The path toward sign bilingualism: a cross-disciplinary perspective

(Sign) Bilingualism as an object of scientific enquiry

As global inter-dependencies increase following rapid changes in economy, demography, and information and communication technologies, traditional views about languages and their users, based on the ideal of monolingualism as the norm, are being challenged by evolving language communities, ways of communication, and the emergence of new language contact situations. Despite the dynamics and the diversity of people’s language practices, measures adopted at the political level targeting languages and their users in a given social space seldom promote bilingualism as a resource. Indeed, language policies in the greater part of the Western world continue to be predominantly monolingual, based on the tradition of the one nation-one language ideal that originated in the 19th century. This ideal, which implies an identification of language, culture and nationality (Siguan 2001: 16), has served as a basis for monolingual state ideologies and nationalistic claims of linguistic minority groups alike.

Bilingualism as a dynamic and diverse phenomenon contrasts sharply with the ideal of linguistic homogeneity. On this view, bilingualism is regarded as a problem. Not only is linguistic diversity associated with a potential for socio-political conflict, it is also related to problems at the individual level. Full competence in monolingual speakers is commonly contrasted with a diversity of linguistic profiles of bilingual individuals that goes well beyond the idealised notion of a bilingual that would have a balanced competence in two languages (cf. Grosjean 1992; Romaine 1996). Negative attitudes towards child bilingual learners and adult bilingual users are often associated with the idea that bilinguals are unable to keep the languages separate. Indeed, one of the most persistent myths about bilingualism concerns language mixing as an indicator of linguistic confusion vis-a-vis the idealised notion of a strict separation of the two languages in the ideal bilingual.

Sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic research undertaken in the last decades has shown that the view of bilingualism as a problem is unfounded and that rather than confusion language contact phenomena reflect bilinguals’ creative use of their linguistic resources. There is agreement that the human mind is well equipped to deal with the acquisition of more than one language. A wealth of studies into bilingual language acquisition has shown that the two languages develop separately early on and that language contact phenomena, where they occur, are tied to language learning processes involved in the organisation of multilingual knowledge (Tracy 1994/5), reflecting also patterns of language use in the environment of bilingual learners (Lanza 1997; de Houwer 2007). There is a consensus today in bilingualism research that underdevelopment or academic failure are brought about by diverse external variables, including socio-economic and educational factors, which points to the relevance of considering the socio-political response to the abilities and needs of bilingual individuals.

The progressive convergence of different lines of research dedicated to various acquisition situations and their outcomes is contributing to an integrated view of bilingualism and a better understanding of how innate and environmental factors conspire in shaping the outcomes of language contact situations (Winford 2003). We know today that human beings have a biological predisposition to acquire one or more languages. However, whether they will ultimately become bilingual users depends on an intricate interplay of internal and external variables, as it has been documented in numerous studies dedicated to diverse oral languages and their hearing users. Bilingualism in deaf individuals, by contrast, has been largely ignored as an object of scientific enquiry.

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