The politics of languages are rather thorny. The USA, curiously, has no official language even though most families can only speak English one or two generations after immigrating. India has two official languages and recognizes twenty one scheduled languages. China has one official language but over 400 million Chinese people speak at least one of the hundreds of mutually unintelligible dialects in addition to the state endorsed language. In Germany many of the southern dialects, which are mostly unintelligible to people in the north, are fading away, making standard German even more of a unifying factor. In Spain, regional languages like Catalan, Basque and Galician are resurging. Eleena, over at Voices en Español, has written an interesting article about how if the current trend continues, Spain could end up with a large number of citizens who are functionally illiterate in Spanish. Since no country speaks only one language, how much should multilingualism be encouraged, if at all?
Just One Common Language?
The Greeks and the Romans had a standardized version of their languages. Since the time of the French revolutions the Parisian dialect has been taught to all Frenchmen so as to blur the lines of social class and educate the people; Germany and Italy have done something similar. The Arab speaking countries have MSA and Indonesia has Bahasa Indonesian. Curiously, most of the former European colonies have continued speaking the language of their previous rulers. When the Jews reestablished Israel they resurrected the Hebrew language and started teaching it to their children who spoke a large number of different languages.
Is all of this trouble worth it? Yes, because it is easier and more practical. It has to do with the phenomenon of synergy: 1 + 1 = 3. It’s the idea that two people working together can achieve more than half of what they would have achieved by themselves. How well can you work with someone if you cannot understand what that person says, or vice versa? Have you ever had a foreign professor or teacher’s assistant with a thick foreign accent try to teach you an unfamiliar concept? A nation whose citizens speak a common language will almost always be more efficient and productive than one that is united by physical boundaries but separated by different languages. Few nations have ever achieved greatness without a single unifying language.
Thriving Multilingual Societies
Luxembourg, Sweden and Holland are just three examples of successful multilingual countries. There are many reasons why they succeed when others have failed but there is one that I think is very important: even though they have one common language, they do not limit themselves to just one. Whenever they need to expedite their communication they talk in the common language which all of them have been speaking and learning since elementary school. When they are in groups of friends and family who speak another language or feel like reading a newspaper in another language or decide to watch a TV show or movie in another language they have that option.
Some countries are trying to follow suite. Estonia is trying to become a functionally multilingual society adding English and German to Russian and their native Estonian. Chile has announced that it wishes to become an officially and functionally bilingual country, English being the second language. South Africa will undoubtedly keep and lose many of its languages as education becomes more accessible to all of its citizens.
Do you live in a multilingual society? Maybe you do but you don’t know it or have been raised in a monolingual bubble. Learning a new language is about making connections, so if you are considering which new language to learn, try learning one commonly spoken in your community. It’s true that immigrants, and even expatriates, should learn the local majority language but what’s wrong with locals learning the language of their neighbors? Functional multilingual societies are ones where no language barrier exists in the mist of several different languages.
Filed under: Languages