Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 3 (2012) Issue 1

pp. 187-191


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Madalena Cruz-Ferreira: Multilinguals are ...? London / Colombo: Battlebrigde 2010  (90 pages) (ISBN: 978 1 903292 20 4)


The present book, which addresses laymen interested in the phenomenon of multilingualism as it appears in life, represents an inspiring and illustrative read and outlines the given phenomenon in a multi-perspective manner. In an attempt to answer the question raised in the book title, the author formulates the following statements which serve as the titles of the different chapters:


Multilinguals are …?  (pp. 1)

  1. It’s a multilingual world, but multilinguals are the odd ones out (pp. 5)
  2. Multilinguals must have balanced languages, but one of them must be dominant (pp.11)
  3. Multilinguals must develop one main language, but that won’t let them develop other languages (pp. 17),
  4. Multilinguals have no mother tongue, because they are not native speakers of any language (pp. 23),
  5. Multilinguals can learn new languages easily, but only in childhood (pp. 27),
  6. Multilingual competence means erasing signs of multilingualism from the speech of multilinguals (pp. 35),
  7. Multilinguals don’t have many languages, they have many half-languages (pp. 41),
  8. Becoming multilingual is both a drain and a strain on your brain (47),
  9. Growing up multilingual is no problem, provided you seek clinical assistance (pp. 53)
  10. In order to raise multilingual children, you must speak to them in only one language (pp. 59)
  11. Multilinguals should be encouraged, but only in languages that matter (pp. 67)
  12. Multilinguals are multilinguals because they are gifted for languages (pp. 73)
  13. Multilingualism is a boon, but also a bane, or vice versa (pp. 79)

What are we talking about, really?? (pp. 85)


These chapter titles provide readers with a first impression as to what they may find in this book. In accordance with the target group envisaged, they will not find any scientific or academic analysis, but a – not seldom personal – description by the author made on the basis of her experience on the one hand and linguistic research on the other.


A closer look at the chapter titles reveals that in some cases, the hypotheses represented are challenging or at least provocative and deal with “paradoxes and / or myths about multilingualism” (p. 3). This intellectual challenge and / or provocation is intentionally used by the author to stir her readers’ (possibly fixed) ideas and to confront them with traditional points of view which may seem logical at first sight, but which require some more research.


What is of intellectual enjoyment to informed readers may, however, represent a potential hindrance to understanding for uninformed ones, as the statements made in the chapter titles (and serving as a starting points for the discussion of the different points of view) are potentially misleading. Should readers ever take these statements for granted, the ground will be laid for serious misinterpretations. Uninformed readers may then ask questions like: “How can multilinguals have balanced languages if one of them must be dominant” (chap. 2)?,  “Can multilinguals learn foreign languages easily or only in childhood” (chap. 5)? or: “Do multilinguals have many languages or do they indeed only have many half-languages” (chap. 7)? Of course, the discrepancies evoked in the titles are touched upon and further elaborated in the very chapters, but in a first step, misunderstandings can easily be caused. The chapter titles, meant to be eye catchers, can turn out to be counter-productive elements which may reduce the general understandability of the book.


In discussing the various theories and approaches relevant to multilingualism, the author takes a generally inductive perspective and follows logic reasoning which the (informed) readers can easily follow. In doing so, she offers readers the opportunity to develop their ideas along with her and to understand themselves better (provided they are multilinguals). The author, thus, accompanies readers and invites them to share her education and experience, but she never adopts a didactic tone, which consequently increases the enjoyment of reading.


Although the present book is relatively theoretical at times, it does not mean to be an academic monograph. This is what the author herself claims, and this is formally symbolised by the lack of any references: there are neither references at the end of the book, nor are there any explicit references in the text which point to specific publications or representatives of the respective view or finding. The author herself mentions this general orientation of her book and implicitly refers to research by using phrases like It has been argued that…, The findings showed… or They were found to… (p. 3). Yet, any reader who would like to get him or herself better informed about the topic of multilingualism after having read the present book, is left behind in despair. Therefore, it is here suggested that, in the upcoming edition, a reference list be added to the book which will then give readers the chance of extending their knowledge – and to enter the world of linguistics (as most of the references indicated then will be academic ones). What is attractive for readers, though, is that the author cites her own academic web page for more reference and offers readers to contact her so as to inform them about the various theories and their representatives.


The book is – and is meant to be - written in a light-hearted style. What is more, the style is often humorous. The choice of words is rarely academic but colloquial in tendency, with spoken-language elements figuring here and there. This point, however, does not represent a flaw of the book, but rather a forte because this style reduces the potential distance between author and readers. From the very first page, the author manages to build up a relationship of identification and trust with her readers and, thus, enables them to head for the adventure of multilingualism with her. The general orientation of the book and the tone it is written in therefore consistently supplement each other.


As the present book is not meant to be an academic one and therefore does not present new findings. It is of limited use in this review to go through the various chapters and to discuss the points and theories elaborated there. However, it should here be noted that the author’s reflexions are generally original. To give an example, it suffices to mention that she does not argue from the perspective of monolingualism, which represents the traditional approach, but from that of multilingualism, which represents an exceptional approach (pp. 8-9). Due to this change of perspective alone, which determines the basic argumentation, the book offers a stimulating read.


At the end of her reflexions, the author humorously sums up what multilinguals actually are, hinting to the complexity of their (linguistic) existence:


[Multilinguals; T.T.] are gifted semilinguals who are dominant in no mother tongue, whose brain brims with fractional languages learned through deficient multilingual input designed for lower thought. Their L1 must be well in place but is not a native language, because they have several L1s to match each of their split identities, although none of their languages is non-native-like. In short, they are clinically impaired workforce assets who, despite mixing their main language and an L4, which is a second language, are nevertheless able to learn any number of unbalanced languages any time, provided they do it in infancy (p. 85)


This description hits the point: multilingualism is, last but not least, a phenomenon which reflects human creativity and human versatility. However, this description implicitly evokes the chapter titles discussed above and causes the same effect of potential confusion to uninformed readers which these headers produce. This effect slightly diminishes the generally positive impression the book conveys.  


Another important aspect must not be neglected, and it represents another strong point of the book: the cartoons and caricatures which accompany every chapter and which, in most cases, are simultaneously humorous and insightful. They offer summaries of the respective chapters, which could not be any more to the point and serve as eye catchers and appetisers at the same time, thus adding to the light-heartedness of the book.


After all the generally positive evaluation given here, a critical remark about the book reviewed has to be made: the layout could be much more reader-friendly. In a book like this one, which is meant to be simultaneously entertaining and pedagogical, the density of the layout represents an obstacle to reading. With a layout which would be less dense, therefore more easily perceivable by the human eye, the joy of reading could be increased considerably. This point may be taken into account for further editions (which are hopefully to come).


In an overall perspective, it can be said that the book Multilinguals are... ? is a pleasant and entertaining read which enlightens the non-expert reader and represents an attractive leisure-time read for the linguist. Its merit consists in opening up the world of multilingualism to those who – often personally concerned – would normally not read academic texts on the subject and who will find a considerable number of identification points. As a side effect, these readers will implicitly acquire the art of linguistic thinking. The informed reader will find a summary of linguistic research supplemented by the author’s personal experience and may find some inspiration due to the originality of the approach. In spite of the (few) critical points mentioned above, the reviewer can but agree with David Crystal, who classifies the present book as “a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation” (back cover). It is the author’s merit to have tackled a complex linguistic topic and to guide her readers through it so as to give them the chance to understand their situation better and to realise that linguistic research takes their problems into consideration. This is by far more than what can be found in many other books.




Author:


Prof. Dr. Thomas Tinnefeld
Saarland University of Applied Sciences
Business School
Chair of Applied Languages
Waldhausweg 14
D-66123 Saarbrücken
E-Mail: thomas_tinnefeld@htw-saarland.de