Multilingualism is like los manglares de Ecuador.

The mangrove forests are found in tropical places all around the world. One of the places they are found is in and around the surrounding areas of Guayaquil, Ecuador. According to World Wildlife:

“The world’s mangrove forests have been described as one of the most distinctive emersed tropical ecological systems on the planet (Fundación Natura 1995). The mangrove forests located in the province of Manabí (Ecuador) are small regions of coastal forest that shelter great biodiversity and play important ecological roles. Nonetheless, these ecosystems have suffered serious habitat changes and are critically endangered.”

When I first saw los manglares I was taken aback by their physical characteristics because unlike most trees the manglares (or mangroves), typically found in swamps, have their roots above ground. The roots form a dense network and to the naked eye it can look like there is no beginning and no end. If you try and follow where one root goes it will be impossible to see where it ends. Instead what you will see is one root after another kind of like a spider web. What I found fascinating about the manglares is that if you were to fly over them they appear to be traditional trees. From a birds eye perspective all you would see are the leaves and below would be what you imagine a “typical” tree look like. We lived across the street from a mangrove for a year and a half in Guayaquil’s prominent peninsula, Samborondon. During that year and a half I was writing my dissertation (still am!) and thinking about the way people use language. I would think about my dissertation (all the time) while cooking dinner, while bathing my daughters, at the park, in the shower, and at our weekly visit to El Parque Historico in Samborondon. The park had various attractions. It had a bridge that led visitors across the park to see tropical birds, spider monkeys, alligators, and even a children’s park. Along the way we would be constantly in conversation with one another about the animals, commenting on their behavior (or lack thereof). Many times the trail would be crowded with visitors depending on the day of the week. My favorite part was towards the end where the manglares were because just before that last section visitors had the option of exiting the trail. Many visitors chose to exit the trail because the section where the mangroves are located did not include animals to observe and comment on, there were simply trees. I loved that part of our walk because it was quiet. The mangroves offered a simple form of serenity. Each time I went by that section I admired the ways their roots intertwined for what seemed like forever. It was peaceful. And it was in that part of the trail where even for a brief moment I would think about my dissertation. It was where the manglares were located that I had an epiphany about bilingualism. It occurred to me that the mangroves or manglares are an ideal picture of how language works. On the outside languages can all look the same, in terms of structure and use, some may even say that most languages share the same roots (and many do!). For years researchers have been talking about language use in school settings in a binary fashion. As in students and teachers should use one language at a time, BUT in reality the ways bilinguals (students and teachers alike) use language is similar to the way los manglares de Ecuador interact with nature and quite frankly survive. Our linguistic resources are always in contact with one another. There is no beginning and there is no end with the way we use two or more languages. And what is more fascinating (to me!) is that this kind of dynamic bilingualism is only found in certain parts of the world. Like the mangroves, the climate, or context, in which individuals constantly draw from various linguistic resources simultaneously depends on (language) contact with other natural resources. For the mangroves this includes a swamp, for bilingualism it includes language contact. This analogy is a work in progress…..