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Is Being Monolingual a Total Disadvantage?

By Imogen Goulding

Image credit: The New York Times

In the Middle Ages, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for the elite in England to have been trilingual. You’ve read that first sentence and you’re now thinking, “Oh gosh” — am I right? Stick with me... The triglossia in the country may have been the norm for some, who perhaps, at the time, would’ve rather enjoyed the simplicity of speaking just one tongue for home, work and in the church. Nowadays, the English language is so widespread that it can often be the chosen medium for business interactions. But is being monolingual actually more of a disadvantage in the 21st century? Without diving too far into the linguistic trenches, let’s explore why only speaking one language might still be a drawback. 

Rewind to the 16th century and scholarly matters would’ve been dealt with in Latin, medical or literary professions typically favoured English and French was generally the language of administration or even colloquial discourse. A large portion of the population might just have been bilingual, disregarding Latin as something for another class entirely. Language is a social construct that will be adapted by a change in settings, which is why three different codes were employed back then. And if you look to the current climate, this could also be true of certain industries requiring Mandarin Chinese, English and French — the latter two remaining dominant all these centuries later (nuances and alterations aside). 

What can be fairly assumed of both in the Middle Ages and now is that, having the freedom to communicate solely in one language limits misunderstandings and makes for much more comfortable dialogue. That is something they likely lacked back then, but we don’t necessarily now. 

However, lazily, English speakers are usually accommodated by non-native speakers, even when abroad. I’m sure you’ll be able to cast your mind back to holidays in Greece, Germany, Turkey and so on, where you may have even attempted the local lingo, but the person you’re conversing with has kindly replied in English. It’s an accommodation pattern that’s led a lot of native English speakers to simply give up and continue chatting as they would in the UK. It’s certainly fuelled no desire to branch out from monolingualism. 

If you’re still with me, there’s a wealth of language-related history I’m skipping through here, for the sake of keeping things fresh. But, in terms of the above, can you also think of a time when you’ve felt like a fish out of water trying to communicate with somebody in another language, to little or no avail? Did that not motivate you to want to learn more vocabulary from that language to help you out in future? If you’re nodding, then I’d say that might mean people would, by and large, agree that monolingualism could be viewed as a disadvantage. 

Although speaking a different language for business purposes hasn’t died out, it is, more or less, the norm that the language you use at home will be the same as that for your job. Wouldn’t it be more interesting to have to communicate in another tongue? The desire to standardise English back in the Middle Ages will have been to, essentially, make life easier. But, as travel and migration have become the norm these days, the need to do the opposite is now the case. The more languages, the merrier. 

While I’m no Siri, having studied linguistics has allowed me to dabble in learning about all sorts of languages — we’re talking everything from Estonian to Old English. I didn’t pursue French or German at a high level beyond school, to my regret (though, yeah, I’ll work on that), but I undoubtedly understand the importance of multiple languages being in our repertoires. 

From a cultural and personal perspective, this also means I hold bilingual speakers in great regard and respect. It’s almost something I see as embarrassing, that I haven’t gone on to hone another language near-natively. This is definitely another way that monolingualism creates a disadvantage. 

So, while our ancestors might’ve been delighted to reach a point where they only needed one language, a number of reasons exist for why that’s actually considered a hindrance now. Standard forms of language are vital, yes, but having linguistic variety is pretty crucial for life as we know it, too. 

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