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Bilingualism and Multilingualism


A bilingual individual, generally, is someone who speaks two languages. An ideal or balanced bilingual speaks each language as proficiently as an educated native speaker. This is often referred to as an ideal type since few people are regarded as being able to reach this standard. Otherwise, a bilingual may be anywhere on a continuum of skills.

Literacy abilities may be an additional dimension to bilingualism, but they are often referred to separately as biliteracy, leaving bilingualism to carry the weight of oral language abilities. Bilingualism is a specific case of multilingualism, which has no ceiling on the number of languages a speaker may dominate. The timing and sequence in which one learns each of the languages has led to other distinctions between kinds of multilingualism. Much of the linguistics literature, for example, identifies native language or mother tongue as a first language, ignoring the possibility or diminishing the value of having more than one native language or mother tongue. Such a person is often referred to as a simultaneous bilingual, while someone who acquires the second language after the first one is often referred to as a sequential bilingual ("early" if between early childhood and puberty, and "late" if after puberty). The context of language acquisition leads naturally to distinguishing between "informal" bilinguals, who acquire their languages outside of formal settings like schools, imitating the natural processes of acquiring the mother tongue, and "formal" bilinguals, who generally learn the language in schools or similar settings.

When these terms apply to groups, one speaks of bilingual or multilingual communities or nations. The aggregate enumeration of the speakers in these groups (also referred to as language diversity or demography) will often profile the number of monolingual and bilingual speakers of each language. For example, there may be a multilingual community in which speakers are monolingual in each of three languages. This would be rare, and the language groups would probably be isolated from each other. More often than not, a multilingual community or nation has multilingual individuals. If the situation involves social or political power, then a language group may be referred to as a language minority (minority-language) group or a language majority (majority-language) group, reflecting the power relationship to other groups in the society or political unit.

Language Diversity

The linguistic diversity of the world has depended on the world population and the number of languages in the world. The world population grew from about 300 million at the time of Christ to an estimated 1 billion in 1804, 2 billion in 1927, and 6 billion at the end of 1999, and is projected to reach 10 billion around 2183. In 1950 there were only four countries with a national population greater than 100 million persons. In 2003 the number of such countries had grown to eleven. The United Nations projects that in 2050 such countries will number eighteen. India, China, and the United States were the top three countries at each of these points in time.

The twentieth century was the highest growth period in the history of humanity, almost quadrupling the world population. The highest rate of growth occurred between 1965 and 1970 (2 percent per annum), and the largest annual increases in population occurred in the late 1980s, with 86 million people added to the world population annually.

One should keep in mind as well that the distribution of the population and its languages around the world is uneven, have changed over time, and are expected to continue such changes, at least into the near future. In 1750, for example, 64 percent of the estimated world population was located in Asia, while 21 percent was in Europe, 13 percent in Africa, and 2 percent in the Americas. By 1950, Asia had lost almost 10 percentage points and Africa about 4 percent; Europe remained steady at 22 percent, but the Americas grew to 14 percent of the total equally between the northern and southern countries. The United Nations Population Division projects that in 2150, Europe and North America will shrink in percentage from 22 percent to 7 percent and from 7 percent to 4 percent, respectively; Asia will remain steady at 60 percent, but Africa will more than double its proportion from 9 percent to 24 percent, and Latin America will increase slightly its portion of the world population from 7 percent to 9 percent. These changing distributions of the human population across

Language Hub Number First Language
Chinese (Mandarin) China 16 874
Hindi India 17 366
English United Kingdom 104 341
Spanish Spain 43 322358
Bengali Bangladesh 9 207
Arabic 207
Portuguese Portugal 33 176
Russian Russia 30 167
Japanese Japan 26 125
German Germany 40 100
source: Data from McGeveran, pp. 626627

the world have had and will continue to have an impact on the numbers of speakers of specific languages in those regions, and urbanism and migrations will increase the probability of language contact between speakers of different languages. By the middle of the twentieth century, more than half of the world's population was considered urban. By the end of the twentieth century, about 4 percent of the world's population did not live in their country of birth.

The world's language diversity is only now being better understood and described. The sources of estimating the number of languages in the world vary in the quality of their data and methods, not the least of which is their varying definitions of language. Some authors estimate that somewhere between 30,000 and 500,000 languages have been created and died in the course of human history, indicating that languages usually have a short life span as well as a very high death rate. Only a few (such as Basque, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, and Tamil) have lasted more than two thousand years.

One of the more widely cited and consistent sources on the number of languages and speakers of those languages estimates that there were approximately 6,800 oral languages in the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Some experts argue that the inclusion of manually signed languages would increase the estimate to 12,000 human languages. Chinese Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, and Arabic have been identified as the languages with the greatest number of native speakers in the world in 2000 (see Table 1).

More often than not, the enumeration of speakers through government or organizational surveys only takes into account a single language per person, despite the normative multilingualism around the world. This current multilingualism has been promoted by the greater language contact of the twentieth century, in part the legacy of colonialism and the postcolonial practice of establishing new nation-states with populations that belonged to different ethno-language communities.

In many areas of the imperial colonial language (such as English, French, Spanish, Dutch) was spread as a second or replacement language among the colonized population, albeit with a wide range in the language proficiencies of these speakers. In some instances, the number of native speakers of these colonial languages is greater outside the metropole of the colonizing nation, and even the second-language speakers of these colonial languages may be larger than the native speakers of the same language. In 1999, for example, English was estimated to have 341 million native speakers around the world and 508 million second-language speakers; Spanish was estimated to have 358 million native speakers globally and 417 million second-language speakers.

In 2000, the enumerated languages were unevenly divided across the world in the various continents. Africa had 30 percent of the oral languages but 13 percent of the world's population; Asia had about 33 percent of the world's languages and 61 percent of the world's population. The Pacific Oceanic area had about 19 percent of the languages, the Americas 15 percent, and Europe had approximately 3 percent of the oral languages and about 12 percent of the world's population. The two most linguistically diverse countries, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, together had more than 22 percent (1,500) of the world's oral languages, most of which are not spoken in any other country. An overwhelming 83 to 84 percent of the world's languages are spoken in only one country.

The range in the numbers of speakers of a particular language is large, from several hundred to hundreds of millions. The median number of speakers of a language was probably around 5,000 to 6,000 at the turn of the twenty-first century. More than 95 percent of the world's spoken languages have fewer than 1 million native users, while some 5,000 (83 percent) spoken languages have fewer than 100,000 speakers, and more than 3,000 spoken languages have fewer than 10,000 users. About 1,500 spoken languages and most of the sign languages have fewer than 1,000 users. In 1999, some 500 languages had fewer than 100 speakers.

Ranka Bjeljac-Babic proposed that no language could survive unless 100,000 people speak it, and so estimated that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ten languages were dying each year. Michael Krause projected that 50 to 90 percent of the spoken languages would disappear during the twenty-first century. From one perspective these languages will "wither" by a "voluntary" failure to transmit the language from one generation to another. From another perspective, many of these languages are threatened and "murdered" by repressive nation-state policies and language majoritarian practices, not unlike what has been seen in the past. European colonial conquests, for example, eliminated at least 15 percent of all languages spoken at the outset of the colonial period. According to Bjeljac-Babic, "Over the last 300 years, Europe has lost a dozen [languages], and Australia has only 20 left of the 250 spoken at the outset of the colonial period. According to l, about 540 (three-quarters of the total) have died out since Portuguese colonization began in 1530" (p. 18).

These "heritage" languages will be replaced by another language, adding to the numbers of native speakers of that second language, which may be a regional language or a language of wider communication (an international or world language). If size is a significant factor in the robustness and continuity of a language, then the growth of some of the medium-sized languages with the addition of persons who otherwise would have spoken their heritage language might retard their demise.

It is more difficult to estimate the number of new languages created during any particular period, either from the "splitting" of a natural language into mutually not understandable varieties, the transformation of pidgins (reduced-language contact speech) into elaborated creoles by the acquisition of native speakers who complexify it for all required purposes, or the revival of "dead" languages, such as Hebrew's revival by the new state of Israel, which developed its vocabulary to reflect a modern and more complete range of functions.

Language Diversity in Civil Society

The core sense of "civil" society is generally understood as the societal interaction, organization, and activity that takes place outside of government or the state. From this standpoint, the role of language diversity in civil society has varied across time and settings. Factors such as whether a group of people or a society is primarily rural or urban, sedentary or migratory, will often influence language diversity and individual bilingualism. The social and political relations between groups often determine how it is perceived, treated, or utilized within the society as a resource, problem, or even as a part of the civil and human rights of individuals or groups.

For example, Sue Wright describes the elite in Europe for much of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as "multicultural and multilingual" because of their need to interact and collaborate with each other despite the different native languages in the region. Acquiring other languages was seen as an expected and normal activity for these mobile elites. Most of the population, however, were sedentary farmers, serfs, or peasants, living in small, monolingual villages and having no contact with or need to learn other languages. They spoke a variety of one of the language "continua" of Romance, Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, or Baltic. The dominant Christian Church operated across kingdoms and "nations" with a common language of wider communicationLatin. In general, villagers attempted to accommodate "others" who did not speak the village language, who were often travelers or soldiers, but otherwise people understood each other from one village to the next, even if their vernaculars were slightly different.

According to Eduardo Ruiz Vietez, three activities caused changes in this situation: the consolidation of national kingdoms, the reformation of the church, and the development of the printing press. The consolidation of kingdoms into more fixed territories meant that the royals governed a multilingual population at the same time that the vernacular language of the capital was promoted as a standard. The first grammar of such a vernacular was presented to the king and queen of Castille, Spain, in 1492, as an instrument of nation building along with the sword and the Bible. The Reformation promoted the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages, establishing a need for literacy and standardization of the text in various languages. Wright describes the emerging relationship between language and the printing press: "Printers adopted standardised languages with enthusiasm. Print capitalism profited from the standardisation of national languages, because the process delivered bigger markets than the splintered linguistic landscape of the dialect continua" (p. 2).

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, nation was understood in civic terms and in ethnic or cultural terms. Within the civic, fixed territorial states, nation-building pressure was placed on disparate groups. Within the ethnic states, the boundaries were fixed around the single group, with other ethnolinguistic groups often pushed out. Single-language standardization and its association with the state developed a single concept of the nation as a single, unified cultural body, even while in reality, many of these nations contained regional, historically rooted, language minorities (such as the Catalans or Basques), and even migratory or nomadic language groups (such as the Romani) that continue into the early twenty-first century.

For another pattern of language diversity and civil society, one can turn to the Mexican Aztec Empire during the fifteenth century. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Aztec Empire was organized into a tributary system, where the Nahuatl language was used in the metropole and throughout the empire. In the subjugated areas of the empire, bilingual administrators, such as "tax" collectors and local governors, were the brokers in local towns and villages and would mediate the tributes and administrative interactions with the central government. Beyond these interactions, the need for Nahuatl was minimal among the local populations, who continued to use their local languages. The language of the empire was highly valued and its value provided an incentive for individual bilingualism among the population, although individual bilingualism was not widespread.

The situation changed after contact with the Spanish and, later, other Europeans. With the imposition of the Spanish colonial structures, Spanish became the "instrument" of empire building, not just nation building. It became the prestige language and was imposed through the process of evangelization and conversion. The libraries of the Aztec Empire were

Country Languages Population (2003)
Papua New Guinea 850 5,500,000
Indonesia 670 220,500,000
Nigeria 410 133,900,000
India 380 1,068,600,000
Cameroon 270 15,700,000
Australia 250 19,900,000
Mexico 240 104,900,000
Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) 210 56,600,000
Brazil 210 176,500,000
Philippines 172 81,600,000
source: Data from Skutnabb-Kangas (2000), p. 34; Population Research Bureau web site

burned and destroyed by the Spanish. Religious leaders, colonial administrators, and indigenous elites, who learned each other's languages, became bilingual and brokered the creation of revised local histories and knowledge. Over time, Spanish was promoted as a single substitute for the indigenous languages, increasing its number of speakers, even while many indigenous languages survive into the early twenty-first century.

In these and other ways, communication in language-diverse settings has been promoted through bilingual brokers. Travelers, soldiers, missionaries, and immigrants often learned new languages to facilitate these communications. Certainly in language contact situations individual bilinguals in the various languages played key roles in the civic interactions between peoples. If the language situation was more complex, involving three languages, a pidgin as "common" language often arose to broker communication between groups.

In the twentieth century, the development of popular schooling in multilingual situations often was organized with bilingual or multilingual instruction. Early primary grades were often taught in the native language of the community, with the regional and/or the national languages added as the student matured. The integration of countries into regional economic, political, and civil societies, such as the European Union, has put social pressures on groups to maintain their national languages at the same time they are to learn other regional languages and some languages for wider communication, such as English. This results in the promotion of at least a trilingualism among the population.

The transnational movement of people (as immigrants, refugees, and international workers) has also created the need for learning the host country's language(s), and for addressing the language needs of their children in schools. When there are substantial numbers of speakers of these (immigrant) languages concentrated in one place over a sufficient time to establish local organizations and institutions, such as local ethnic economy or independent community mother-tongue schools, then there are other local accommodations that often follow, with and without the support of the host society and the dominant language majority.

Government Policies to Accommodate
Language Diversity

Official statements or policies about language can be made by governments at any level. These official statements about language may also be made at an institutional level, such as a church, labor union, or school. In general, the statements are about the status of a language, designating it as an official or national language; its form or structure (corpus ), elaborating the language lexicon, or morphology; or its functions or use (including domains of use), as in the media of instruction in schools.

Government or official positions regarding language policies may be designed to promote a language through its recognition, use, or resource allocation; to tolerate the language, by not making any policies with regard to it; to restrict it, by conditioning societal benefits, rights, or services on knowledge of the language; or to repress it (sometimes referred to as linguacide ), by actively prohibiting its use and its transmission from one generation to another. Very often these approaches or designs are influenced by whether the language is seen as a resource (promoting foreign-language learning, for example), a problem, or a right (human or civil). Language policies of promotion and repression may be justified in several ways, sometimes ideologically similar, such as by national unification. Their means, however, are drastically different. These approaches to language policies may favor single or multiple languages. India, for example, has two official languagesHindi and Englishand more than fifteen national languages, reflecting the status of other languages within the component states of the nation.

The juridical concept of human rights has developed over the last hundred-plus years. Language has often been considered an important aspect of these rights. Two international standards are developing: the right to be free from discrimination based on language, and the right to access (acquire and use) one's mother tongue and the languages of the community and state if they are different. In some countries these rights are tied to "individual" freedoms of expression and speech (as in some Western countries); in other countries, they are seen as part of the right to cultural integrity and identity (some socialist countries, for example, recognize clearly identified national minorities as nations with inherent rights and protections).

Evaluation of Language Policies

The success of language policies and planning by governments is not uniform across time and place. Neither is success measured in the same ways. Any such evaluation of language policies would need to take into account the goal, its justification, and the means to achieve it.

L. F. Bosnahan reviewed four cases of language imposition, of which three were successful in seeding and developing the imposed common language of empireLatin during the Roman Empire, Greek during the Greek Empire, Arabic during the rise of Islam, and Turkish during the Ottoman Empire. The first three cases were successful in having the imposed language become the exclusive or principal speech of the population, replacing the preexisting vernaculars. Bosnahan cites four features he believes made this success possible, if not determinative, where all four cases shared the first two features and were differentiated by the third and fourth: (1) each language was imposed by military authority, resulting in a political unity that increased commercial, political, economic, and/or cultural contact among different sections of the united area; (2) once imposed, it was maintained for at least several centuries by similar authority, allowing the adoption and then transmission of the language across several generations and the spread across the population; (3) the area of language imposition was already multilingual, making the imposed language one for wider communication; and (4) knowledge of the imposed language conferred material advantages and benefits widely recognized among the population, including employment, citizenship and its attendant rights and privileges, acquisition or grants of land, and trade opportunities. Bosnahan identifies another characteristic to which he does not attribute a share of the language imposition but which seems, nonetheless, important: a group that acquires the imposed language more quickly or readily than the rest of the subjugated population becomes an elite or intelligentsia that functions in the first stages of the military invasion and pacification as the interpreters and minor officials of the new authority, and subsequently as the medium through which the new language is transmitted to the subjugated general population.

One can look to other goals or situations, such as group coexistence, democratic pluralism, national integration, or the amelioration of group conflict. Each might require a different type and method of assessment. Some of these might be guided by principles of language diversity that have been borne out by research: (1) language conflict is usually related to other conflicts; (2) individual bilingualism in language contact situations is generally a normal result; (3) language conflict most often arises when one group attempts to impose its language on another; and (4) no two languages will be used by the same group of speakers for all of the same functions at the same time.

Whether there are 6,800 languages in the world, or 3,000, or less than 1,000, globalization is making the globe an ever smaller village. Communication will continue to be humanity's most important task. Addressing language diversity by encouraging individual multilingualism seems to be a continuing, viable strategy for success.

See also Demography ; Language and Linguistics ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Population .


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Reynaldo F. Macías

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