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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 compared 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[clarification needed], 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[edit]

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[clarification needed](DFDN 11/2013).[citation needed]

Vocabulary size and verbal fluency[edit]

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[clarification needed], 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.

Creative functioning[edit]

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[edit]

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]

Emotion and behaviour[edit]

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[clarification needed]. 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[edit]

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.

Verbal and non-verbal cognitive development[edit]

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-years-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[edit]

Convergence principle[edit]

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[edit]

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 of America, 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 nations other than Mexico 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."[citation needed]

In several western countries, 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.

Monolingualism within countries[edit]

Native-born persons living in many of the Anglosphere nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia, United States, English Canada and New Zealand are frequently typecast as monoglots, owing to a worldwide perception that English speakers see little relevance in learning a second language due to the widespread distribution of English and its competent use even in many non-English speaking countries in Europe, Africa, and South Asia. A similar observation can be made in communities that speak other global languages; for example, the Hispanophone world in the case of Spanish and the Francophonie in the case of French.

Case study: United States of America[edit]

Despite being a society with many immigrants, stable bilingualism is not a feature of American communities. Rather, monolingualism is more dominant in US society.[citation needed] With few exceptions, only the elderly, very young children and recent immigrants speak their mother tongue, besides English. There is a prevalent switch from their mother tongue to dominance in English in the school children and young adults with immigrant backgrounds. Often, when the second generation parents become more comfortable using English, the third generation will then become monolingual in English. This is seen even within groups where there is a wide availability to bilingual education services. The shift observed in these communities from their mother tongues into English means that children, who could have learnt their native language from their family, are instead struggling in their mother tongue and often score poorly in high school foreign language classes.[15]

According to The Tongue-Tied American by Senator Paul Simon,[17] an average of 200,000 jobs each year are lost out to Americans, due to an inability to speak a foreign language.

Case study: Belgium[edit]

In Belgium, monolingualism of the Dutch language is strongly enforced on students. The school staff and environment strongly encourage the exclusive use of the Dutch language, and bilingual students who speak their mother tongue are formally punished by the school, while minority ethnic languages are excluded from the school's cultural education.[18] This is due to the perception that the mother tongues of bilingual students are a hindrance to learning as well as career success. Although there is some opposition to Dutch monolingualism amongst the immigrant bilingual communities, and they converse in their mother tongue among themselves, due to the strong discouragement by school staff they are made to believe that the exclusive use of Dutch will lead to favourable outcomes.

Case study: Canada[edit]

According to data from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC),[10] increasingly fewer universities require their students to learn a second language. The percentage of universities having a second language proficiency as a requirement for graduation fell from 35% in 1991 to 9% in 2006. At a Scotiabank-AUCC conference in 2007, participants attributed such a decline to cost issues, as such courses are usually held in small groups, and were therefore removed from the curriculum.

Costs of Monolingualism[edit]

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.[19]

Monolingualism in the media[edit]

Lawrence Summers, in an article published in the New York Times,[20] 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,[21] all of whom were in favour of learning foreign languages, citing the benefits and advantages, as well as the changing global landscape.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b "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. ^ a b c d e f g Snow, Catherine E.; Hakuta, Kenji (1992). "The Costs of Monolingualism". In Crawford, J. Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy. 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. ^ Simon, Paul (1980). The Tongue-Tied American:Confronting the Foreign Language Crisis. Continuum. 
  18. ^ Agirdag, Orhan (2010). "Exploring bilingualism in a monolingual school system: insights from Turkish and native students from Belgian Schools". British Journal of Sociology of Education 31 (3): 301–321. doi:10.1080/01425691003700540. 
  19. ^ Kirkpatrick, Andy (2000). "The disadvantaged monolingual: Why English alone is not enough.". Australian Language Matters 8 (3): 5–7. 
  20. ^ Summers, Lawrence H. (20 January 2012). "What You (Really) Need to Know". New York Times. 
  21. ^ 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. 

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