One National Language

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.


6 Responses

  1. You’re absolutely right. I think the locals should make more of an effort to learn the language of their neighbors. Now, how does one go about doing this? How to convince them that it’s in their best interest? I’m doing all I can by maintaining my Spanish language skills and “sharing” what I know with others through leading bilingual storytime at the local library and preschool classes, but I want to do more.

  2. I am from western Canada, a bilingual Canada. I myself am flent in both French and English; however, it is by no means because Canada is a bilingual country as because I worked hard to study French. The language programs at my high school (which is one of the top ten best public schools in North America) were woeful. However it is important to take into consideration that bi/multilingualism is often more of an issue than simply “one should learn one’s national languages”. For example in Canada the Québec vs. The Rest issue is very contentious and very heated. If anyone has any familiarity with the issue and/or the country, it is very prevalent. Being in Québec is like being in a different world, and the Québecois have voted numerous times to separate from the rest of the country. When the issue becomes so politicised, it is often far more difficult to spread bilingualism when there are such prevalent blockades (the government in Québec actively tries to block English integration in some cases, and the rest of the country looks down on French as fairly useless and pertaining only to issues of The Crazy French for example)

  3. A great site for ESL students is is a dual-purpose site for building an English vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most impoverished places around the world.

    Check it out at

  4. Karen:

    Your efforts are commendable. I can really only think of one thing you could do to help foster the Spanish language among English speakers: start a Spanish language lab in conjunction with intermediate or advanced Spanish students. One of the most deficient things about language teaching is that the students never really use the new language for anything other than taking tests. Perhaps you could set up something up with a high school teacher or college professor where you could meet with a few students several times a week at a certain place with the sole purpose of conversing in Spanish. Bringing attractive native Spanish speakers along with you from time to time wouldn’t hurt either . Don’t correct their spoken language too much at first, if at all. Just get them comfortable and using the Spanish they have already learned. This will do as much or more to promote Spanish than just about any Spanish class or story time.


    You hit the nail on the head my friend! Pride and bigotry often keep us from learning new languages. It sounds overdramatic but you have just given us all an example of bigotry getting in the way of learning English or French in Canada. Learning a language often breaks down the walls of prejudice since it requires learning about another culture. If you speak their language and understand their culture then it is harder to discriminate against them. However, if you have already decided that you don’t like them (whoever they happen to be) then it is unlikely that you will ever learn their language beyond a beginner’s level. Good for you for not taking part in this foolishness.


    This looks like a good cause. I hope you can get in touch with public schools and let them know about it since they would be more likely to benefit from it. It’s difficult to prosper in the USA without knowing English.

  5. I live in Ottawa (Canada), although this city has not an official status of bilinguism (yet!), I would say most people are more or less fluent in both, French and English. Thanks to the policies of our Federal Governement on Official Languages, civil servants here must be bilingual to some extent (depending on their job positions).

    And, Colin, not all Québécois voted (or will vote) for separation! The ones living across the Ottawa River have no interest in a Québec souverain! I am from Montreal and I moved here 8 years ago… I am a FSL Program Design and Training Consultant who works, for the most part, with Public Service employees… and, trust me, I never met a single one who was not enthusiastic about learning French and discovering the other solitude’s culture…

    And yes! Québec is different… just the way New Foundland or B.C. are… and those differences across Canada go beyond languages…

  6. I decided to learn Spanish and Portuguese mainly because I am amazed by the culture of their speakers. Just within the past few years I am really starting to see the fruits of my labor — I can speak proficiently with so many more people in this world by knowing Spanish and Portuguese. It truly amazes me to see how many different people have learned one or more languages (beside their native tongue) in addition to their chosen profession. It makes me wonder how the U.S. and other countries rank in the number of people who speak more than two languages.

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