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Monoglottism (Greek μόνοσ monos, "alone, solitary", + γλώττα glotta, "tongue, language") or, more commonly, monolingualism or unilingualism is the condition of being able to speak only a single language, as compared to multilingualism. In a different context "unilingualism" may refer to a language policy which enforces an official or national language over others.

Monolingual or unilingual is also said of a text, dictionary, or conversation written or conducted in only one language, and of an entity in or at which a single language is either used or officially recognized (in particular when being compared with bilingual or multilingual entities or in the presence of individuals speaking different languages). Note that monoglottism can only refer to not having the ability to speak several languages. Monolingual speakers are outnumbered by multilingual speakers in the world's population.[1]

Romaine (1995) pointed out in her book Bilingualism that it would be weird to find a book titled Monolingualism.[2] This statement reflects the traditional assumption that linguistic theories often take on: that monolingualism is the norm.[3] Monolingualism is thus rarely the subject of scholarly publications as it is viewed to be an unmarked or prototypical concept where it has the sense of being normal and multilingualism is the exception.[4]

Also the monolingualism assumption is often the view of monolinguals who speak a global language, like the English language. Crystal (1987) said that the monolingualism assumption is adopted by many in the Western societies.[5] An explanation provided is by Edwards who (2004) claimed that evidence of the "monolingual mindset" can be traced back to 19th century Europe when the nation was rising and a dominant group had control and the European mindsets on language were carried forth to its colonies, further perpetuating the monolingual mindsets.[6]

Another explanation is that the nations who speak the English language are both “the producers and beneficiaries of English as a global language” and the populations within these countries tend to be monolingual.[4]

Comparing Monolingualism with Multilingualism

There have been many studies done comparing monolinguals with bilinguals, though none of the studies have found conclusive evidence that being monolingual or bilingual is better than the other.

Vocabulary size and verbal fluency

According to a study on lexical access,[7] monolinguals often maintain a wider vocabulary in a target language as compared to a comparable bilingual, and this increases the efficiency of word retrieval in monolinguals. Monolinguals also access words more often than bilinguals in a target language. In letter fluency tasks, monolinguals were also able to respond with more words to the letter cue than bilinguals; though such an effect was not seen in bilinguals with a high vocabulary score.

Also, in the same study, monolinguals perform better than bilinguals on verbal fluency. If the vocabulary abilities were made to be more comparable however, many of the differences disappear, indicating that vocabulary size may be a factor that moderates people's performance in verbal fluency and naming tasks. The same study later also found out that after using a greater number of bilinguals in the study and a version of letter fluency task that placed more demand on executive control, bilinguals perform better compared to monolinguals. Thus once vocabulary abilities are controlled, bilinguals perform better on letter fluency possibly due to enhanced frontal executive processes in the brain.

Creative functioning

In a study testing for creative functioning that involved monolingual and bilingual children in Singapore,[8] researchers found that monolinguals performed better on fluency and flexibility, than bilinguals. The trend is reversed, however, on tests for originality and elaboration.

Mental well-being

In another recent study in Canada, it has been shown that monolinguals are at a disadvantage with the onset of senility as compared to bilingual people.[9] In this study, it seems that being bilingual is associated with the delay of dementia by 4 years as compared to monolinguals. Bialystok's most recent work also shows that lifelong bilingualism can delay symptoms of dementia.[10]

Emotion and behaviour

A study conducted with children in their early school years suggested that there are emotional and behavioural benefits to being a bilingual.[11] In the same study, the findings show that monolingual children, in particular non-English monolingual children, display more poor behavioural and emotional outcomes in their school years. The non-English monolingual children had the highest level of externalizing and internalizing behaviourial problems by fifth grade(around 10–11 years of age) even though the children were all measured to have similar levels of internalizing and externalizing behaviourial problems at the start. In contrast, the fluent bilingual and non-English dominant bilingual children were found to have the lowest level of these behaviourial problems. The authors suggest that monolingualism seems to be a risk factor. However, if there is a supportive school environment with teachers who are experienced in ESL (English as a Second Language), children seem to have better emotional constitution.

Memory performance

In a study conducted at the University of Florida, where Native-English bilinguals were compared with English monolinguals, it was found that although there was no difference in accuracy between the two groups, there was an evident slower response rate from bilinguals compared to monolinguals on tasks that involve latency of recognition of a list of abstract words and lexical decision tasks.[12] For these two tasks, language-specific and data driven processes were more prevalent, that is, the tasks were driven by the dominant language and the data (the words used in the task). The study differed from prior research that there is more balance in familiarity of the dominant language. Magiste's (1980) hypothesis that it could have been due to differential familiarity with the dominant language is suggested to be a possible reason for the bilingual disadvantage.[13] They explained that for bilinguals, it could be because the acquiring and using of the second language meant that there was less time to process English, as compared to the monolingual participants in the study.

Verbal and non-verbal cognitive development

A new research by the University of York published in “Child Development” magazine[14] reviewed the effects of the development of a child’s verbal and non-verbal language, matched between monolinguals and bilinguals in a particular language. Researchers compared about 100 6-years-old monolingual and bilingual children (monolingual in English; bilingual in English and Mandarin, bilingual in French and English, bilingual in Spanish and English), to test their verbal and non-verbal communication cognitive development. The research takes into consideration factors like the similarity of the language, the cultural background and education experience. These students mostly come from public schools from various areas, having similar social and economic background.

Results show that in the child’s early stage, multilingual kids are very different from one another in their language and cognitive skills development, and also when compared to monolingual children. When compared to monolinguals, multilingual children are slower in building up their vocabulary in every language. However, their metalinguistic development allowed them to understand better the structure of the language. They also performed better in non-verbal control tests. A non-verbal control test refers to the ability to focus and then able to divert their attention when being instructed to.

Reasons why Monolingualism persists

Convergence principle

According to the convergence principle,[15] we tend to change our language style to that of people we like and admire. Conversations where one party speaks a language that is different from the other partner are hard to maintain, and intimacy is reduced. Thus, one will usually adapt and accommodate their speech, for reasons such as convenience, freedom of misunderstandings and conflict, and to maintain intimacy. In the case of intermarriages, this results in one partner becoming monolingual, as is also usually the case within families and with their children.

Predominance of the English language

The predominance of the English language in many sectors, like world trade, technology, and science has contributed to English-speaking societies being persistently monolingual, as there is no relevant need to learn a second language when all dealings can be done in their native language.[16] This is especially the case for English speakers in the United States of America, in particular its Northeastern, its Midwestern, and most of its Southern regions, where everyday contact with Spanish is limited: The country's large land area and its most populous regions' distance from large non-English-speaking nations other than Mexico increase geographic and economic barriers to foreign travel, and although the country is economically interdependent with trade partners such as China, American corporations and heavily "Americanized" subsidiaries of foreign corporations mediate and control most citizens' contact with most products of other nations. Hence the popular joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? [Answer: 'Trilingual.'] What do you call someone who speaks two languages? [Answer: 'Bilingual.'] What do you call someone who speaks only one language? [Answer: 'Monolingual.'/'I don't know.'] American."[17]

In several western countries, there is also increasing pressure on bilingual immigrants to renounce their mother tongue and adopt their host country's language. As a result, even though there may be immigrants from a wide variety of nationalities and cultures, the one main language spoken in the country do not reflect them.

Monolingualism within countries

Native-born persons living in many of the Anglosphere nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, United States, English Canada and New Zealand are frequently typecast as monoglots, owing to a worldwide perception that English speakers see little relevance in learning a second language due to the widespread distribution of English and its competent use even in many non-English speaking countries in Europe, Africa, and South Asia. A similar observation can be made in communities that speak other global languages, for example, the Hispanophone world in the case of Spanish and the Francophonie in the case of French.

Case study: United States of America

Despite being a society with many immigrants, stable bilingualism is not a feature of these communities. Rather, monolingualism is more dominant in the US society. Only the elderly, very young children and recent immigrants speak their mother tongue, besides English. There is a prevalent switch to dominance in English in the school children and young adults, rather than their mother tongue. Often, when the second generation parents become more comfortable using English, the third generation will then become monolingual in English. This is seen even within groups where there is a wide availability to bilingual education services. The shift observed in these communities from their mother tongues into English meant that children, who could have learnt their native language from their family, are instead struggling in their mother tongue and often score poorly in high school foreign language classes.[15]

According to the Tongue-tied American by Senator Paul Simon,[18] an average of 200,000 jobs each year are lost out to Americans, due to an inability to speak a foreign language.

Case study: Belgium

In Belgium, monolingualism of the Dutch language is strongly enforced on students. The school staff and environment strongly encourage the exclusive use of the Dutch language, and bilingual students who speak their mother tongue are formally punished by the school, while minority ethnic languages are excluded from the school's cultural education.[19] This is due to the perception of the mother tongues of bilingual students as being a hindrance to learning as well as success. Although there is some opposition to Dutch monolingualism amongst the immigrant-bilingual communities and they converse in their mother tongue among themselves, due to the strong discouragement by the school staff, they are made to believe that the exclusive use of Dutch will lead to favourable outcomes.

Case study: Canada

According to data from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC),[10] increasingly fewer universities require their students to learn a second language. The percentage of universities having a second language proficiency as a requirement for graduation fell from 35% in 1991 to 9% in 2006. At a Scotiabank-AUCC conference in 2007, participants attributed such a decline to cost issues, as such courses are usually held in small groups, and were thus removed from the curriculum.

Costs of Monolingualism

Snow and Hakuta's paper[15] writes that in a cost-benefit analysis, the choosing of English as the official and national language often come with additional costs on the society, a cost of giving up the alternative choice (multilingualism, in this case) which has its own benefits.

Educational costs: A part of the education budget has to be allocated for foreign language training; even then, fluency among the foreign language students is lower than those who learnt it at home.[15]

Economic costs: International business may be set back by a lack of the country's people who are competent in other languages.[15]

National security costs: Money has to be spent to train foreign-service personnel in foreign languages.[15]

Time and effort: Compared to the maintenance of a language learnt at home, it incurs more time, effort and hard work to learn it in school.[15]

Job opportunities: Kirkpatrick asserts that monolinguals, who are without multilingual competence, are at a disadvantage in the international job market.[20]

Monolingualism in the media

In an article by Lawrence Summers,[21] he discussed preparing for the future advancement of America. In one of his points, he dismissed the importance and necessity of learning foreign languages, as he claimed that " English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, makes it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile."

This had led to a controversy, with much disagreement with that sentence. An example of a discussion that arose to refute Summer's claim was by a team of 6 panelists,[22] featured in the New York Times, where all the panelists were in favour of learning foreign languages, citing the benefits and advantages, as well as the changing global landscape.

See also


External links

  • Monolingualism and Judaism by Jose Faur, contrasting the Greek monolingualism with the polyglot culture of the Hebrews
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