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?”
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-
Cases of degenerative multilemmia have been identified through painstaking empirical research, duly submitted, peer-
This paper reports the case of Richard-III,1 a near-
And, probing the afflicted multibrain even deeper:
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:
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
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-
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.
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.
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