identity in a named language. You may go along with Li Wei (2021) in disapproving of lingualism, but it won’t be going away any time soon. Quite how we are supposed to dispense with lingualism also remains less than clear. Perhaps Li Wei might begin by trying to get rid of the PGCE in Languages, or the MAs in TESOL or French at his own university, or its language proficiency requirements for students from countries that are not ‘majority English-speaking’. I suspect, though, that his institution’s linguanomic dispositive of multilingualism might prevent that happening.
Lingualism is at the heart of much English language learning, of English medium instruction, and of Li Wei’s own university (UCL) where nearly half the student body has paid to benefit from the linguistic capital that is on sale there. Lingualism may be (but is not necessarily) ‘indifferent to social justice, migration, asylum, refuge, immigration, decoloniality, or liberation from the strictures of monolingualism’ (Gramling, 2021: 66), but multilingualism of the translanguaging kind is unlikely to make much of a dent in our monolingualising world, either. It certainly isn’t going to help anyone who has to take a gate-keeping language test (Cameron, 2013). For all the noise about translanguaging in TESOL, it’s worth noting (Gramling, 2021: 70) that the overwhelming majority of current research into multilingualism comes, not from TESOL or applied linguistics, but from computational engineers and Natural Language Processing specialists. Compared to multilingual linguanomics, the ‘multilingual turn’ is a very niche affair. Most people have never heard of it, and never will.
Academic handbooks on multilingualism stretch to over a thousand pages, and there are countless journals devoted to the topic. Attempts have been made to condense the topic to 130 pages (Maher, 2017), and even 15 pages (Cenoz, 2015), but multilingualism is a discursive construct, a category in the process of continuous reinvention (Gramling, 2021). Discourses about monolingualism and multilingualism are what Deborah Cameron (2013) has called discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ – the normative practices through which people attempt to improve languages or regulate their use. Such discourses, whether coming from xenophobes, neo-liberals, or those with more liberal perspectives, are:
linked to other preoccupations which are not primarily linguistic, but rather social, political and moral. The logic behind verbal hygiene depends on a tacit, common-sense analogy between the order of language and the larger social order; the rules or norms of language stand in for the rules governing social or moral conduct, and putting language to rights becomes a symbolic way of putting the world to rights (Cameron, 2013: 61).
Cameron adds that verbal hygiene is a response to the anxieties of a specific moment and place, and that we should be wary of assuming that preoccupations about, say, multilingualism and monolingualism will have the same symbolic meanings in different times and places. With that in mind, I know I need to be careful about the way I react to the writings of Li Wei, Ofelia García, Nelson Flores, or Guadalupe Valdés. Their professional worlds of the ‘multilingual turn’ in bilingual and immersion education in mostly English-speaking countries hardly intersect at all with my own professional world of EFL teaching in central Europe, where rejection of lingualism is not really an option.

References
Block, D. (2013) Moving beyond ‘Lingualism’: Multilingual embodiment and Multimodality in SLA. In May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge. pp. 54 – 77
Cameron, D. (2013) The one, the many, and the Other: Representing multi- and mono-lingualism in post-9/11 verbal hygiene. Critical Multilingualism Studies, 1 (2): 59 – 77
Cenoz, J. (2013) Defining multilingualism. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33: 3 – 18
Conteh, J. & Meier, G. (Eds.) (2014) The multilingual turn in languages education: Opportunities and challenges. Bristol: Multilingual Matters
European Commission. (2007) Final report: High level group on multilingualism. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
European Commission (2005) Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions. A New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism, COM(2005) 596 final. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52005DC0596
Flores, N. (2013) The Unexamined Relationship Between Neoliberalism and Plurilingualism: A Cautionary Tale. TESOL Quarterly, 47 (3): 500- 520
Gramling, D. (2021) The Invention of Multilingualism. Cambridge: CUP
Gramling, D. (2016) The Invention of Monolingualism. New York: Bloomsbury
Hardach, S. (2018) Speaking more than one language can boost economic growth. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/speaking-more-languages-boost-economic-growth/
Hardach, S. (2021) Languages are Good for Us. London: Apollo Books
Hogan-Brun, G. (2017) Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? New York: Bloomsbury
Katznelson, N. & Bernstein, K. (2017) Rebranding Bilingualism: The Shifting Discourses of Language Education Policy in California’s 2016 Election. Linguistics and Education, 40: 11 – 26
Li Wei. (2021) Translanguaging as a Political Stance: Implications for English Language Education. ELT Journal, ccab083, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccab083
Li Wei. (2018) Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language. Applied Linguistics, 39 (1): 9 – 30
Maher, J. C. (2017) Multilingualism: A very short introduction. Oxford: OUP
May. S. (Ed.) (2013) The multilingual turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and Bilingual education. New York: Routledge
McNamara, T. (2011) Multilingualism in Education: A poststructuralist critique. The Modern Language Journal, 104 (1): 430 – 441
Meier, G. S. (2017) The multilingual turn as a critical movement in education: assumptions, challenges and a need for reflection. Applied Linguistics Review, 8 (1): 131-161
Moore, R. (2015) From revolutionary monolingualism to reactionary multilingualism: Top-down discourses of linguistic diversity in Europe, 1794-present. Language & Communication, 44: 19 – 30
Stein-Smith, K. (2021a) Multilingualism as a Global Competency: Skills for a 21st Century World. Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Publishing
Stein-Smith, K. (2021b) Multilingualism for Global Solutions and a Better World. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 12 (5): 671-677

Comments
  1. […] Kerr, in his recent post Multilingualism, linguanomics and lingualism uses Deborah Cameron’s (2013) description of discourses of ‘verbal hygiene’ to describe […]

  2. eflnotes says:

    Thanks Philip. In place of rejecting or not rejecting “lingualism” I would echo Roy Harris’ point that the real challenge to language teachers is rejecting the notion that communities are defined with reference to languages (whether mono or multi):

    “For integrationists, any community in which individual and collective activities are integrated in part by means of verbal signs is eo ipso a linguistic community. But that immediately poses enormous problems for traditional language teaching. Why? Because such a community has no determinate membership and includes a vast range of disparate verbal and nonverbal abilities. Such communities overlap and intermingle: they do not divide up neatly, either geographically or grammatically. For purposes of classroom teaching, they are a nightmare, as Tagore well realized. So the traditional strategy adopted by language teachers has always been to ignore them: that is, to reverse the natural priorities and define communities by reference to languages.” (Harris: 43)

    Harris, R. (2009). Implicit and explicit language teaching. In Toolan, M. (Ed.), Language Teaching : Integrational Linguistic Approaches (pp. 32-54). Routledge.

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