LINGUIST List 6.1003

Tue Jul 25 1995

Sum: Are most people bilingual?

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  1. , Are most people bilingual? -- Summary

Message 1: Are most people bilingual? -- Summary

Date: Sun, 23 Jul 1995 22:08:28 Are most people bilingual? -- Summary
Subject: Are most people bilingual? -- Summary

 A few days ago I inquired about estimates of what portion of the
world's human population is bilingual. One motive I had in asking
was to be able to "shame" my students into taking their language study
seriously. "Be a mainstream human being!", I would exhort them.
 I thank Michael Brody, Eva Fernandez, Jussi Karlgren, and Ruth Kearns
for their informative replies (insofar as there is information
to be had on this topic). See reference list below.
 The authors point out that one problem with this question
is the difficulty of defining "bilingual", since most people
so described are not equally proficient in both languages.
 Some key excerpts follow:
 Romaine (1995:8): "There are about thirty times as many languages as
there are countries. This entails (sic) the presence of bilingualism in
practically every country of the world. Grosjean (1982:vii) estimates
that about half the world's population is bilingual. There are, however,
no really precise figures on the number and distribution of speakers of
two or more languages."
 Grosjean (1982:2): "It is an interesting fact that no really precise
statistics exist concerning the number and distribution of speakers of
two or more languages."
 Romaine (1995:9) quotes Makey (1967:11): "bilingualism, far from
being exceptional, is a problem (sic) which affects the majority
of the world's population."
 Grosjean (1982:2) quotes Lewis (1976:115): "Bilingualism has been(,)
and is(,) nearer to the normal situation than most people
are willing to believe."
 End of quotations.
 You may remember that I asked if there were any _principled_ estimates,
and, so far as I can tell, the authors say little about
the bases or reasoning behind their estimates.
Ruth Kearns points out that "Estimates tend to come from
the statistics on numbers of languages spoken in various
countries and statisitics of population size in those countries."
For me, it remains a wide-open question.
 Jussi Karlgren expressed an interesting hunch,
"...that the number of languages spoken has an inverse
correlation with the average schooling of the general population
in the area." Rather than take this as a sarcastic commentary
on the inefficacy of formal language teaching,
I have taken the liberty of rationalizing it as follows: schooling
tends to impose artificially a single standard language
to the detriment of a plurality of languages spoken "naturally".

Grosjean, Francois. 1982. Life with two languages. Cambridge: Harvard
 University Press.
Lewis, E. G. 1976. Bilingualism and bilingual education: the ancient
 world to the renaissance. In Bilingual education: an international
 sociological perspective, ed. J. Fishman. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury
Mackey, William Francis. 1967. Bilingualism as a world problem/
 Le bilinguisme, phenomene mondial. Montreal: Harvest House.
Mackey, W. F. 1976. Bilinguisme et contact des langues.
 Paris: Klinckseick.
Romaine, Suzanne. 1995 (2nd ed.). Bilingualism. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lee Hartman
Department of Foreign Languages
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4521 U.S.A.
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