Individual Bilingualism and Collective Bilingualism

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Individual Bilingualism and Collective Bilingualism

This is an unofficial translation of a speech given by André D'Allemagne in Montréal on March 8, 1980.

André D'Allemagne, political science professor, essayist, translator, founding member of the RIN

Whether it be at the individual level or at the collective level, true bilingualism is an exceptional occurrence. It does not suffice, indeed, that a person knows or uses two languages, even if clearly done without any effort, to describe this person as "bilingual".


If we want to give bilingualism a description rigorous enough to be satisfactory and useful, we must consider as authentically bilingual the individual who knows and practises two languages at sensibly the same level, and with the same spontaneousness. Such is at least, in short, the definition adopted by linguists and psychologists.

One easily conceives the abnormal character of such a situation. Since the linguistic reality is global. A language is not a simple instrument of expression and communication, which we use without incidence. It is a mold for our thoughts. As linguist Izhac Epstein explains: "Every language is characterized by the way in which it chains ideas together." Consequently the learning of a language is accompanied by the acquisition of a coherent and complete ensemble of concepts - and even values - and a representation of the world particular to a given language. To be bilingual is to be a part of concurrent universes at the same time. One can guess how such a situation can imply potential conflicts.

Therefore, there is no reason to be surprised by the number of linguists and psychologists who exposed the dangers of bilingualism for an individual. One could mention, among the better known, Braunhausen and Decroly in Belgium, Wagener and Riès in Luxembourg, Epstein, Meyhoffer and Mocklie in Switzerland, Jespersen in Danemark, Saes and Hughes in Wales, Smith in the United States, Gali in Catalonia, Conka in Tchecoslovakia, Henns and Yoshioka in Germany and Japan. According to them, there are two types of conflicts among bilinguals: a psychological conflict having a negative influence on intelligence, and a linguistic conflict coming from the prohibitive influence of one language over the other. Tossed between two systems of thought and expression, the bilingual is like a traveller who would ceaselessly have to chose between two paths to reach the same destination. Such a doubling risks to provoke linguistic and psychological perturbations, that is to say on both levels of thought and expression.

If the negative effects of bilingualism on the development of intelligence, denounced by some, are contested by others, the noxious consequences of bilingualism when it comes to linguistic expression are the object of a remarkable consensus.

In reality, however, bilinguals are rare. People who speak several languages are most of the time only polyglots, that is to say that for them the multiple languages are not on equal footing. In the most common case, that of diglossia, one of the two languages wins over the other: it is as a general rule the "mother tongue" or "primary" language, that which we have first learned. The thought of the polyglot was first molded in this primary language to which one of many other languages were added later on. As a result, the polyglot is more properly a translator, even if often he is not conscious of it, and others either. In this case, the risks of psycho-linguistic conflicts, without disappearing completely, seem strongly attenuated.

In a milieu or a society in which the individual is constantly exposed to two languages, the individual is generally somewhere on a line between bilingualism as one pole and simple polyglossia as the other. Two factors, then, will be determinant: the age of learning the languages and the social pressure exercised on the individual by the milieu or the global society.

On one hand, the younger the individual learned the languages, the more he risks to become bilingual... to the point that it seems practically almost impossible to a unilingual adult to become bilingual. It is therefore at school and in the milieu around it that bilinguals are generally brought up. As a result, as we have seen, the more the individual is bilingual (and not polyglot) the greater the dangers of conflicts.

In addition, the coexistence of languages in a given milieu, and with all the more reason in the whole of society, is never peaceful. Languages are in rivalry, in conflict, each one favoured or disfavoured by various factors such as their usefulness, their prestige and their diffusion. It is not necessary to search very far to find examples. The present colloquium offers one to us, and of the most eloquent kind: the parents of some 700 francophone students worry that their children be anglicized and lose their cultural identity as a result of a cohabitation with 250 anglophone co-students. And what to say when a government is lead to make use of the law to oblige a linguistic majority of 80% of the population to attend their own schools rather than that of a minority of 20%?

The individual, in a society marked by such a linguistic competition, becomes the target of opposing pressures: the more these pressures tend toward an equality that they will in fact never attain, the more the individual is bilingual; the more the pressures are unequal, the more the individual is directed toward polyglossia.


This leads us to consider bilingualism under its second aspect: as a social fact. A society authentically bilingual would be a society in which two languages would be on an equal footing, provided with the same weight in all sectors of collective life, known and used by the the whole of the population. One can ask if such societies exist but also if they could exist.

In fact, officially plurilingual societies correspond to States where we find a juxtaposition of unilingual territories or marked by the superiority of one language over the other(s). Such is the case of Switzerland and Belgium, just to mention two frequently cited examples.

There are however societies that we could call "bilingualized", in which an aboriginal population or important parts of it are being imposed generalized contact with, knowledge, and use of a foreign language, which lead them to a certain level of bilingualism or polyglossia. Such situations are generally attributable to various forms of colonialism, or at least domination. I will leave the conclusion to Albert Memmi, who describes the consequences of this situation1:

Equipped with his sole language, the colonized is a stranger in his own country.

In the colonial context, bilingualism is necessary. It is a condition for all culture, all communication and all progress.

[...] Possession of two languages is not merely a matter of having two tools, but actually means the participation to two psychic and cultural realms. Here, the two world symbolized and conveyed by the two tongues are in conflict: they are those of the colonizer and the colonized.

Furthermore, the colonized's mother tongue, that which is sustained by his feelings, emotions and dreams, that in which his tenderness and wonder are expressed, thus that which holds the greatest emotional impact, is precisely the one which is the least valued. [...]

In the linguistic conflict within the colonized, his mother tongue is that which is crushed. He himself sets about discarding this infirm language, hiding it from the sight of strangers. In short, colonial bilingualism is neither a purely bilingual situation in which an indigenous tongue coexists with a purist's language (both belonging to the same world of feeling), nor a simple polyglot richness benefiting from an extra but relatively neutral alphabet: it is a linguistic drama.

This drama, we have been living it day by day for a long time inside Quebec. Whatever we do, and beyond local and provisional arrangements that we may conclude, this drama is that of a society. It is global and its remedy could only be global as well.

Author's Note

1. Albert Memmi, Portrait du colonisé, Montréal, Édition de l'Étincelle, 1972, p. 103

Translator's Note

a. The full English translation of Albert Memmi's quote is on pages 107-108 of The Colonizer and the Colonized. Google Books gives a preview of page 107 only.

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