M is for Monolingualism

3 02 2013

sant pol ajuntamentCheck out the banner that now adorns the town hall in our village. It reads ‘Un país per tots.  L’escola en català’.  Roughly: ‘A country for everybody. Schooling in Catalan’.

Given that Catalonia is a multilingual region, with a population almost evenly divided between those whose mother tongue is Catalan and those whose mother tongue is Spanish (not to mention a host of minority languages including Urdu, Arabic, Mandarin and Romanian), the slogan has a kind of topsy-turvy logic that George Orwell would have appreciated. Something like: ‘In the name of diversity, uniformity’.  (For a breakdown of Catalonia’s mother tongues, see here).

On a less felicitous note, the slogan echoes the rhetoric of the ‘English Only’ movement in the United States.  The following text, for example, comes from a 1990 flyer mailed by an organization called ‘U.S. English’ (cited in McKay and Bokhorst-Heng 2008: 99):

A common language benefits a country and its people. In our country this common bond is more important than in most because Americans continue to be diverse in origin, ethnicity, religion and native culture.

In much the same way, the Catalan government justifies its policy of ‘linguistic normalization’: politicians regularly invoke the fact that Catalan is ‘a guarantor of social cohesion’ and ‘a model of integration for new arrivals, avoiding their segregation on the grounds of origin, culture or language’. (As Mercè Vilarrubias [2012] points out, in her persuasively-argued book on the subject, the terms bilingualism and segregation are frequently conflated in the discourses of Catalan nationalism).

Ironically, the model of linguistic immersion that the town hall slogan defends closely replicates the policy of monolingualism that General Franco attempted to impose on Spain only a couple of generations back. The following text, for instance, comes from a Spanish textbook published in 1947:

LECTURA- –  En España hay niños de la apacible Castilla, la admirable Cataluña, la encantadora Vasconia y la pintoresca Galicia. Sus madres les enseñaron a hablar y rezar como aprendieron de sus mayores; pero en la clase el maestro les enseña todos la lengua castellana. Esta lengua tan bella, dulce y sonora, es común a todos. Hablándola nos entendemos, aunque no nos conozcamos, como se comprenden los hijos de una misma madre. ¡Seamos siempre dignos de nuestra madre España!

[READING–  In Spain there are children from peaceful Castille, from the admirable Catalonia, the charming Basque Country and the picturesque Galicia. Their mothers taught them to speak and pray as their elders did, but in class the teacher taught them all the Spanish language. This language so beautiful, sweet and sonorous, is common to all. Speaking it we understand one another even if  we do not know one another, just as the children of the same mother understand each other. Let us always be worthy of our mother Spain!]

Gramática Española, Segundo Grado, Editorial Luis Vives, S.A., Zaragoza, 1947.

Needless to say, the vigorous promotion of Catalan nowadays, including the policy which requires all children to be schooled in Catalan, is partly a reaction (or over-reaction?) to the equally vigorous persecution of Catalan during Franco’s dictatorship. Linguistic normalization is also justified by what many regard as Catalan’s precarious status, despite the fact that its more than 7 million speakers outnumber those of many other European languages, including Danish, Finnish, Maltese, and Slovene. (Catalan also happens to be 19th in the order of languages most used on Twitter!)

But, whether under threat or not, the Catalan-only policy (and the English Only one in the US) runs counter to prevailing thinking that early education is best mediated, where possible, in the home language. Research in the US, where a number of states have opted for some form of immersion, is fairly conclusive in showing that, as Shin (2013. 165) summarizes the evidence, ‘English-only education neither leads to faster learning of English nor produces better academic results for language minority children’. Findings such as these no doubt motivated the UNESCO ‘Year of Languages’ commitment towards  ‘developing language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language, or mother tongue, as widely and as often as possible, including in education’ (UNESCO 2008).

Norma_troqueladaOf course, the powers-that-be in Catalonia argue that the need for social cohesion outweighs the need for equity in education. And social cohesion is (in their view) entirely contingent on there being a common tongue (ignoring, for the moment, such relatively cohesive multilingual precedents as Switzerland, Finland and Singapore). Besides (they argue), why should children be schooled in Spanish, when they will pick it up anyway, ‘on the street’ as it were? – an argument that elides the fact that ‘street Spanish’ is a far remove from the kind of Spanish that might later be needed in higher education or for professional purposes.

In fairness, Spanish is taught as a school subject in Catalonia, but this does little to mitigate the fact that, at primary level, over half the population is being educated in a language that is not its mother tongue — a situation that in fact contravenes Article 32 of the Catalan constitution (l’Estatut), which rules that no one should be discriminated against for ‘linguistic reasons’. Nevertheless, language planners and their political masters doggedly refuse to implement practicable bilingual educational programs of the kind that function perfectly well in countries as widespread as Finland, Canada, Wales and Israel, as well as in other regions of Spain. In their eyes, any attempt to institute bilingualism (as guaranteed by Spanish law, and as commonplace in many countries round the world) is tantamount to committing linguistic suicide.

And national suicide, as well: as Blackledge and Creese (2010: 26) remind us, ‘in public discourse, language often becomes inseparably associated with a territorially bounded identity in a relationship that takes language, territory and identity to be isomorphic’: one people, one nation, one language.  While this may have been the norm in some distant, possibly prelapsarian past, a whole host of factors, including immigration, colonization, and globalization, now militate against monolingualism. (Iceland is possibly the only country in Europe – and one of the few in the world – where nation, territory and language are homogeneous).

Multilingualism is — and always has been — the  norm. Nor should it be feared. Just as in the natural world, plurality is evidence of a healthy ecosystem (‘as diversity increases, so does stability and resilience’ [Lovelock, 1988: 488]), so, too, with societies.  As William Labov (1982) put it, ‘heterogeneity is an integral part of the linguistic economy of the community, necessary to satisfy the linguistic demands of everyday life’.

There are those who would argue that, in the interests of bilingualism, a more acceptable, less politically-sensitive alternative to Spanish is English, and that the promotion of English-mediated content-and-language-integrated-learning (CLIL) in Catalonia should appease advocates of linguistic diversity.  But English has had a poor history of co-habitation with other languages (witness the English Only movement in the US) and, besides, this does not satisfy the need for early education in the mother tongue.

escola en català

If the government is truly committed to improving education why put unnecessary obstacles in the way? A less divisive, more inclusive, and more coherent sign on our town hall might read:  Un país per tots. Escola en totes les llengües. (‘A country for all. Schooling in all languages’).  Maybe all languages is a tall order, but at least both. Anything less is a mandate for monolingualism.


Blackledge, A., & Creese, A. (2010) Multilingualism: A Critical Perspective, New York: Continuum.

Labov, W. (1982) ‘Building on empirical foundations’ in Lehman, W.P. & Malkiel, Y. (eds), Perspectives on Historical Linguistics, Amsterdam: John Benjamins (17-92).

Lovelock, J. (1988) ‘The Earth as a living organism’, in Wilson, E.O. (ed.) Bio-diversity, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

McKay, S., & Bokhorst-Heng, H.D. (2008) International English in its Sociolinguistic Contexts: Towards a socially sensitive EIL pedagogy, New York: Routledge.

Shin, S. J (2013) Bilingualism in Schools and Society: Language, Identity and Policy, London: Routledge.

Vilarrubias, M. (2012) Sumar y no restar: Razones para introducir una educación bilingüe en Cataluña, Barcelona: Montesinos.

F is for Feel

19 12 2010

Absolutely freezing: View from my hotel room in Warsaw last week

I’ve just come back from Poland where I gave a series of workshops on grammar teaching, one of which was called ‘Getting the feel for it’, and in which I told this story:

I was once teaching a group of fairly advanced students and the ‘structure of the day’ was gradable vs ungradable adjectives (of the type angry vs furious, hungry vs starving, cold vs freezing etc) and, specifically, the intensifying adverbs (extremely vs absolutely) that they collocate with. Not sure either of my ability to establish the difference nor of their existing knowledge of it, I decided to test the students first, and asked them to decide which intensifier (extremely or absolutely) went best with each of a list of adjectives, some gradable, some not. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, when I checked the task, most of the students had most of the answers correct. “Starving?” “Absolutely.” “Hot?” “Extremely,” etc. “How were you able to do that?” I asked at one point, fishing for the rule. Whereupon one student answered: “It just feels right”.

“Great,” I said, “you just saved me the trouble of having to teach you something!”

“It just feels right”: isn’t this, after all, the ideal state we want our learners to be in? To have the gut-feeling that it’s not “How long are you living here?” but “How long have you been living here?” and not “I like too much the football” but “I like football very much” – irrespective of their capacity to state the rule. This is what the Germans call Sprachgefühl – literally ‘language-feel’: a native-like intuition of what is right.

So, how do you get it? Proponents of the Direct Method would argue that instruction only in the target language is the pre-condition: any reference to, or acknowledgement of,  the learner’s L1 would threaten the native-like intuitions that an entirely monolingual approach aims to inculcate. Total immersion is an extreme version of this philosophy.

In the same tradition, but coming from a  humanist point of view, Caleb Gattegno believed that – in order to get a feel for the target language –  no amount of telling or of repeating or of memorising would work. Instead, learners must develop their own ‘inner criteria’ for correctness. In order to do this, they would need to access ‘the spirit of the language’. And this spirit was to be found in its words – not the ‘big’ lexical words, but the small, functional words that – in English at least – carry the burden of its grammar:

Since it is not possible to resort to a one-to-one correspondence, the only way open is to reach the area of meaning that the words cover, and find in oneself whether this is a new experience which yields something of the spirit of the language, or whether there is an equivalent experience in one’s own language but expressed differently (Gattegno, 1962).

Cuisenaire rods

In the Silent Way, then, learners engage with a relatively limited range of language items, initially, but with a great deal of concentration.  Concentration is facilitated through the use of such tactile devices as cuisenaire rods (see this comment in the last post on Body).

Subsequently, Krashen (e.g. 1981) would argue that a ‘feel for grammaticality’ cannot be learned; it can only be acquired.  That is to say, it can only be internalised through ‘meaningful interaction in the target language’ (1981, p. 1). Later still, the argument as to whether explicit knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge, and by what means, has exercised the likes of the two Ellises (Rod and Nick), among others. Does practice induce it? Is exposure the trick? And how do you test for it? For example, do grammaticality tests (in which test-users simply decide which of a list of sentences are acceptable or not) provide a reliable measure of Sprachgefühl? And can learners eventually forget the rules they once learned, and function solely on feel?

Finally, connectionist models of learning suggest that feel is simply the effect of the strengthening of neural pathways that results from repeated firings across the mental network. This argues for massive exposure, coupled with continuous use and feedback: it’s really total immersion all over again. For many learners, of course, this is simply not possible. So, how else can they get a feel for English grammar?


Gattegno, C. 1962. Teaching foreign languages. The Silent Way.

Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.