Author: Mahendra K Verma


Multilingualism is the norm in the world, monolingualism is an exception. Language and nationalism, language dominance, language loss and shift are characteristics of multilingual nations, in particular those with a colonial history.

Table of contents

Monolingual and bilingual nations, societies and communities

It is a common myth that there are two groups of societies / nations in the world: monolingual and bi/multilingual. This perception is largely based on the ideology based on the traditional proposition that ' a race = a culture = a language'. Despite their multilingual population nations like the USA continue to have a monolingual bias. It is generally believed that countries in the west are monolingual and the third world is riddled with languages and dialects making them multilingual. In actual fact multilingualism is the norm in the world and monolingualism an exception. All societies are bi/multilingual and heterogeneous. Even China, which claims to be a monolingual homogenous society, is dialectally diverse where there is no mutual intelligibility across the varieties of spoken Chinese. Everyone acquires competence in Mandarin, the language of education and of literacy, through schooling. One thus becomes a bilingual speaker of Hakka and Mandarin for example. Countries e.g. Britain and France, generally projected as monolingual, have always had languages other than English in the repertoire of their inhabitants. In Medieval England, apart from the regional dialects, Latin, French and English were spoken by various groups. A community in which interlocutors speak Cockney and Standard English can hardly be labelled a monolingual and homogeneous society. In London today, as a result of the arrival of migrants and refugees in the second half of the last century, it is estimated by Baker & Eversley (2000) that approximately 300 languages are spoken. Communities across the globe have moved around as a result of economic necessities, political upheaval and persecution. Language contact as a result of migration, conquest, transplantation, slavery and refugee…has in the past created a sociolinguistic environment in which individuals and communities have been exposed to one or two languages or dialects besides their mothertongue vernacular. These have often resulted in pidgin and creole languages which are taken as the amalgam of linguistic elements of two or more languages with an identity of their own. They develop a multilingual repertoire. It is hardly conceivable to think of a monolingual community, which does not have even dialect diversity. Dialect diversity alongside a standard language is a valid example of a kind of multilingualism.

Multilingual nations, societies and communities

Like multilingual nations, societies and communities individuals can also be multilingual. South Asia and Africa are good examples of naturally occurring multilingual continents of nations. Societal Bilingualism is quite common in Indian states where the majority of the people will have at least two languages / dialects in their speech habits e.g. Hindi and Panjabi in the Panjab. Among the educated it would be Hindi, Panjabi and English. Economic migration and mobility has resulted in transforming the metropolitan capitals of Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi truly multilingual. Colonisation and globalisation have added English to the speech of the privileged elite. ' The acquisition of multilingual competence has been a normal part of every child's socialisation among Cape Keerweer people from time immemorial.'( Le Page 1985:241). South American countries have a variety of indigenous languages alongside the languages of the colonisers, Spanish and Portuguese. Sydney in Australia has speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Filipino, Hindi, Korean and Spanish. In Europe Switzerland and Spain are good examples. In Spain official status is enjoyed by Spanish, Basque, Catalan and Galician. The official languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English. In multilingual settings the shared knowledge of languages motivates the participants to code-switch as a natural strategy for the purpose of negotiating personal relationships and signalling social group membership and solidarity. In the village of Sauris in the Italian Alps switching between Italian, Friulian, and German is quite a common feature of the interlocutors' discourse. In Mauritius some people find it quite natural to switch between Creole, English, French, Hindi and Bhojpuri.

The distribution of functions in multilingual societies: diglossia

An important characteristic of a bilingual / multilingual society is the allocation of functions and distribution of languages across various domains. This creates a diglossic or triglossic or polyglossic society ( Fishman 1967: 29-38); Abdulaziz 1978: 129-152; Gumperz 1964: 137-153; Fasold 1984: Ch 2). Languages in society could also be a source of ethnic and linguistic conflict. In mulitingual societies minority groups often form language associations to safeguard or pursue the linguistic interests of their community. These language movements are sometimes symbols of nationalism and struggle for nationhood. The creation of Bangladesh as a nation and the projection of Bangla as its national language are based on the struggle of the Bangladeshis against the imposition of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan on its Bangla-speaking citizens. The restoration of Welsh as the national language of Wales and the devolution of Wales as a political entity remind one of language contact, language conflicts and language revival. Language shifts e.g. the Gaelic speakers' and Hungarian speakers' abandonment of their mother tongues in favour of English and German respectively is common where the new language offers economic incentives and educational opportunities. This is compounded by lack of government support to or deliberate act of prejudice and discrimination against the minority languages in multilingual nation states. The survival of languages e.g. Catalan in Spain and Bhojpuri-Hindi in Mauritius is an example of the communities' resilience for language maintenance against various discriminatory political and educational policies. Despite this many governments continue to characterise multilingualism as a problem and a threat which could lead to unstability and poverty. The fact is that multilingualism is a natural product of language spread and development.

Multilingualism and language pedagogy

From a pedagogical point of view the learning of a language other than one's mother tongue would increase cognitive flexibility and help the learner understand the universals of language (Ben-Zeeve, 1977; Bialystok, 1991; Cummins, 1976,1993; Cummins & Swain, 1986; Lambert, 1990). There have been several research studies suggesting the positive aspect of multilingual acquisition and pedagogy in terms of additive bi/multilingualism (Cenoz & Valencia, 1994; Cook, 1992). The curriculum responses to multilingualism have also been varied e.g. The immersion programme in Canada, Biliteracy-bilingual programmes, the three language programme in India and the PEEB (Proyecto Experimental de Educacion Bilingue- Puno) in Peru (Hornberger & Lopez, 1998) have been researching and refining mother-tongue based pedagogical approaches to language learning in a multilingual society. The key to the preservation of multilingualism has been the recognition of the first language of the child, the language that the child brings to the classroom.


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