Monoglottism (Greek μόνοσ monos, "alone, solitary", + γλώττα glotta, "tongue, language") or, more commonly, monolingualism or unilingualism, is the condition of being able to speak only a single language, as opposed to multilingualism. In a different context, "unilingualism" may refer to a language policy which enforces an official or national language over others.

Being monolingual or unilingual is also said of a text, dictionary, or conversation written or conducted in only one language, and of an entity in which a single language is either used or officially recognized (in particular when being compared with bilingual or multilingual entities or in the presence of individuals speaking different languages). Note that monoglottism can only refer to lacking the ability to speak several languages. Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population.[1]

Romaine (1995) pointed out in her book Bilingualism that it would be weird to find a book titled Monolingualism.[2] This statement reflects the traditional assumption that linguistic theories often take on: that monolingualism is the norm.[3] Monolingualism is thus rarely the subject of scholarly publications, as it is viewed to be an unmarked or prototypical concept where it has the sense of being normal and multilingualism is the exception.[4]

The assumption of normative monolingualism is also often the view of monolinguals who speak a global language, like the English language. Crystal (1987) said that this assumption is adopted by many in Western society.[5] One explanation is provided by Edwards, who in 2004 claimed that evidence of the "monolingual mindset" can be traced back to 19th century Europe, when the nation was rising and a dominant group had control, and European mindsets on language were carried forth to its colonies, further perpetuating the monolingual mindset.[6]

Another explanation is that the nations who speak the English language are both “the producers and beneficiaries of English as a global language” and the populations within these countries tend to be monolingual.[4]

Comparing Monolingualism with Multilingualism

There have been some studies done comparing monolinguals with bilinguals. Though none of the studies have found conclusive evidence that being monolingual or bilingual is better than the other, many have suggested that multilinguals have an ability to understand better overall(DFDN 11/2013). People often assume that children who are bilingual or multilingual will be linguistically delayed compared to children who speak just one language. People believe speakers of more than one language will be delayed in reaching their linguistic milestones and confused and unable to differentiate between their various languages. It is assumed that bilingual babies will frequently switch between languages, and that this language switching is a bad thing. Additionally, people think the brain cannot successfully support simultaneous and early exposure to more than one language. However, several research studies have shown that bilingualism and multilingualism does not delay a child’s language abilities, and that children who speak more than one language are not confused. Bilingual babies do partake in language switching just like bilingual adults, but this is not a bad thing and this does not represent confusion. Bilingual children reach milestones of language development at approximately the same rate as monolingual children. It is beneficial to learn a second or third language, and the advantages of bilingualism drastically outweigh the disadvantages. Bilingual children have advanced executive functioning on certain tasks. There is no significant difference between overall vocabulary content and knowledge, and they reach language milestones at approximately the same time as monolingual children. Additionally, bilingual brains promote cognitive reserve, and prolong the onset of diseases such as dementia. While bilingual children are believed to be delayed and confused, this is not the case. They do frequently code switch between the two languages, but bilingual adults do this as well. Furthermore, no one thinks that bilingual adults are “confused” because of code switching, so it does not make sense to assume that bilingual babies are confused. Bilingual children demonstrate the same writing abilities, reading abilities, vocabulary gains, and comprehension abilities as their monolingual peers. Overall, bilingual children generally do not show language delays when compared to monolingual children. Bilingual children are not confused, and they are not at a disadvantage because they know more than one language. All of the studies presented have demonstrated just how bilingual children and monolingual children are basically equal in terms of acquiring language.

Vocabulary size and verbal fluency

According to a study on lexical access,[7] monolinguals often maintain a wider vocabulary in a target language relative to a comparable bilingual, and this increases the efficiency of word retrieval in monolinguals. Monolinguals also access words more often than bilinguals in a target language.

In letter fluency tasks, monolinguals were also able to respond with more words to the letter cue than bilinguals; though such an effect was not seen in bilinguals with a high vocabulary score.

Also, in the same study, monolinguals perform better than bilinguals on verbal fluency. If the vocabulary abilities were made to be more comparable however, many of the differences disappear, indicating that vocabulary size may be a factor that moderates a person's performance in verbal fluency and naming tasks. The same study also found that after using a greater number of bilinguals in the study, and a version of the letter fluency task that placed more demand on executive control, bilinguals perform better than monolinguals. Thus once vocabulary abilities are controlled, bilinguals perform better on letter fluency possibly due to enhanced frontal executive processes in the brain.

It is important to note here that bilinguals overall vocabulary size in both languages combined are equivalent to that of the monolinguals in one language. This means that while monolinguals may excel in vocabulary size for the one language they speak, their vocabulary content is not greater. Bilinguals may, in fact, have smaller vocabularies in each individual language, but when their vocabularies are combined, the content size is approximately similar to that of the monolingual. Monolingual children demonstrated larger vocabulary scores than their bilingual peers, but the bilingual children’s vocabulary scores still increased with age, just like the monolingual children’s vocabulary scores (Core et al., 2011). Despite a variation in vocabulary scores, there was absolutely no difference between monolingual and bilingual children in terms of total vocabulary size and total vocabulary gains (Core et al., 2011). Bilingual children and monolingual children have the same vocabulary size and gain the same vocabulary knowledge.

Creative functioning

In a study testing for creative functioning that involved monolingual and bilingual children in Singapore,[8] researchers found that monolinguals performed better on fluency and flexibility than bilinguals. The trend is reversed, however, on tests for originality and elaboration.

Mental well-being

In another recent study in Canada, it has been shown that monolinguals are at a disadvantage with the onset of senility as compared to bilingual people.[9] In this study, it seems that being bilingual is associated with a delay of dementia by four years as compared to monolinguals. Bialystok's most recent work also shows that lifelong bilingualism can delay symptoms of dementia.[10]

It is believed that bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve by preventing effects of cognitive delay and prolonging the onset of sicknesses such as dementia. Cognitive reserve refers to the idea that engaging in stimulating physical or mental activity maintains cognitive functioning (Bialystok et al., 2012). In this case, knowing more than one language is similar to stimulating mental activity. In order to test whether or not bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve, Bialystok et al. (2012) looked at hospital records among monolingual and bilingual adults who have dementia. The researchers found that elderly bilingual adults were diagnosed with dementia about three to four years later than elderly monolingual adults. These results have been replicated and validated, and outside factors were controlled. In fact, outside factors such as socioeconomic status and cultural differences always favored the monolinguals, making the argument the bilingualism contributes to cognitive reserve even stronger (Bialystok et al., 2012). This finding enhances the fact that bilinguals are at an advantage because of their ability to speak two languages, not because of outside factors. A probable explanation for this phenomenon is that knowledge of multiple languages keeps the brain alert and therefore more mentally aware for a longer period of time.

Emotion and behaviour

A study conducted with children in their early school years suggested that there are emotional and behavioural benefits to being bilingual.[11] In the same study, the findings show that monolingual children, in particular non-English monolingual children, display more poor behavioural and emotional outcomes in their school years. The non-English monolingual children had the highest level of externalizing and internalizing behaviourial problems by fifth grade(around 10–11 years of age), even though the children were all measured to have similar levels of internalizing and externalizing behaviourial problems at the start. In contrast, the fluent bilingual and non-English dominant bilingual children were found to have the lowest level of these behaviourial problems. The authors suggest that monolingualism seems to be a risk factor. However, if there is a supportive school environment with teachers who are experienced in ESL (English as a Second Language), children seem to have better emotional constitution.

Memory performance

In a study conducted at the University of Florida, where Native-English bilinguals were compared with English monolinguals, it was found that although there was no difference in accuracy between the two groups, there was an evident slower response rate from bilinguals compared to monolinguals on tasks that involve latency of recognition of a list of abstract words and lexical decision tasks.[12] For these two tasks, language-specific and data driven processes were more prevalent, that is, the tasks were driven by the dominant language and the data (the words used in the task). The study differed from prior research that there is more balance in familiarity of the dominant language. Magiste's (1980) hypothesis that it could have been due to differential familiarity with the dominant language is suggested to be a possible reason for the bilingual disadvantage.[13] They explained that for bilinguals, it could be because the acquiring and using of the second language meant that there was less time to process English, as compared to the monolingual participants in the study.

Contrasting information: Evidence from a research study shows bilinguals have a faster reaction time in most working memory tasks. While a lot of research asserts that monolingual children outperform bilingual children, other research asserts the opposite. Research by Bialystok et al., as reported by Kapa and Colombo (2013, p. 233) shows that bilingual individuals perform better than monolingual individuals on a wide variety of cognitive tests, thus demonstrating cognitive control advantages. Two different concepts, attentional inhibition and attentional monitoring, are used to measure attentional control. In terms of attentional control, early bilingual learners showed the greatest advantage, compared to monolingual speakers and late bilingual speakers. In terms of overall performance on ATN, the three groups performed equally, but when age and verbal ability variables were controlled, there was a difference in reaction time. The early bilingual children’s reaction time was tremendously faster than the monolingual children, and only slightly faster than the late bilingual children (Kapa & Colombo, 2013). Early bilingual learners showed that they simply responded most efficiently to the task at hand. The results from this study demonstrate the advantages bilingual children have with attentional control. This is likely because bilingual children are used to balancing more than one language at time, and are therefore used to focusing on which language is necessary at a certain time. By constantly being aware of what language to use and being able to successfully switch between languages, it makes sense that bilingual children would be better at directing and focusing their attention.

Verbal and non-verbal cognitive development

A new research by the University of York published in “Child Development” magazine[14] reviewed the effects of the development of a child’s verbal and non-verbal language, matched between monolinguals and bilinguals in a particular language. Researchers compared about 100 6-year-old monolingual and bilingual children (monolingual in English; bilingual in English and Mandarin, bilingual in French and English, bilingual in Spanish and English), to test their verbal and non-verbal communication cognitive development. The research takes into consideration factors like the similarity of the language, the cultural background and education experience. These students mostly come from public schools from various areas, having similar social and economic background.

Results show that in the child’s early stage, multilingual kids are very different from one another in their language and cognitive skills development, and also when compared to monolingual children. When compared to monolinguals, multilingual children are slower in building up their vocabulary in every language. However, their metalinguistic development allowed them to understand better the structure of the language. They also performed better in non-verbal control tests. A non-verbal control test refers to the ability to focus and then able to divert their attention when being instructed to.

Reasons why monolingualism persists

Convergence principle

According to the convergence principle,[15] we tend to change our language style to that of people we like and admire. Conversations where one party speaks a language that is different from the other partner are hard to maintain, and intimacy is reduced. Thus, one will usually adapt and accommodate their speech, for reasons such as convenience, freedom of misunderstandings and conflict, and to maintain intimacy. In the case of intermarriages, this results in one partner becoming monolingual, as is also usually the case within families and with their children.

Predominance of the English language

The predominance of the English language in many sectors, such as world trade, technology, and science, has contributed to English-speaking societies being persistently monolingual, as there is no relevant need to learn a second language when all dealings can be done in their native language.[16] This is especially the case for English speakers in the United States, in particular its Northeastern, its Midwestern, and most of its Southern regions, where everyday contact with Spanish and French is limited. The country's large land area and its most populous regions' distance from large non-English-speaking areas, other than Mexico and Quebec, increase geographic and economic barriers to foreign travel, and although the country is economically interdependent with trade partners such as China, American corporations and heavily "Americanized" subsidiaries of foreign corporations mediate and control most citizens' contact with most products of other nations. Hence the popular joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? [Answer: 'Trilingual.'] What do you call someone who speaks two languages? [Answer: 'Bilingual.'] What do you call someone who speaks only one language? [Answer: 'Monolingual.'/'I don't know.'] American."

There is also increasing pressure on bilingual immigrants to renounce their mother tongue and adopt their host country's language. As a result, even though there may be immigrants from a wide variety of nationalities and cultures, the one main language spoken in the country does not reflect them.

Costs of Monolingualism

Snow and Hakuta[15] write that in a cost-benefit analysis, the choosing of English as the official and national language often comes with additional costs on the society, since the alternative choice of multilingualism has its own benefits.

Educational costs: A part of the education budget has to be allocated for foreign language training; even then, fluency among the foreign language students is lower than those who learnt it at home.[15]

Economic costs: International business may be impeded by a country's lack of its own people who are competent in other languages.[15]

National security costs: Money has to be spent to train foreign-service personnel in foreign languages.[15]

Time and effort: Compared to the maintenance of a language learnt at home, it incurs more time, effort and hard work to learn it in school.[15]

Job opportunities: Kirkpatrick asserts that monolinguals are at a disadvantage in the international job market, compared to multilinguals.[17]

Monolingualism in the media

Lawrence Summers, in an article published in the New York Times,[18] discussed how to prepare for the future advancement of America. In one of his points, he questioned the importance and necessity of learning foreign languages, remarking that "English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, makes it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile."

Others have disagreed with Summers' view. A week later the New York Times hosted a discussion among six panelists,[19] all of whom were in favor of learning foreign languages, citing the benefits and advantages, as well as the changing global landscape.

See also


  1. G. Richard Tucker (1999)A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education Carnegie Mellon University CALL Digest EDO-FL-99-04
  2. Romaine, Suzzane (1995). Bilingualism. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-631-19539-9.
  3. Pavlenko, Aneta (2000). "L2 influence on L1 in late bilingualism.". Issues in Applied Linguistics. 11 (2): 175–206.
  4. 1 2 Ellis, Elizabeth (2006). "Monolingualism: The unmarked case". Estudios de Sociolingüística. 7 (2): 173–196.
  5. Crystal, David (1987). The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-55967-6.
  6. Edwards, Viv (2004). Multilingualism in the English-speaking world. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 3–5. ISBN 978-0-631-23613-9.
  7. Bialystok, Ellen; Craik, Fergus I.M; Luk, Gigi. (2008). "Lexical access in bilinguals: Effects of vocabulary size and executive control". Journal of Neurolinguistics. 21 (6): 522–538. doi:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2007.07.001.
  8. Torrance, E. Paul; Gowan, John.C.; Wu, Jing-Jyi; Aliotti, Nicholas C. (1970). "Creative functioning of monolingual and bilingual children in Singapore". Journal of Educational Psychology. 61 (1): 72–75. doi:10.1037/h0028767.
  9. "Canadian study shows bilingualism has protective effect in delaying onset of dementia by four years". Biology News Net. January 11, 2007.
  10. "The rise of the monoglots". University August 5, 2008. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
  11. Han, Wen-Jui; Huang, Chien-Chung (2010). "The forgotten treasure: Bilingualism and Asian children's emotional and behavioural health". American Journal of Public Health. 100 (5): 831–838. doi:10.2105/ajph.2009.174219.
  12. Ransdell, Sarah Ellen; Fischler, Ira (1987). "Memory in a monolingual mode:When are bilinguals at a disadvantage?". Journal of Memory and Language. 26: 392–405. doi:10.1016/0749-596x(87)90098-2.
  13. Magiste, Edith (1980). "Memory for numbers in monolinguals and bilinguals". Acta Psychologica. 46: 63–68. doi:10.1016/0001-6918(80)90059-1.
  14. "最新研究:双语儿童比单语小孩更聪慧". 加拿大都市网. 10 February 2012. Retrieved 23 March 2013.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Snow, Catherine E.; Hakuta, Kenji (1992). "The Costs of Monolingualism". In Crawford, J. Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy. (PDF). The University of Chicago. pp. 384–394. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  16. Peel, Quentin. (2001). "The monotony of monoglots". Language Learning Journal. 23 (1): 13–14. doi:10.1080/09571730185200041.
  17. Kirkpatrick, Andy (2000). "The disadvantaged monolingual: Why English alone is not enough.". Australian Language Matters. 8 (3): 5–7.
  18. Summers, Lawrence H. (20 January 2012). "What You (Really) Need to Know". New York Times.
  19. Berdan, Stacie Nevadomski; Jackson, Anthony; Erard, Michael; Ho, Melanie; Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M.; Lewis, Clayton (29 January 2012). "English Is Global, So Why Learn Arabic?". New York Times.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Neuropsychology & Neurology, Linguistics & Language & Speech, 16(4), 240-250.

Core, C., Hoff, E., Rumiche, R., & Senor, M. (2011). Total and conceptual vocabulary in Spanish–English bilinguals from 22 to 30 months: Implications for assessment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56(5), 1637-1649.

Kapa, L., & Colombo, J. (2013). Attentional control in early and later bilingual children.Cognitive Development, 28(3), 233-246.

External links

Look up monoglottism, monolingualism, or unilingualism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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