Most People Are Multilingual [en]

[fr] Une clarification de ce que j'entends par "la plupart des gens sont multilingues". Multilingues au sens large.

In a comment to my last post, Marie-Aude says I’m being a bit optimistic by stating that “most people are multilingual”. I’d like to clarify what I mean by that.

The “most people are multilingual” thing is not from me. I’ve seen it mentioned in varied settings, though I still need to find systematic studies to back it up (let me know if you have any handy).

It all depends how you define “multilingual”. If you define it in a broad sense (ie, school-level passive understanding of a language counts), then a little thinking shows it’s not that “optimistic”. Here is what would make somebody multilingual:

  • immigration, of course
  • learning a foreign language at school
  • living in a country with different linguistic groups.

Some examples:

  • in India, many people are fluent in their mother tongue, and to some extent in one of the countries official languages: Hindi or English
  • in the US, think about the huge immigrant population; the whole country was built upon immigration, come to think of it; in the bus in San Francisco, I often heard more foreign languages than English
  • again in the US (because the English-speaking world is seen as a big “monolingual” block), think of the increasingly important hispanic/latino population (people who will often have knowledge of both English and Spanish)
  • in most European countries, people learn at least one foreign language in school — even if it’s not used, most people retain at least some passive knowledge of it; I’m not sure about Asia, Africa, Southern America, Australia: does anybody know?

So, I don’t think it’s that optimistic to say most people are multilingual. To say that most people are “perfectly multilingual”, of course, is way off the mark. But most people understand more than one language, at least to some extent.

8 thoughts on “Most People Are Multilingual [en]

  1. In southern Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, SA) most people are multi-lingual with varying levels of language competency in at least 3 languages.

    For example in Malawi, children learn English and Chichewa from the first class onwards. Their mother tongue being Chitumbuka or Chisena or Chilomwe. At secondary school level, nearly all subjects are taught in English.

  2. People in Israel are mostly multilingual; not only that you’ll hardly find a family with less than two origins in the parents or grandparents generation (besides their Israeli nationality), but children learn English as a first foreign language at school. As a second foreign language, I think it’s still obligatory to learn Arabic.

  3. Well of course, it depends of the reference you take 🙂

    And what you call multilingual.

    For me, being multilingual is being able to understand and be understood in current situations, without too much help of the hands or drawing (because here we refer to internet…), being able to read a reasonnably simple “fucking manual” and understand it.

    For the reference you took, as you were speaking of adapting the internet and software to a multilingual environment, I considered the languages used there. That excludes a lot of them, and for example, for the lagnuages spoken in Malawi, I’m quite sure that there are very few sites in Chitumbuka or Chisena.

    Actually, for a language to be used on the internet and/or in a software, it has to be a written language (and if possible with an iso charset, that helos…) and multilingual means also being litterate in both languages.

    Which reduces drastically the number of multilingual people because of immigration, for example. Often the first generation has difficulties in writing / reading the new language, even when speaking it correctly, and the third one has forgotten it.

    San Francisco and NY are not the US. And even if that’s true there are some places where a lot of people speak and read another language than english (and that’s the reason why there is a hispanic google), they might be not that fluent in english.

    True multilingual countries (which means with litteracy in several languages) are really seldom, India is one of them, Luxembourg another one. For most of the African countries, the multilingualism is actually a split of fields, some fields resort to a language, like private life and family life, usually african language, and another field, business or science, resorts to french, english or portuguese.

    In South America, that”s more or less the same, children are mutlilingual, but taught to read and write only in one language.

    If you consider the other large countries in the world, Brazil is not multilingual with litteracy, China is a special case, of coexistence of several languages written the same way, but most of the multilingualism is reserved to the different versions of Chinese…. In Europe, there was a study estimating the number of people able to speak in two or more languages up to 20% of the population maximum.

    But as you say, the main question is “where do you put the bar” ?

  4. As the two other commenters, I can’t help but think about Africa when thinking about multilingualism. Apart from observations similar to what they describe, I have noticed that the less language is sacralized, the more it is likely to be used. The first step toward multilingualism is not mastery of a language, but rather accepting that it can be used imperfectly.

    In France, people who don’t speak perfect French are often shunned – maybe not too openly, but still quite evidently looked down upon. As a result, French people often feel incomfortable using a language they do not master.

    I have seen no such thing in Africa : to most people African I met there and in France, a language is just a tool. Of course, there is sentimental attachment to the mother tongue, but apart from that, utilitarianism rules : if you know just five words – just use them and work your way from there !

  5. Talk about multi lingual in Switzerland, where we have 4 official languages and english 😉
    Not to mention all the nerds (like me) talking html and php 😀

  6. I think everyone here has a point. I’m from Portugal. There at school you learn at least two languages – in my case I learnt English and French – and though I don’t master French that well I was recently in France and was able to communicate with everyone… and it was easier than trying to talk in English, which I consider myself to be quite fluent.

    Now, regarding bilingual sites I consider that it depends on the audience and objectives you have. I’m currently setting up my own blog about I.T. Administration… I wanted primarily to write to Portuguese speaking readers, but most information available is in English… if I only write in Portuguese people from all over the world, who don’t speak Portuguese, won’t be able to read and comment on my blog… on the other hand, if I write in English only, I loose a part of my Portuguese audience (I’m currently in Brazil and most Brazilians don’t master English)…

    Wrapping it up… I think sites should be Bilingual or Multilingual.. whatever 🙂

  7. I’ll leave you with a little bit of knowledge about multilinguism in Central Asia.
    I was born in Uzbekistan and since it used to be part of USSR, Russian adapted well in Uzbekistan, I can guarantee that every native Uzbek speaks it. Russian and Uzbek are the two officially used languages. Besides learning Russian and Uzbek, English is also the requirement.
    By no doubt no matter how many languages you have learned, you cannot be considered multilingual if you don’t constantly practice them. As for other things, as long as you are understood, it’s all good.

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