An Exploration into Multilingualism and Multiculturalism
(Originally published Jul 23, 2014)
In a recent post, we began to discuss the concept of linguistic relativism. While it is clear that the language a group of people speaks in some way impacts how they think and behave, what about those who are multilingual or multiethnic? Do individuals with mixed backgrounds or who happen to speak multiple languages any different?
Much work has been done on bilingualism (sometimes the term bilingualism is applied to those who speak many languages and not just two, although terms like multilingualism and plurilingualism also exist), specifically on the brain function and cognition of such speakers. These types of psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic studies illustrate that people who dominate more than one language are able to navigate each of those languages with greater ease than a monolingual speaker, although there may be moments of code-switching and the “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon. In fact, research has shown that knowing more than one language is not only an advantage in terms of linguistic skill, but also in other cognitive performances such as recall, music, visuospatial and math skills.
But what about cultural awareness? Multilingual speakers definitely seem to have a different mental configuration than monolingual speakers at a neurological level. But does that mean they also automatically have a different world view, as well? Yes and no. The fact of the matter is that bilingual individuals are just that: individuals. Each situation is a completely unique case and no two people have the exact same level of bilingualism. Even siblings raised in the same environment do not necessarily engage with the different languages with the same regularity. A Japanese American family may have a son who speaks the two languages at a fairly on par level, but a younger daughter whose English is considerably “stronger” than her Japanese. This could be for a variety of reasons, a lack of interest in the family heritage or a desire to integrate more readily into American culture, but either way the dynamic is different for each of them. Thus, it would be logical that the degree of bilingualism exhibited by each family member would reflect the degree of which language’s perspectives they take into account. Japanese has an intricate hierarchy of social roles and power relationships demonstrated through pronoun and honorifics as compared to the more egalitarian nature of American English’s lack of said features.
This last example delves into my favorite sociolinguistic topic: identity. The languages we speak inherently play a large role in the construction and manifestation of our identity. We will go into more detail with this particular theme in future blog posts, but it is important to keep in mind the contribution language and identity have in global thought processes and behaviors.
Until then, we leave you with this question: do you feel an affinity to more than one language/culture. If so, why? How do you think that has impacted the way you think or act on a daily basis? As always, I’m curious to hear your comments!