Monolingual linguists


A new semester has started, and considering how cold it was around Bristol yesterday, I’m surprised that so many people came to my first teaching sessions…

When getting to know new students, for both my benefit and theirs, I follow the route of typical ice-breaker questions plus one non-sequitur (e.g. your name, where you’re from, and whether you’re for or against blue cheese). However, having spent time teaching MFL at secondary level, and knowing that the uptake and availability of foreign language courses at further and higher education levels is decreasing (have a look at the UCML website for more information), some other questions popped into my head:

Tell me about any other languages you use. Are any of them sign languages? Did you study a language up to A-level? Do you consider yourself to be multilingual?

Out of the nearly 30 students that I taught, the general responses I received were as follows:

  • 6 spoke a language other than English regularly… and in each case, they were international students
  • None of the students knew any sign language apart from some basic fingerspelling
  • Apart from the international students who studied English (and often other languages), only 3 other students had studied a foreign language to A-level… and none of the three saw themselves as multilingual

This threw me a little bit. It’s one to thing to read about a decline in multilingualism, but it’s another to be faced with a group of linguistics students who are, primarily, monolingual. Albeit over 8 years ago since I started my undergraduate course in linguistics, it was nevertheless necessary to have studied at least one other language up to A-level, with the expectation that you would continue developing this or another language alongside your linguistic studies.

This post isn’t intended to ‘slate’ monolingual linguists, as indeed there are many… but it makes me wonder: just how effective can you be as a monolingual linguist? The benefits of multilingualism have been espoused in numerous peer-reviewed journals, for linguists and non-linguists alike, but to engage in the scientific study of language when your experiences reside predominantly in one language alone raises questions. Of course, it’s possible, if not probable, that my students won’t continue into a linguistically-focussed career path. I just hope that if they do, they see the benefits of knowing and using more than one language; something that ‘those higher up’ in the UK seem to shun at most opportunities…


One thought on “Monolingual linguists

  1. Noam Chomsky is pretty famously “as monolingual as they come” in his own words, and seems to be fairly successful. Then again, while certainly far from an expert, I feel that a better familiarity with topic-prominent languages would have helped his transformational generative grammar theories.

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