Demystifying multilingualism

Demystifying multilingualism

(Drittmittelfinanzierte Einzelförderung)

Titel des Gesamtprojektes:
Projektstart: 09/21/17
Projektende: 09/20/18
Mittelgeber: Volkswagen Stiftung



Multilingualism (understood here as the use of two or
more languages by an individual speaker) has become one of the most important
research subjects in Linguistics, Cognitive Sciences and Pedagogy. It is also
in the core of political and societal debates on the challenges of

In contemporary European Societies, there are
conflicting attitudes and perceptions towards multilingualism, which basically reflect
two important ideologies (cf. Geeraerts 2008):

  1. The
    nation-state model: Rooted in the 19th
    century, it links language to national identity (“One Nation, one Language”) and
    considers monolingualism as the normal situation. Multilingualism is seen as a
    problem for society (e.g. as an obstacle to the integration of migrants) and as
    a source of confusion for the individual (e.g., causing identity conflicts or
    “errors” due to linguistic interference).
  2. The
    postmodern model: Having developed from the mid to late 20th
    century, it highlights the fluidity of cultural identity and the normality of living
    with more than one language. Individual multilingualism is proclaimed as a
    value in itself and an educational goal. All languages (including dialects) are
    equal, normative approaches to language and language variation are criticized, and
    different degrees of language command as well as language mixing are accepted.

In Society and Politics, the nation-state and the
postmodern model coexist and compete with each other, as can be seen in
conservative vs. liberal approaches to cultural and linguistic diversity, for
example in the field of education or migration politics.

Within linguistic research, the nation-state model and
the postmodern model translate into two chronologically subsequent paradigms:
In the first half of the 20th century, linguists and educationalists
were basically concerned with alleged cognitive, linguistic and social deficits
of bilinguals. Uriel Weinreich’s monograph Language
in Contact (1953), signaled a paradigm shift towards a more positive
evaluation of multilingualism. Its basic assumption is that verbal behavior of
bilinguals – for example, code-switching or transference – does not come from a
lack of competence in one or both of the languages, but from complex skills
that only bilinguals possess. From this point on, the recognition of individual
multilingualism as a normal and desirable condition gradually evolved into a
powerful paradigm in the Humanities, in line with postmodern thinking. On an
institutional level, the praise of multilingualism is reflected, for example,
in the European Council’s proclamation of trilingualism (mastery of one
international language and one regional language in addition to one’s mother
tongue) as a long term goal for all European citizens.

Today, voices that see multilingualism as a problem according
to the nation-state model are denounced as ideological in academic discourse
(although they are still present in societal debates). Problematic social
conditions apart, there is a consensus among researchers that multilingualism
is not harmful to the cognitive, linguistic and social development of speakers.
Over the last 20 years, an important body of literature has even been reporting
benefits of multilingualism for physical and mental health, a multilingual
advantage in a range of cognitive tasks (executive functions, concentration,
attention etc.), and a more socially sensitive behavior in multilinguals than
in monolinguals (see the overviews in Bak 2016, Cox et al. 2016, Paap et al.
2015, Woumans/Duyck 2015) – in a word, multilinguals
appear to be better rounded human beings:
healthier, higher performing, and even more
sociable than monolinguals.

However, studies on multilingualism, cognition and social
skills generally rely on relatively small data bases, show a significant amount
of conflicting evidence, and often cannot be replicated (Bak 2016). In a recent
study with more than 1000 participants (Cox et al. 2016) – to my knowledge, the
most large-scale study conducted to-date – only weak evidence could be found
for a correlation between cognitive functions and multilingualism. The authors
raise doubts over its brain boosting effect, pointing at a potential
publication bias favoring positive results, and problems with determining the
causal direction of the relationship (people with better cognitive skills may
be more likely to become multilingual, not vice versa). Other authors argue that
the results may be influenced by the environment (in the broadest sense of the
term) and cultural factors (Bak 2016). This suggests that the problem cannot be
solved by experimental methods alone, but has to do with how multilingualism and
its perception are embedded in different kinds of historically contingent

In fact, one very important question has not been
raised yet: To which extent contemporary
approaches to multilingualism in Linguistics and Social Sciences are
ideologically biased by the postmodern model, in a similar way that older
approaches were biased by the nation-state model?

The goal of our project is to explore a possible
ideological penchant in contemporary academic debates on multilinguals’
cognitive and personal skills. It is important for us to stress that we are not
questioning the obvious practical advantages of being able to communicate in
more than one language, nor the importance of multilingualism as a humanitarian
value. However, we suspect that side effects of multilingualism in individuals are
overestimated, due to a cognitive bias that can at least in part be attributed
to the powerful forces of the postmodern model.

While previous approaches have been trying to find out
what makes multilinguals different,
this project will be concerned with a much more fundamental, overarching and
urgent question: Why do we expect them to be different?


Bak, Thomas H. 2016. “Bilingualism, bias and the
replication crisis”. Linguistic
Approaches to Bilingualism 6, 699-717.

Cox, Simon R.; Bak, Thomas H., et al. 2016. “Bilingualism,
social cognition and executive functions : A tale of chickens and eggs”. Neuropsychologia 91, 299-306.

Geeraerts, Dirk. 2008. “The Logic of Language Models:
Rationalist and Romantic Ideologies and their Avatars”. In: Kirsten Süsselbeck, Ulrike
Mühlschlegel et al. (eds.). Lengua, Nación e Identidad. La regulación del plurilingüismo en España
y América Latina. Madrid/Frankfurt a.M.: 43-73.

Paap, K.r.; Johnson, H.A., Sawi, O. 2015. “Bilingual
advantages in executive functions either do not exist or are
restricted to very specific undetermined circumstances”. Cortex 69, 265-278.

Woumans, Evy; Duyck, Wouter. 2015. “The bilingual
advantage debate: Moving toward different methods for verifying its existence”.
Cortex 73, 356-57.