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there's been quite a bit of research on the cognitive/health benefits of multilingualism, but I think the framing tends to be backwards. multilingualism isn't a bonus, but the default (historically, anthropologically, biologically). our species developed multilingual, and still is everywhere not too damaged by colonial steamrollers. monolingualism is a v recent development, an emergent artifact of a capitalist+racist society.

so we should be talking about the cognitive damage of monolingualism.

@melissaboiko I started thinking about this, and wondered about the following possible response: 'A language is a dialect with an army and navy. So, before there were armies and navies, there were no languages. So, people weren't multilingual then.' The first premise can be replaced with some other social structures.

@twsh the premise is a fun saying, but it's not reality. it's true that languages have been called dialects by nationalists with armies, in an effort to erase diversity. but the actual dialect/language continuum is one of intelligibly, not of political or military power.

it is absolutely the case that people in indigenous cultures routinely acquire multiple mutually unintelligible languages proper, from typologically distinct families, e.g. Tupi/Jê/Arawakan, Hindi/Dravidian/Mon-Khmer etc.

@melissaboiko Right, that way of thinking of languages makes them relatively independent of social structures.

This has made me think about when I count people as multilingual. I'm pretty sure I do in cases where they speak two languages which are in the same family.

I might be using 'family' too coarse grainedly though. I was thinking of, e.g., Irish and English, as in the same family. If they are not in the same family, properly understood, then there is no problem with my judgement.

@twsh being in the same family means we can infer a common ancestor. we can do that for Irish and English (along with Hindi, Farsi etc.); so they are in the same family.

that doesn't mean they aren't different languages. Irish and English are very mutually unintelligible, and no one would argue they're dialects.

it's just that if two languages aren't in the same family, they don't have even that degree of family resemblance, and are usually further apart in the intelligibility continuum.

@melissaboiko Yes, that's how I'm thinking of it too. Irish and English are such that speaking both is sufficient for being multilingual. But, they are from the same family. So, speaking languages from different families is not necessary for being multilingual. I may have misunderstood your point about people acquiring languages from different families, or the importance you attached to it. Anyway, that sounds to me like it would be too strong a requirement; I think that we agree about that.

@melissaboiko aren't there also cases of dialects that are mutually intelligible (to some extent), but treated as different languages precisely because they are spoken in two nations with separate armies? (navy optional, at least in one case I can think of :) ).

It still doesn't support @twsh 's conclusion, however.

@valhalla @twsh yeah that also happens. in some cases the lects are so close that they could barely even be called dialects, but for political reasons (religious or cultural hostilities etc.) ppl call them "different languages".
point is just that when we talk of languages vs. dialects in a linguistics context, we're arguing about properties internal to the lects; the categories are fuzzy, yes, but still meaningful, and the argument is not based on what nation-states call them.

@melissaboiko I asked A. Pereltsvaig and she did not know of any studies of how many languages people tend to know, which is bizarre to me- my feeling is that 2 or 3 is the human norm except in special situations (a local language, a trade or imperial language, and a neighbours' language)

@melissaboiko I read this toot while I'm looking at a review of obscure languages of preroman Italy, known just by short epigraphic texts and surviving place names and it 'clicks' so well.. so many specialists think that each language is a separate island, as if speakers of language A could not speak/write language B at a specific point in time.

@steko @melissaboiko wasn't it Ennius with the quote about three heatts for his three tongues Latin Oscan and Greek?

@steko @melissaboiko ahaha! 35% of working-age adults in the EU claim to know no foreign languages, 35% one, 21% two, 8% three or more. But "foreign language" is specific, lots of Tiroleans speak Italian and German or German and Ladin. ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statisti

@steko @melissaboiko self-reported data is fishy but better than sitting in a chair and philosophizing (another fact: throughout the EU, monolinguals are disproportionately likely to be unemployed- philology is power!)

@melissaboiko
That's very interesting, got more I can read about that history?
I had never thought about that before but can imagine human social-cultural evolution moving that way...

@bhaugen Evans, "Dying Words" is more about the value of the languages that are killed, but also discusses the processes that kill them. v readable too.

If you understand how multilingualism works in areas of high linguistic diversity (which, not coincidentally, tend to correlate with high biodiversity – the Amazon, the Congo basin, Australia, Polynesia etc.), then you understand how it worked during most of the last 200 thousand years.

@melissaboiko
I can imagine how that works in areas of high linguistic diversity, but don't have the lived experience.

I do see that our friends who live in Europe speak more languages than our friends who live in the US.

Likewise where I was born, three native tribes had banded together who historically had different languages, altho two of them were in the same language family. But apparently they had no trouble communicating...

So I don't doubt the story.

The historical record of many civilisations from all across the planet contains an account of an event in human history which you may have been introduced to as the "Tower of Babel" story. This record describes a time when most humans shared a common language, but something happened and suddenly they couldn't any more. Some cultures describe it as "the great confusion". Linguistics research tends to corroborate that key concepts in widely divergent languages and cultures have common roots. I am not making any statements as to the veracity of this story, so please do your own research if you find this interesting - or perhaps even terrifying.
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