Master’s Program- Applied Linguistics
Academic Year: 2012- 2013
Course Title: Sociolinguistics
Instructor: Dr. Mohamed Jabeur
Student: Nada Mrabet
Is multilingualism/ bilingualism a resource or a problem?
There are so many countries which concede themselves as monolingual countries rather than multilingual or bilingual ones. That is when many scholars came to perceive such thought as a mere misinterpretation of the fact that the constitutions of those countries recognize only one official language. However, monolingualism is only the tip of the iceberg. When we look beyond the surface, we will find a great deal of diversity. In this paper, we will deal with multilingualism and bilingualism as one concept which is defined, according to the Longman dictionary, as the use of two (bilingualism) or more (multilingualism) « languages by an individual or by a group of speakers such as the inhabitants of a particular region or a nation ». Multilingualism is an interesting phenomenon in present day societies which can be studied from different perspectives. The purpose of this paper is to examine multilingualism as a resource and a problem at both the individual and societal levels, and to find a way to address this problem.
Multilingualism is a resource
At the individual level, it refers « to the speaker’s competence to use two or more languages ». In fact, learning more than one language shows a great deal of benefits for individuals who are part to whatever society. A multilingual person is capable of developing creative thinking and building up greater cognitive flexibility. This person would have “a stereoscopic vision of the world from two or more perspectives, enabling them to be more flexible in their thinking… Multilinguals, therefore, are not restricted to a single world- view, but also have a better understanding that other outlooks are possible”(Cook, 2001). Being multilingual can also offer better professional life and opportunities especially when having to cooperate with business partners or colleagues speaking different languages, or going on business trips abroad. It can even make them better communicators, and help them interact more easily with people especially if they are living in a multiethnic community or family.
At the societal level, multilingualism refers to “the use of two or more languages in a speech community”. Being Multilingual is no longer “a marker of high status” (Edwards, 1994) to a certain group of people referred to as the Elite, but rather “a contribution to a more dynamic society” (Fasold, 1984) as a whole. Many countries came to prove Fasold right. The most striking example would be the United States of America, with an average of 322 spoken languages, probably because it is built on a multi- migration system. Another probable reason is that the Founding Fathers declared no official language in the American constitution as declaring one would narrow the rights of individuals with limited English competence or no English at all. Indeed, the secret of power, progress and prosperity of America lies in its diversity in terms of both language and ethnicity.
Multilingualism is a problem
Learning many languages may lead to the shift or death of the individual’s mother tongue. “Language shift generally refers to the process by which one language displaces another in the linguistic repertoire of a community” (Holmes, 1993). Whereas, “language death has occurred when a language is no longer spoken naturally anywhere in the world” (Holmes, 1993). One thing should be borne in mind, however, is that language shift can sometimes lead to language death or language loss precisely for languages that are spoken by minorities. At the individual level, Holmes took the example of a 20 years old Annie who is a young speaker of Dyirbal (an Australian Aboriginal language). She uses this language only with older people in her community, including her grandmother. And at school, she uses the English language. Due to different circumstances, she became less competent in her native language. Annie is indeed experiencing language loss, which can lead to less interaction with the speech community she lives in and a possible miscommunication with the community’s elders.
At the societal level, an example of language death would be if Dutch was no longer spoken in the three- member states of the Dutch Language Union (Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname). Another problem that has a disadvantageous impact on society is the unsolved nationist- nationalist conflict. A nationality describes “socio-cultural units that have developed beyond primarily local- self concepts, concerns and integrative bonds” (Fishman, 1972; cited in Fasold, 89). That is why nationalism is considered to be built on the concept of denying diversity. This denial could be the seeds that would lead to dictatorship especially when trying to impose one language on all individuals of a particular social unit. However, a nation is “any political- territorial unit which is largely or increasingly under the control of a particular nationality” (Fishman, 1972). The problem for nationalists is developing “a sense of nation” in multilingual states as it would immediately bring up the question of selecting the national language. Likewise, the problem for nationists is choosing the colonial language as the official language. Such a choice would not satisfy nationalists as they will not accept to have the language of the colonizing state.
Ways to Address the Problems of Multilingualism
One of the suggested ways of addressing the problems of multilingualism is mainly finding a solution for the nationist- nationalist conflict. In this case, both colonial (nationsim) and national (nationalism) languages should be recognized as official government languages. That way, neither the majority nor the minorities will be denied their freedom of choice and no language will be imposed on them. This will get multilingual governments out of dictatorship’s way. However, why does multilingualism succeed in some countries and does not in others? The key to a successful multilingualism is democracy. As we may see in the The Economist Intelligence Unit’s: quality-of-life index of the year of 2005, multilingual countries whose citizens enjoy the highest levels of political and civil liberties are those who are listed on the top of the Worldwide quality- of- index, such as Ireland, Italy, Singapore, and the United States. Therefore, a good management of multilingualism will definitely lead multilingual countries to prosperity and well- being of its peoples. Another suggestion is made for nationalists which is to find other ways to develop nationalism other than language. Add to that the fact that they have to give up to the idea that “multilingualism is the rule not the exception” (Genesse and Cenoz, 1998).
When studying the benefits and disadvantages of multilingualism, an important distinction must be made between individual multilingualism and societal multilingualism. It is because a society which is multilingual does not imply that all the individuals living in it are multiglots. And the fact that one individual is a multiglot does not imply that the society he lives in is multilingual. Either way, multilingualism can be regarded as a problem as it is found in the crossfire between nationalism and nationism; two contrasting concepts. But this conflict can be solved, temporarily at least, if we would regard multilingualism as a resource, and use democracy as a system for the aim of becoming not only successful multilingual governments, but also economically prosperous countries. %
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