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Multilingualism is the situation in which a person has command of, or a community uses, two or more languages. Accordingly, one has to distinguish between multilingualism on the micro-level (individual multilingualism) and multilingualism on the macro-level (societal multilingualism).

Multilingualism on the macro-level

Multilingualism is a worldwide phenomenon and, perhaps surprisingly, monolingual persons or societies are exceptional. The misbelief that monolingualism is the rule is due to the fact that there are only few countries where more than one official language is spoken. Not even a quarter of the world’s nations recognize two official languages (e.g. India, Canada), and only six nations have three or more languages as official languages (e.g. Switzerland, South Africa). Even in those cases there might be other vernaculars and regional languages which are not officially recognized. But this is unavoidable in administrative and bureaucratic respects (Edwards 1995, 33; Edwards 2007, 448).

Another problem with multilingualism is one of measurement, i.e. the assessment of the extent of multilingualism in a country and, connected with that, the assessment of the proficiency level that is required for a person to count as multilingual. The method used to account for these questions is census. But this is connected with further difficulties: The formulation of questions (intercultural differences in understanding certain concepts, e.g. ‘mother-tongue’), the change of the questions over time which makes censuses incomparable, the subjectivity on the side of the respondents when estimating their proficiency level, the simplification of data coding leaves no room for elaboration or explanation, the problem of interpreting the data (Edwards 2007, 451/452).

Reasons for multilingualism

Multilingualism arises when languages get into contact. The reason for language contact is the simple need of communication between human beings with different linguistic backgrounds. One of the occasions that could effect such a situation is population movement, i.e. a group of immigrants gets into contact with the population of the target location. In order to communicate they have to get at least some command of each other’s language. However, sometimes people do not even have to move to come into contact with another language, which would be the case with territorial expansion. Imperialist or colonial policies and associated military and economic pressures prompted peoples to adopt the language of the expansionist regime. But often the colonial influence ceases to be the main factor for the use of the foreign language, and convenience and cultural prestige become dominant reasons. A prominent example is of course the British Empire. Today, all the former British colonies have regained their independence, but many of them, e.g. the African Union, use English as the official language, or one among their official languages.

Further reasons for multilingualism are trade, religion, multilingual federations and political union (Edwards 2007, 449/450). Canada, for instance, incorporates an English and a French ‘charter’ group. In addition, multilingualism occurs frequently in border areas, for example between Quebec and New England. This is most obviously related to matters of trade and everyday communication. In industrialised settings language learning is mainly rendered possible through institutional backing. Here, multilingualism is often unidirectional, i.e. the language of the politically and economically superior nation will be dominant. In rural areas and ethnically mixed regions, where languages are learned through face-to-face interaction, the use of languages is more balanced because people have equal interest in acquiring each other’s language. Anyway, there is often cultural and educational motivation that prompts people to consider second-or-third language acquisition (Matras 1009, 48).

Fluidity, language maintenance, language shift, language death

Multilingual settings are always characterized by ‘fluidity’, i.e. the language balance is changing steadily. Multilingualism increases or decreases (Crystal 2007, 362). The latter happens for instance when the next generations of a group of immigrants more and more abandon their parents’ language because their socialisation takes place in the new environment – partly or completely. However, in a time of globalisation the chances for survival for such languages are improving. Studies (Lo 2007; Osman 2006) have shown that members of the second or third generations of immigrant families have opportunities and motivation to maintain their parents’ language. Technological progress allows them to use media in their language and facilitates electronic communication (e.g. via internet) with family or community members (perhaps even in the parents’ home country). Furthermore, there might be the possibility to continue language learning at school and the arrival of new immigrants in the community might lead to fresh contact with culture and, thus, with language. An additional incentive to maintain the parents’ language is a better prospect on the labour market (Matras 50).

In general, the spread of one language is often at the expense of another and the reason for a language to be more powerful than another is the strength of its community. But there are of course cases when a language can assert its position and withstand the influence of powerful neighbours. This is called language maintenance. Language shift occurs when one language cannot resist the influence of a more powerful language and its speakers assimilate to the dominant culture. This may be attended by the borrowing of vocabulary, but it may also happen that a new ‘hybrid’, i.e. a mixture of the languages, comes into existence. The worst case would be language death, which means that the language is not spoken anymore, as it happened to some Celtic languages (Crystal 2007 362).

Bridging methods

People in multilingual settings need multilingual competence. But there are occasions on which insufficient abilities require the use of certain bridging methods. One such method would be the use of a lingua franca. These are languages which are often widely spread and which are spoken by powerful and prestigious communities, like, for instance, Latin and France in the past, and English today. Moreover, there are languages that are characterized by a limited vocabulary and a simplified syntax which facilitates their acquisition. These are Pidgins and Creole varieties. Finally, a lingua franca may also be an artificial language, such as Esperanto.

The other bridging method is the translation from one language into another, which, though being practical, is always a matter of interpretation and judgment. It has to be carried out with due diligence (Edwards 2007, 455/456).

Domains of communication -- dominant, majority and minority languages

When considering multilingualism on the macro-level one has to consider so-called ‘domains’ of communication: setting, topic, goal and mode/medium of interaction. There is the assumption that one language will be preferred over another depending on the respective domain (Matras 2009, 45). For instance: A boy in South Africa uses a vernacular when talking to family members or to other people in his town, but at school he uses the official language which is common in this region. Here the choice of language depends on the setting of interaction.

In stable multilingual settings there is often a ‘dominant’ language which is used preferably in a majority of domains of interaction, especially in public and institutional domains. Accordingly, a certain proficiency level in that language is required for people to be able to participate in the basic domains of social life, e.g. media use, education, formal procedures. The dominant language is often the ‘majority language’ in the state, i.e. the numerical majority of the population uses it as domestic language. However, there are also contexts in which dominant languages are not necessarily majority languages. Such cases can be found in Africa where the use of one official language is promoted in educational and institutional domains, which makes it the dominant language. But a majority of the population may speak another language in private and everyday contexts, which is absent from the institutional domain, but nevertheless remains the majority language. ‘Minority languages’ are used by a minority of the population and, consequently, play a minor role in the public domain. However, lately there has been a tendency to recognize minority languages as official languages. They were codified (i.e. standardized and given established norms which are stated in grammar books and dictionaries) and included in public and institutional domains. Often these official minority languages are regional and, thus, a country might have one or two national languages and several regional languages (Matras 2009, 45/46).

However, there is a general tendency in favour of those languages which enjoy institutional backing. They become more and more dominant while others are retreating. People must have certain skills in that dominant language in order to participate in public life. Moreover, the dominant language supersedes other languages by infiltrating domains that were formerly managed by means of another language. But it may also be the case that people extend their activity repertoires and, consequently, their domains of communication which might prompt them to make use of a more dominant language. And this is why so many languages are retreating: They were crowded out of their former domains. Matras puts it as follows: “The stability of multilingualism depends on the stability of activity patterns.” (Matras 1009, 53) Here is an example from northern Germany: In the course of industrialization people had to leave their agricultural working environments and, thus, their villages. In the towns they were confronted with Standard German which led to an increasing use of it at home. Standard German became the language of schooling to allow for national job application. Low German was more and more retreating from its former domains (Matras 2009, 51/52).

Multilingualism on the micro-level

In contrast to societal multilingualism, individual multilingualism deals with individuals that have command of two or more languages. There are two general possibilities: A child may acquire two or more languages by birth or it may learn two or more languages later on. Some parents fear that learning more than one language at such a young age would overstrain their children and negatively affect their academic success. However, this is not the case. Sometimes it can happen that the child is a little slower in the acquisition of one language or in both, but it will catch up sooner or later. In any case, most parents will realize that it benefits their children to have command of more than one language. In addition to practical and professional reasons, multilingual parents want their children to maintain their language for reasons of identity (Auer/Wei 2007, 4).

A child that acquires more than one language by birth learns to select certain structures, words and later on phrases and sentences, from its linguistic repertoire depending on the addressee. For instance, it knows that it has to address the Italian-speaking father differently than the German-speaking mother. But still it does not know that it is using two different languages. The child has a set of interaction cues and a set of words. With growing social interaction it establishes certain selection rules and demarcation rules that determine the set of words for a certain interaction or activity. It has to choose from two or more components in its linguistic repertoire and will learn later on that these components are languages (Matras 2009, 41).

The Dual Language Theory

A theoretical basis for what happens when a child learns two or more languages might be the Dual Language Theory which was proposed by Kecskes (1998) and Kecskes and Papp (2000). This theory assumes that “the language learner is [...] in the process of changing the existing conceptual and linguistic system by adding new information that will result in a qualitative change in the conceptual system and the emergence of a new linguistic system rooted in one and the same conceptual system” (Kecskes 1998, 373). This process is split up into two periods: Language transfer and conceptual change. Language transfer is a unidirectional (L1->L2) process and there is a strong dominance of the first language in the conceptual system. The second language is added as another register and the language channels interact. This is considered a negative phenomenon since there occur many grammatical/lexical errors in the second language. The second period is characterized by a change in the linguistic system, in the conceptual system and by bidirectional influence of the languages (L1<-->L2). The result is a conceptual blending of knowledge that comes through either channel which has positive effects on language behaviour and discourse organization (Kecskés 1998, 373/374).

Interaction cues and code-switching

There are a number of cues which determine the choice of language. This has been mentioned to be the addressee. In this case, interaction settings play an important role, i.e. the language at school might be different from that used in the neighbourhood, and the multilingual speaker has to choose accordingly. Within one interaction setting the language may vary depending on different interaction contexts, especially within the household. Family members may switch to another language when friends are visiting or when they answer the phone (mode/medium of interaction). Another cue that might influence language choice is the topic of conversation. For instance, when talking about school or doing homework, parents might address their child in the language that is spoken at school. But when reprimanding their child, parents might switch to their mother tongue. Be it multilingualism on the macro-level or on the micro-level, there are always languages that are dominant or preferred in specific domains. Connected with that, multilingual speakers build up certain language hierarchies depending on their dominant language and of course on their linguistic skills. A multilingual speaker might not be equally proficient in all his languages. One could assume that the speaker is more proficient in the language he or she uses most frequently, i.e. he can read, write and speak fluently and faultlessly and proves to be competent when dealing with register and style. He or she might be able to speak another language, but is perhaps unable to write it (Matras 2009, 42/43).

Language demarcation rules enable the speaker to switch between languages according to context. However, the switching does not only occur on context-level, it also occurs on sentence-level. This phenomenon is called code-switching. It has a bad reputation because it is considered a “debased form of speaking”, “a sign of laziness”, and “a lack of competence”, but, in fact, it is highly functional. It is a conversational strategy for multilingual speakers as is gesture or prosody for monolingual speakers. They simply lack that additional strategy which is very useful for the construction of context, identity and relationships (Auer/Wei 2007, 8).

Staying multilingual

Staying multilingual appears to be more problematic than becoming multilingual. This is connected with school and peer groups. Schools are usually dominated by one language which is not necessarily the child’s language. Under favourable conditions the child’s language is still offered at school, but, although the situation has improved in the course of globalization, schools can hardly incorporate more than a handful of languages. And then, they mostly offer those languages which have many speakers, i.e. world languages like English, Spanish, French, perhaps Chinese. Schools still work with national ideologies and build up linguistic hierarchies, favouring more prestigious and powerful languages (Auer/Wei 2007, 5/6). However, there are schools which encourage multilingualism by giving lessons like geography or history in languages other than the official language of the respective region and there are even bilingual nursery schools. Nowadays, one has dismal prospects on the labour market if one is not able to speak at least two languages. Parents are getting more and more conscious about the necessity for their children to speak more than one language.


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