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Asymmetric/unreciprocal/receptive/non-accommodating bilingualism

Bilingual Interactions: A conversation borrowed from the Linganth e-mail list. Thanks to all the participants!

Q: What do you/we call it when a conversation unfolds in which Speaker A speaks to Speaker
B in one language (X-ish), and Speaker B responds in another (Y-ish)? The assumption is that
both speakers have at least some passive competence in the other’s language. And do you know
of any scholarship on this phenomenon?

Rudolf P. Gaudio

This practice has been advocated by some policymakers in Catalonia over the last couple decades,
since autonomy was established in 1979. I wrote about it as “the bilingual norm” in my 1989
book, Double Talk (pp.77-80). I think I’ve used other terms elsewhere – maybe “passive bilingual
conversations”? – and others have written about it in Catalonia, too, though again I can’t recall a
settled term. I recently saw a comment on the practice elsewhere, but darned if I can remember
Kathryn Woolard

This happens where I’ve done my work (Darjeeling, West Bengal, India), most often with Nepali,
Hindi, Bengali, and English.
Chelsea L. Booth

I think I may have heard it called “non-reciprocal Bilingualism.”
Lauren Zentz

Laada Bilaniuk has written about it as “non-accommodating bilingualism.” One reference is her
2005 “Contested Tongues: Language politics and cultural correction in Ukraine.” Ithaca, NY:
Cornell UP. Another is the sidebar she wrote for my intro textbook, “The Anthropology of
Language” (2008 Cengage/Wadsworth).
Harriet Ottenheimer

There is a 2007 European volume on receptive multilingualism that addresses this phenomenon.
(I’ve recently been informed by my Sociolinguistics colleagues that “receptive” is the preferred
term for this form of bilingualism in their camp, as “passive” seems to downplay the complexity of
comprehension.) The aforementioned volume highlights two-way receptive bilingual situations,
such as the one that you describe, as a desired model of multilingualism and multiculturalism that is
promoted throughout Europe (notwithstanding increasing attacks on multiculturalism):
Jonathan Rosa

I think Susan Gal (in Language Shift, 1979; also perhaps in “Peasant men can’t get wives”, 1978)
called this pattern “unreciprocal language choice”, about the times of Kit Woolard’s “bilingual
norm” and of Monica Heller’s “negotiation” of language choices (related). Regardless of labels, it’s
clear they/you all were into something and the same. I don’t have my rusty notes with me, but I
believe that from a social-psycholinguistic perspective (Scherer and Giles, eds., Social Markers in
Speech) it has been called “divergence”, a sort of a misnomer, as non-reciprocal “language” usages
(“choices”) may indicate the opposite (“convergence”, that is, reciprocal tuning) at a deeper,
fundamental coding level of human communication: that of speaking the same language (yes, with
different words and grammar, but so what?). Please excuse so many distancing quotation marks,
Celso Alvarez Cáccamo

When I went to Bolivia in December 2010, it was interesting to listen to people from my group (A)
speak in English to person B, who translated the English to Spanish to person C. Person C
translated Spanish to Quechua, to Person D. Then it went in reverse, Person D spoke Quechua to
C; C translated Quechua to Spanish for person B; person B translated from Spanish to English for
us, People A. It was so cool to see this, and is probably quite common in Bolivia, but it made me
wonder what the longest “chain” of languages might be in the world. Does anyone have any idea?
Teresa Phipps Lane

Just happened to run across these issues of classification/identification, theoretically and descriptively, in Suzanne Romaine’s 2010 chapter on language contact in Potowski, ed. Language Diversity in the USA, CUP. She cites the “predominantly monolingual orientation of linguistic theory” (p. 28) dating to Bloomfield and Weinreich, and the “hegemony of monolingual ideologies” (p. 29) on the policy front, as problematic, particularly when characterizing contact issues in communities and language mixing in actual speakers. She problematizes the “prescriptive” notion of the “balanced bilingual” and fact that “real-world bilinguals” (p. 29) seldom exhibit fluency in all contexts all the time. She notes that educators and linguists would be better served to focus on social context and function (as ling-anthers do as a matter of course) when characterizing competence and dominance. May I also recommend Potowski’s book for a comprehensive account of Languages of Other than English in the US.
Colleen Cotter

This is also very common in UN Peacekeeping missions where you have people working for the
UN from all over the world. Even though Peacekeeping missions have an official language
(English or French, depending on the mission) for use in all official settings, in more informal
settings where people were tired, you would often find multilingual groups, where people had
some knowledge of various languages, but were too tired to actually try to produce appropriate
language replies. In my experience, it was very common in East Timor, for example, to have a
group of people speaking English, French, and Portuguese, with the person speaking their native
language, and others replying in their own native languages. For most, it was far easier to
understand than to try to speak in that language, especially if you’re tired (or drinking) so this
actually seemed to work out quite well.
Nancy Lutz

I heartily concur with Colleen. While working on a syllabus for next semester, I found a great
piece that follows along the lines of Romaine’s critique. This piece about academics’ use of English
also makes me think about our own roles in these thorny aspects of social relations. Here is the link
to it and I think my students will like it so I wanted to share with it with my colleagues on the
As a person who works with endangered language speakers in Germany, I have also encountered
similar dynamics of non-reciprocal bilingualism/asymmetric bilingualism and issues of
accommodation. It just reminds me that we still have a lot of work to do as scholars and educators
to help non-ling-anthers explore the reasons why people do what they do with multiple repertoires.
Elizabeth Spreng

I loved this thread, both the messages about definitions and sources and the examples (like Nancy’s
from UN in East Timor). I’m reading it in a warnet in upland Indonesia after spending time in a
village. Thinking about these multiple repertoires from a non-monoglot-oriented perspective is
really fruitful, both in the village (influenced by labor migration) and in town (influenced by
tourism, especially European). Thanks to all for the little gems of internet-mediated wisdom.
Liz Coville

I agree that this is a very interesting thread, with several good examples. The one thing I would add
is it’s important to specify what kind of boundary the participants understand themselves to be
talking over, when deciding on a term (accomodation, asymmetric bilingualism, etc). That is, the
communication pattern described by Rudi is very common inter-generationally among immigrant
families (e.g., children speak English, parents answer in Spanish or other), which is very different
than the peace-keepers described by Nancy, or from Jean Jackson’s example from the Vaupes (I
believe there was such bilingual communication in her description, perhaps I’m mis-remembering;
that’s in Bauman and Sherzer’s volume “Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking” from 1974,
and there’s a follow-up somewhere from the nineties).

The other point to keep in mind is that in a stable situation, the varieties generally converge in
many ways that participants aren’t necessarily aware of, even if they hold these varieties to be
distinct “languages.” How the varieties are maintained distinct, and enregistered as emblems, is
linked in some sense to the kind of boundary that is being signaled.
Alejandro Paz

I was thinking of different examples and the differences in situation,motive, personalities etc.
Inspired by Nancy’s example, I wondered about that particular kind of situation, frequent in my
experience, more about international colleagues working together on some project. And so why
wouldn’t it happen with some frequency that two people with different L1s and some competence
in the other’s L1 as their L2 sometimes talk their own L1s to each other?

If it’s true that L1 acquisition and L2 learning both show that at any point in the process
comprehension outpaces production, and if I remember right that the preferred direction for
simultaneous interpretation is L2 to L1 …And if there’s a lot of space in that massive excluded middle between “doesn’t speak L2” and “speaks L2” so that it’s normal and frequent for a person using L2 to have what the Austrians call “Sprachmuedigkeit” or “language/speech tiredness”…And if nothing in the interpersonal and situational constraints on communication of the moment prevent it … Why wouldn’t it happen that two people would figure out that they could both talk in their L1, use less energy, and drink more? Perhaps this version could even be about removing boundaries. And having figured that out once, why wouldn’t they go forth and suggest it in other encounters, L2 comprehension ability and situational constraints permitting?
Mike Agar

To continue the thread, it also strikes me that this kind of asymmetric bilingualism could be about
respect–about self respect (my language/way of speaking is good, I can speak it and not
accommodate to the other) and respecting the other (his/her language [variant] is perfectly fine and
I can understand what I’m hearing). I take this from what I remember of Laada Bilaniuk’s nice
book on Ukraine, as well as the articles on Vaupes (Sorensen as well as Jackson). I have also had
similar accounts from indigenous people in Kamchatka. In the last case, where respect is absent,
people claim that languages are mutually unintelligible.
Alexander King

I too have experienced this phenomenon but not entirely in the ways listed above. In my
experience “asymmetrical bilingualism” has been encountered in the course of my own language
learning. The first anecdote I can point to comes from Vietnam where my students, friends, and some of the
family I was living with would routinely speak to me in English while I would carry out the
conversation in Vietnamese. Now, given the range of individuals who would use this
communicative tactic, one can safely assume it was employed for a number of reasons.
In the case of my students, I am nearly certain they saw our interaction as a chance to converse
with a native speaker, and would even go as far as to ask me to stop speaking Vietnamese to give
them exercise in their listening skills. Many of my friends (anthropologists and younger people)
would generally discuss academic topics and/or have informal conversations –vocabularies which
I have yet to fully develop. If they did relate that information in Vietnamese I would have been left
in the dust. In this case we see clear accommodation for a non-native speaker. With the case of the
family, I generally encountered this with the father who, unlike others in the house, had studied
English in university and used the language for professional business. To not use English with me,
it seemed, would be an insult to his own intelligence and role as the head of the household. I reach
this conclusion based on the dynamics of our relationship, which was quite paternal as he would
usually be the one to take me aside and explain the intricacies of Vietnamese life. Social roles in
Vietnam can be quite pronounced at times, especially in the realm of gender, family and class. One
dynamic of conversation, three different reasons.

My second anecdote comes from my grandfather who is a native speaker of Hungarian. We
traveled to his home country this summer and I was able to pick up a beginner’s level of
conversational fluency. However, each time we talk he still uses English while I respond in
Hungarian. Here and there he will throw in some Magyar phrases but it is by and large ‘asymmetric
bilingualism.’ In this example, I feel our contours of communication are shaped by the fact that he
has used English with me throughout my entire life. Only a very small percentage of our
relationship has been bonded by the Hungarian language. If anything, he is just being consistent.
Another interesting note on this relationship is that when we speak on the phone he will often
respond to my inquiries in Hungarian with “si” – Spanish for yes – a language he has a general
familiarity with. Could this be attributed to the fact he knows I am using an L2 and subconsciously
shifts to mode of thinking when he hears me speak? Or could it be he is just an old guy who
gets confused sometimes?

In any event, a fascinating subject and one I am glad people are discussing. In the end we can be
sure that, like most things linguistic, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between
communication and the reason people speak the way they do. Just another reason why people in
our profession still have a mountain of work ahead of them, and why our discipline is so absolutely
Dave Paulson


Sources Mentioned in this Discussion Thread (Thanks to Dave Paulson for compiling these)

Woolard, Kathryn. 1989. Double Talk (pp.77-80)

Laada Bilaniuk 2005 “Contested Tongues: Language politics and cultural correction in Ukraine.”
Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP

Ottenheimer, Harriet. (2008). “The Anthropology of Language” Cengage/Wadsworth

Jan D. ten Thije (Editor), Ludger Zeevaert (Editor). “Receptive Multilingualism: Linguistic
analyses, language policies and didactic concepts (Hamburg Studies on Multilingualism)”

Susan Gal (in Language Shift, 1979; also perhaps in “Peasant men can’t get wives”, 1978)

Scherer and Giles, eds., Social Markers in Speech

Suzanne Romaine’s 2010 chapter on language contact in Potowski, ed. Language Diversity in the
USA, CUP. p.28-9

Bauman and Sherzer’s volume “Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking” from 1974
as well as the articles on Vaupes (Sorensen as well as Jackson).

2 thoughts on “Asymmetric/unreciprocal/receptive/non-accommodating bilingualism”

  1. There are also many situations where ‘receptive bilingualism’ is the norm across a wide area. This pattern of interaction was common in Czechoslovakia where all cross language interactions were held in the speaker’s native language with the assumption that the other would understand. This would spill over into written form where Slovak writers would contribute in Slovak into Czech periodicals. However, this practice has been replaced by translation since then. Of course, even here not all things were equal and generally Slovaks were much better at understanding Czech than vice versa.

  2. Receptive multilingualism was common in many areas in Aboriginal Australia and was reported on by linguists as a far back as the 1960’s. Traditionally people grew up in multilingual family settings and could speak and understand a range of languages (I have met people who could produce utterances in 6 totally different languages) though typically they would speak the language of the group they identified with and understand when spoken to in the others.

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