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David Crystal on multilingualism

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  • Don Osborn
    Linguist David Crystal, in his The Language Revolution (2004) discusses, among other things, multilingualism and how we might understand it better. Some of
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 21, 2006
      Linguist David Crystal, in his "The Language Revolution" (2004)
      discusses, among other things, multilingualism and how we might
      understand it better. Some of his thoughts may be of intererst in
      thinking about multilingual literacy.

      One thing he suggests is that children are equipped cognitively to
      learn not just language or a language, but languages.

      He then goes on to explore what multilingualism means:
      "Thinking through the notion of multilingualism means, first of all,
      recognizing that it is not homogenous. Learning a language is a
      multi-tasking experience, involving in its fullest form four modes -
      listening, speaking, reading, and writing (deaf signing, of course, is
      a fifth mode in certain circumstances). It is perfectly possible to
      develop a multilingual competence in only the first two of these modes
      - indeed, in some 40 per cent of the world's languages, as we have
      seen [in an earlier part of the book], the users have no choice,
      because their languages have never been written down. It is also
      possible to develop just a 'reading' knowledge of a language. And
      differentials between the active and passive modes within spoken and
      written language are also common: people who listen better than they
      speak, and who read better than they write. The notion of
      multilingualism cannot be restricted to people who are fluent in all
      four modes, as this would exclude a significant proportion of the
      world's population whose lives actually function through the use of
      more than one language. Rather, multilingualism has to allow for
      ability in any subset of the modes." (pp. 93-4)

      In a way, this group is premised on an awareness of the latter point
      already, as one of the phenomena we're considering is people who speak
      more than one language but may not read in more than 0 or 1 of them.

      Crystal goes on in more detail, discussing the difficulty in measuring
      ability in language in an absolute way and, interestingly comes around
      to something else that has been brought up on this list -
      semilingualism (though he breaks it down into different categories).

      For anyone interested, a review of the book is available at
      http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-1500.html & reposted at

      Don Osborn
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