Posted by: janecronin | September 18, 2016

Are we normal?

First I should define my terms.  By “we” I mean British people who only speak one language, although I do realize that people outside this group may also be reading this.  And the question is, is it “normal” to speak only one language?  Apparently, well over half of the world’s population speak two, three or more languages fluently, although statistics are hard to come by as there are too many variables to get an accurate picture.  For example, how competent do you have to be to count as a language speaker?; what is the difference between a “native” and a “second-language speaker”?; do some dialects count as proper languages?; and so on.  However, even allowing for all these variables, it seems that those of us who spend our lives within the conceptual and communicative boundaries of a single language, are the exception rather than the rule.

Interestingly, there are a lot of theories and discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism, in which the implication is that this is something unusual.  The fact is that most monolinguals live in countries which have dominant cultures, or speak a dominant language such as English, and it is in these monolingual cultures that bilingualism tends to be regarded as something of a rarity.

We only need to think a little about the history and geography of the world to realize why bilingualism and multilingualism is actually the norm in human society.  Many less developed countries have at some time in their history been colonies of European powers and therefore still have a European language (English, French, Spanish or Portuguese) as their official language, whilst also having a number of indigenous and tribal languages which are more likely to be spoken at home.

Then almost all European countries have some minority groups and languages, such as Basques and Catalans in Spain, Bretons in France, Welsh in the UK and so on.  In addition, the phenomenon of human migration which has gone on for thousands of years is still continuing today, so that millions of people live in countries whose official language is different from their own.  The children of these families frequently grow up as bilingual, thus preserving their native culture as well as their language.

All of this indicates that it is entirely normal for people to speak more than one language either from birth, or to a proficient standard acquired during their life-time.  This is a fact definitely worth bearing in mind as we go through life assuming that we are the normal ones whilst those amazing beings who switch comfortably between several languages are in some way exceptional.   I speak as a native monolingual who has worked hard for many years to acquire proficiency in just one other language.  The effort is definitely worth it, but I think at least part of the battle is won when we stop assuming that our way of thinking is the only “normal” one.

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