Center Embedding—the Pivotal Role of Military History—Hippolytus Drome, PhD, OBE SpecGram Vol CLIV, No 4 Contents Cartoon Theories of Linguistics—Part 12—Syllables—Phineas Q. Phlogiston, Ph.D.

The Bilemma in the Bilingual Brain

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira


A bilingual is someone who is unable to give a satisfactory answer to questions like: “So what’s your mother tongue?”, “OK, you can say both fromage and cheese, but which language are you a native speaker of, anyway?”, or “No, seriously, in which language do you think, about Käse or anything else?”

The bilingual-in-the-street will hesitate, blink and/or stare vacantly at the questioner. Sufferers of more virulent forms of this disorder may attempt to utter unintelligible expressions like “both” or “the two of them”, or even ask back defensively petulant questions like “What kind of stupid question is that??” or “Which language is your mother tongue, ever since the Normans turned you all into pidgin speakers?”. From less advanced pathologies, the questions will eventually elicit the name of one single language, whereupon it becomes clear that the bilingual is in fact a non-lingual in the other language. This bilingual bilemma is compounded into a trilemma, quadrilemma, pentalemma or, more generally, multilemma, where individuals are known to claim mastery of more than two languages, including where, regrettably, English is one of them.

One evident symptom of the malady is that it blocks awareness of itself among its victims, with nefarious social consequences. All multilinguals show compulsion to let several languages encroach in their speech and, worse, many even boast about this repulsive habit. Such practices are of course traumatising to linguistically balanced human beings, as was pithily expressed by a Californian lady in a recent reader’s comment to a Scientific American piece on endangered languages: “Different languages are a menace to a friendly world” (Thomas 2002).

Fortunately, the condition has been thoroughly investigated for almost a century now (see the summary of findings in Cruz-Ferreira 1912). It has also been named, naming being the foolproof way of securing something new to talk about, in scientific circles: the brain is multilemmatised. That is, it contains synapses firing randomly away in more than one linguistic direction along the perisylvian fissure, instead of converging in orderly fashion to their natural core, the seat of English in the superior frontal gyrus. Multilemmatisation results in a nebulous mass of unrelated lemmata, while perversely luring the sufferer to mistake these for as many representations of different, fully-fledged languages. As has been proven beyond reasonable doubt, no normal brain can support the cognitive strain of organising lemmata in more than one language, preferably English (see the state-of-the-art review in Calvin 2007).

A case study

Cases of degenerative multilemmia have been identified through painstaking empirical research, duly submitted, peer-reviewed and published anonymously. The time-honoured experimental paradigm consists of having suspected multilinguals, sometimes reluctantly, always unwittingly, sit before computer screens where words and word-related stimuli are flashed sequentially. Dotting the subject’s scalp with electrodes is optional, although the technique has recently gained impetus (Smith et al. 2004). Both stimuli succession rate and predicted response time are carefully calibrated to emulate the normal speed of everyday speech production and perception.

This paper reports the case of Richard-III,1 a near-terminal example of lemmatic dissolution, who was bundled off to our laboratory after persistent relapses into prattling in German, Portuguese and French, besides sporadic utterances in English. He was gently persuaded to submit to the Streep Test (Streep 1982), which is routinely administered as illustrated below. The figures represent a sample of screens presented to the subject, randomised in all possible lemmatic permutations.

Ceci n’est pas allemand
This is not cheese

And, probing the afflicted multibrain even deeper:

Isto é português
Das ist Milch

Results showed that Richard took inanely large amounts of time to work out a) what the stimuli were meant to mean, b) what he was supposed to say or do about them, and c) what the heck the whole thing was about [sic, or perhaps more to the point, sick].

Experimental behaviour such as his is unsettling in that it conclusively proves the complete lack of control that multilinguals exert over their lemmata: they simply don’t know which lemma should be shelved in which part of their cortex. In stark contrast (p<0.0000001), healthy controls2 had no problem solving the same simple True/False task, when presented with the following equivalent stimuli:

This is English
This is cheese

Decisive evidence of acute multilemmia further emerged when, after attempting tasks A and B for a mere 30 minutes at a mild average rate of one screen per second, Richard was either unable or simply refused (we have no way to tell) to complete task C. He cantered out of the lab in tears, arms flailing and hollering: “One language! One language! My multilingualism for one language!”3

Conclusion and further research

Let me finish on an optimistic note. Desperately serious cases of multilemmia like Richard’s nevertheless bode some hope of recovery, given time, resources and adequate therapy. Richard’s awareness of his ailment, which finally surfaced in mid-experiment, is certainly encouraging, as is his spontaneously expressed desire to be guided back to the normality fold. He is now in rehab under strict English-only surveillance.

If I may be allowed to round off this report with a less academic turn of phrase, there is firmly, and despite all appearances, one language at the end of the tunnel.


Calvin, N. (2007). The monochromatic cockade: a badge of decent language use. Paper presented to the XII Congress of SLP (Sole Language Practitioners), Port Moresby.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (1912). On linguistic supernumeraries. In Occasional Musings, vol. XCVIII (7th edition). Marrakesh: Tongue & Sons, pp. 12852-12991.

Smith, R., Y. Chan, W. Chen, W. Chen, Y. Chan, R. Smith and W. Chen (2004), Imag(in)ing the brain, Working Papers in Brain Imaging (Series B) 28: R17-R19, University of Estoril.

Streep, M. (1982). Why I can speak English with funny accents but would never dream of speaking funny languages with an English accent, Phoneticum E Pluribus Unum 36: 743-758.

Thomas, M.C. (2002). In ‘Letters’, Scientific American, December: 8.

1 Roman digits following a subject’s first name are standard code in this experimental paradigm, indicating the number of languages that the subject claims to master beyond the normal threshold, one (preferably English).

2 Controls are obviously speakers of one single language (preferably English). The word ‘monolemmia’ doesn’t exist because we don’t need words for what is obvious. There are no words either for ‘human being with two nostrils’ or for ‘teabag containing tea’, for example.

3 Our subject’s cri du cœur (this is not French, by the way) has often been grossly plagiarised and backdated.

Center Embedding—the Pivotal Role of Military History—Hippolytus Drome, PhD, OBE
Cartoon Theories of Linguistics—Part 12—Syllables—Phineas Q. Phlogiston, Ph.D.
SpecGram Vol CLIV, No 4 Contents