Blog Post

No ma’am, I’m not monolingual. I’m not bilingual. I’m not multilingual. I’m multicompetent.

No ma’am, I’m not monolingual.  I’m not bilingual.  I’m not multilingual.  I’m multicompetent.

Scott, in Double Talk:  Deconstructing Monolingualism in Classroom Second Language Learning, outlines Vivian Cook’s (1991, 2002, 2003) notion of the multicompetent language learner as “a person who knows and uses more than one language” (19). 

Up until Cook’s research, language acquisition theory led one to believe that different languages exist in individual compartments in the human mind. For example, if someone only speaks one language, they have one linguistic system and they are monolingual.  Furthermore, if someone speaks three different languages, they have three linguistic systems and they are trilingual.  The issue with this mode of thinking, according to both Cook and Scott, is that languages do not exist in the human mind in isolated individual systems.  In fact, the construct of “languages” exists in only one system, which in itself is composed of a variety of subsystems.  Subsequently, in the case of people who know more than one language have “a distinct, compound state of mind that is not equivalent to two (or more) monolingual states” (Scott, 19).


I can only think of my own experience of being a so-called “heritage” speaker of French.  Like many children in immigrant families, when my grandmother spoke to me in French and I always answered her in English.  There are a variety of reasons why I did this, and we can explore why this phenomenon occurs in other posts.  As a result of the events of my childhood, the construct of French is intertwined with English.  To this day, when I travel in Quebec, I feel compelled to respond solely in English with those people that I know.   I understand French perfectly.  I read French quite well, perhaps because I also speak Spanish and Portuguese.  But, I have a very strong emotional reaction towards speaking French.  I will only speak it if I am in a situation where I must, or if I am with people who do not know me.  Honestly, I feel like I’m quite good at it, and I usually receive compliments on my French.  But, I have a strong notion that speaking French is only to be done in certain circumstances and with certain people. 

The situation is probably compounded by the fact that the French that was spoken to me as a child is considered by many to be a “dialect.”  Known in the Detroit area as “muskrat French,” my quebecoise family spoke Joual.  It’s working class Montreal French, which linguists find to be rather quaint.  In fact Historica Canada does not even describe it as a language, but rather as a “derivative.”  Frankly, it’s hard for me to consider the language of my ancestors as a “derivative.”

Speaking Joual carries many emotional scars for people like me.  For those of us who are old enough, we can remember the 1960’s:  demands from one side to parler bien (speak proper French) and from the other side to speak white (speak English) made one not even want to speak at all.  Considering this interplay, it’s no wonder these language systems are intertwined.

As one can imagine, modern media in Quebec treats language issues, such as the need to parler bien or to speak white in one of two ways:  either with humor or very seriously.  Mononc’ Serge prefers the former.  His song Le Joual takes a hilarious stance on attitudes towards the whole notion of parler bien (read:   French from France) and parler la joual.  Warning:  there is a possible of offense for those of you who understand Quebec French.  On the other hand, the video of Michèle Lalonde reading the poem Speak White considers the English/French dialectic in Quebec in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

My sense is that both of these videos treat the concept of multicompetence, without making mention of it as an intellectual construct.  Thoughts?  Do you know of any other pieces of media that might address questions surrounding multicompetence?


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