Monday, February 10, 2014

Is Multilingualism a Social Problem?

Master’s Program- Applied Linguistics
Academic Year: 2012- 2013
Course Title: Sociolinguistics
Instructor: Dr. Mohamed Jabeur
Student: Nada Mrabet

 Is Multilingualism a Social Problem?


         Many countries concede themselves as monolingual rather than multilingual or bilingual. This misconception often comes about due to the fact that those countries operate as monolingual either de facto or de jure. Only a quarter of all nation-states recognize more than one official language. Unbeknownst to the other three quarters, monolingualism is only the tip of the iceberg. If they look beyond the surface, they will find a great deal of diversity offered by societal multilingualism. This essay seeks to prove that multilingualism is not a social problem. I will first list what sociolinguists conceive as problematic in multilingualism; provide a problem-solving approach to these problems; illustrate the advantages of multilingualism; and explain why one should stop perceiving it as something of a problem.  
         A major problem that is causing an enigmatic quandary is the nationist-nationalist conflict. Fishman (1972) defines a nation as “any political- territorial unit which is largely or increasingly under the control of a particular nationality.” Nationists use the old colonial language as their official language because the governing institutions and records are already in that language. However, “a solution to a nationist problem often creates a nationalist problem” (Fasold, 1984). Choosing the old colonial language as the official language of a newly independent colony contradicts with the concept of nationality which refers to “a group of people who think of themselves as a social unit different from other groups” on the local and global scales. Not only in the field of general government administration do nationists and nationalists live in an ongoing conflict, but also in education. Nationists follow what they consider the best and most efficient strategy and choose to use ethnic-group languages in the educational institutions. This is what Fasold (1984) calls “contranational nationalism”: This nationist choice contradicts with nationalism because it does not fulfill unity of language.

           Fasold (1984) suggests two approaches to settle this problem: (1) Either develop a national language or (2) develop nationalism on grounds other than language. Still, the first suggestion may bring about the nationism-nationalism conflict anyway when selecting the language, promoting its acceptance and developing the language itself. Another approach adopted by Ireland is to declare both the nationalist and the colonialist languages official to serve the nationist purposes while promoting nationalism at the same time. A similar case is India. The only difference between Ireland and India is that the latter country have declared a deadline when English will no longer be used de jure.  In education, a similar approach is adopted in India where they use the ethnic-group languages for initial education and then switch to the national language for more advanced levels. This way the minorities will not be denied their linguistic right to speak their own language. This pragmatic approach will get multilingual governments out of dictatorship’s way.

          Being Multilingual is no longer “a marker of high status” (Edwards, 1994) to a certain group of people referred to as the Elite. It is rather “a contribution to a more dynamic society” (Fasold, 1984). Many countries came to prove Fasold right. The most striking example of all is 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. Doing that would narrow the rights of those who have a limited English competence. Indeed, the secret of power, progress and prosperity in America lies in its diversity in terms of both language and ethnicity. This example proves multilingualism as a resource of democracy. As we may see in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s: quality-of-life index of the year of 2005, multilingual countries which citizens enjoy the highest levels of political and civil liberties 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 the well- being of their peoples.

           Although Fasold (1984) insists on the existence of monolingual countries, Auer and Wei (2007) came to reject this idea and said that “the world is de facto multilingual”. They consider multilingualism “natural”, and the real problem is monolingualism. The problems that arise through multilingualism are not the result of the existence of multilingualism itself, but rather crop up because of certain contexts like those set by nationism and nationalism. According to Auer and Wei (2007), Multilingualism started to be marginalized during a phase of European history in which nation-states like the United Kingdom and France unleashed a concept stating that in order to be part of a nation, one needs to speak its language. In fact, it took these two nation-states hundreds of years to marginalize languages other than English and French. Nation-states believe that one official national language is capable of unifying their people. Even in research within the field of linguistics, Auer and Wei (2007) see multilingualism as being marginalized by linguists due to the bias of European thinking to monolingualism. This state has changed since two decades ago.

          Multilingualism is perceived problematic for nationism and nationalism. While nationists adopt a pragmatic approach towards language by picking the old colonial language as the official language or using ethnic-group languages, nationalists seek to unify their nations by recognizing one official national language. The conflict occurs when choosing the one language to be recognized as official. There are roughly 6.900 languages in the world and only around 200 nation-states. Like it or not, nationists and nationalists should give up to the fact that “multilingualism is the rule not the exception” (Genesse and Cenoz, 1998). The majority of these languages are unofficial due to the fact that nationalists believe that diversity is capable of endangering their nationality. Auer and Peter (2007) declare all of these assumptions null and void and say that it is time to stop perceiving multilingualism as a problem and start appreciating it as a resource, and that the real problem is monolingualism. %

Auer, P., & Wei, L. (2007). Handbook of Multilingualism and Multilingual Communication. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co.
Fasold, R. (1984). The Sociolinguistics of Society. Oxford: Blackwell Hudson.
The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2005. Quality-of-life index. Retrieved from:

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