Universal Grammar and multi-competence
Chapter for Chomsky's Universal Grammar 3rd edition, 2007
multi-competence: "knowledge of two or more languages in the same mind"
A large proportion of the human race, some would say the majority (Cook, 2002), speak more than one language. Somehow two languages, two grammars can coexist within the confines of one mind. Is the existence of so many minds with two or more languages at all relevant to the UG theory?...
1. The purity of the monolingual argument
to the separation of competence from performance, discussed in Chapter One,
'Linguistic theory is concerned with an ideal speaker-listener in a completely
homogeneous speech community' (Chomsky, 1965, p. 4). A community with more than
one language, or indeed more than one dialect, would not be homogenous: the
language of a mixed community:
'would not be "pure" in the relevant sense, because it would not represent a single set of choices among the options permitted by UG but rather would include "contradictory" choices for certain of these options’ (Chomsky, 1986a, p. 17).
The idealisation of competence reduces it to the knowledge of a monolingual native speaker. Describing a mind with two grammars is too complicated; it is vital to simplify the discussion to a mind with a single grammar. At the level of descriptive adequacy, the goal is therefore to describe what an idealised monolingual knows: the description of Universal Grammar is based on the knowledge of the native speaker with a single grammar.
Mostly this emphasis on monolingualism has simply been taken for granted by those working within the UG theory, along with the other areas excluded from competence, and is seldom discussed or justified. The only true knowledge of the language is taken to be that of the adult monolingual native speaker. Chomsky himself has rarely mentioned bilinguals. In a famous interview with Francois Grosjean, he said:
‘Why do chemists study H2O and not the stuff that you get out of the
(for the benefit of readers without a knowledge of
does not of course deny that there are large numbers of bilinguals in the world:
'even in the
the purity argument, there is nevertheless a recognition that many, or indeed
all, minds contain more than one grammar: 'whatever the language faculty is it
can assume many different states in parallel' (Chomsky, 2000a, p. 59). Chomsky
has often made comments to the effect that people effectively have more than one
grammar in their minds: 'every person is multiply multilingual in a more
technical sense' (Chomsky, 2000a, p. 44). For example, we may switch between
speaking different dialects with different parameter settings, say standard
English She’s good versus dialects
such as US Black English that permit sentences without copula be as in She good. Or we
may use different parameter settings for different registers: Haegeman and Ihsane
shown that diary writing in English in writers such as the fictional Bridget
Jone or Virginia Woolf is pro-drop in that the first person is often a null
subject – played gramophone .. so to
tower, - , not a characteristic of Virginia Woolf's public prose style.
Hence she is switching between two settings for the two styles and so has two
person who switches in this manner is then has elements of two grammars in one
mind. Thomas Roeper argues that: ‘a
narrow kind of bilingualism exists in every language. It is present whenever two
properties exist in a language that are not statable within a single grammar'
(Roeper, 1999, p.169) for
example when adults with 'optional' rules are switching between two grammars as
in the case of Virginia Woolf. Chomsky too often talks of bilingualism proper as
simply the extreme end of a continuum of grammatical variation inherent within
say that people speak different languages is a bit like saying they live in
different palaces or look different, notions that are perfectly useful for
ordinary life, but are highly interest-relative. We say that a person speaks
several languages, rather than several varieties of one, if the differences
matters for some purpose or interest.’ (Chomsky, 2000a, pp. 43-44).
simultaneous existence of two grammars in the same mind is also necessitated by
language development (Roeper, 1999). It might be that children switch in toto
from one parameter setting to another so that, say, one day they have null
subjects in their speech, the next day they do not. Studies of development,
however, show that such an abrupt transition seldom occurs: English children
gradually decrease the number of null subjects in their speech over a period of
time rather than going from having no subjects at all to having them in every
sentence. Hence, during this transitional period, they must in effect have two
grammars simultaneously, or at least two parameter settings. Any transition from
one stage to another involves bilingualism in the sense of knowing two grammars
or having two sets of parameter settings for an appreciable amount of time. The
abstraction of competence to a single grammar is a fiction for most L1 native speakers who can use different dialects or
genres and for most L2 learners; the typical human mind must entertain more than
a single grammar. The issue is really whether
it is proper to set this universal bilingualism to one side in linguists’
descriptions of competence or whether it should in effect form the basis of the
description from the beginning.
multi-competence theory, within which one of us works (Cook, 2002), sees these
issues differently. If most people, or indeed all people, have multiple grammars in their minds, the idealisation
to the monolingual native speaker is misleading, as inaccurate as studying how
human beings breathe by looking at those with a single lung. If the architecture
of the human mind involves two languages, we are falsifying it by studying only
monolingual minds. To turn Chomsky’s metaphor back on him, water is a molecule
H2O, not an atom; if we break it into its constituent hydrogen and
oxygen, we are no longer studying water. Purifying the mind into a single
language means destroying the actual substance we are studying -
the knowledge of language in the human mind.
arguments about language acquisition discussed earlier were couched in terms of
the potential inherent in all human children irrespective of the environment
they encounter. Following the same line of reasoning, potentially all children
can become bilingual; the ability to know more than one language is available to
us all, even if it may decline after childhood. A person is a monolingual
because of the accidental fact that they only encountered one language, and were
unable to realise their bilingual or indeed multilingual potential. If you don't
hear a second language, you won't speak one; if you do, you will. Since every
human being has the potential to do this, UG theory has to take multilingualism
as the norm for the human mind. Multiple grammars in the mind are not the
exception but the norm, prevented only by accidental environmental features.
to the multi-competence theory, then, the linguistic competence in the human
mind potentially includes more than one language. UG theory has to account for
this universal ability of the mind to have two, possibly conflicting, grammars
at the same time; universals cannot be established by studying the minds of
people who know one language, only minds of people who have fulfilled the
multilingual potential of the human language faculty. Rather than making L2 user
grammars conform to the the Procrustean bed of the monolingual grammars, we
need to establish principles from L2 grammars and see monolingual grammars as a
position then treats the multilinguals of the world as the norm, not the
monolinguals. The inhabitants of the
From the perspective of multi-competence, the initial and the final L2 states are both states of a single mind, one containing knowledge of one language, the other knowledge of two or more. If any mind has the potential to learn more than one language, the principles and parameters of Universal Grammar have to be established from people who know more than one language. Yet the UG-related research tests L2 learners against the Universal Grammar established from monolinguals rather than establishing Universal Grammar from multilinguals using a poverty-of-the-stimulus argument and then seeing how monolinguals fail to acquire these. Rather than seeing L2 learners as failures for not knowing a principle such as the θ-Criterion known by L1 speakers, this undermines the failure of Universal Grammar likelihood of the θ-Criterion being part of.
In particular, multi-competence has raised the issue of how the second language knowledge in the St affects the other component of the final state – the first language (Cook, 2003): French speakers who know English react against French sentences using the middle voice
Un tricot de laine se lave à l’eau froide.
*A wool sweater washes in cold water.
14. The dog pats the tree.
than do those who do not know English (Cook et al, 2003). Multi-competence, far
from denying the existence of Universal Grammar, insists that its description be
based on the final language state of the normal human being, which includes more
than one language.