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Indo-European Linguistics

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Summary Details


Query:   Very Multilingual Communities
Author:  Richard Hudson
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Cognitive Science
Language Acquisition

Summary:   Dear Colleagues, A couple of weeks ago I asked for information about communities where *everyone* speaks a lot of languages, with a view to establishing the highest number known - i.e. which community belongs in the Guinness Book of Records as having the largest shared verbal repertoire (counted in languages). This may sound a trivial query, but it's relevant to the question of the general human capacity for language learning, on the assumption that these communities are genetically typical of all humans. My guess was that the answer would be around five. Here are my results, with many thanks to those who took part in this pre-scientific survey. Dick Hudson A. Results As you can imagine, it depends somewhat on how you define 'community'. A1. If you mean 'group of people who live together', then the record seems to be 6. This was reported by Hilaire Valiquette who writes: I was in Wirrimanu (Balgo), Western Australia writing a dictionary of Kukatja (a dialect of Western Desert) in '91. There were five languages in the community, and people seemed to be comfortable in all of them. A sixth language was English, and people could handle that well too. My best consultant in Kukatja was a Ngardi speaker! A2. But if you mean 'group of people based on something other than language and covering a wide social and intellectual range', then the record is 7. Sangeeta Bagga-Gupta writes: I conducted fieldwork for my doctoral thesis primarily in western India (in present day Mumbai and Pune) where I followed the work of a national NGO (the Mobile Creches) that served migrant construction workers and their families. At one point during the fieldwork phase the NGO was serving ca 20,000 children. One of the main interests of that study was literacies in everyday life. The predominantly women dominated NGO represented class structures in urban society in western India (during the late 80's early 90's) in an exceptional manner. In addition (and to my frustration) the members in the NGO spoke at least 7 languages and used at least 4 written languages in their everyday working lives in Mumbai. These included: Bambaiya hindi, Marathi, English, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Konkani and Parsi. I documented and analysed the complexities and fluidity of multiliteracies in these settings where women with post graduate degrees worked together with women who had dropped out of primary grade vernacular schools. I may have a few copies of my thesis and could share this in case someone is interested. A3. As expected, there were also several reports of communities where everyone speaks 3, 4 or even 5 languages in one of two patterns: A3a. Everyone shares the same range of languages. (There are N languages such that every member speaks all these languages.) A3b. Everyone shares the same social system which requires multiple languages because members have to marry from an external group which speaks a different language. (For every member there are N languages that they speak - but not necessarily the same languages for all members.) B. People and places B1. I received messages from: Claire Bowern, Jean-Christophe Verstraete, Baden Hughes, Aone (Thomas) van Engelenhoven, Donald Osborn,Chris Beckwith, James L. Fidelholtz, Hal Schiffman, Jim Wilce, Sangeeta Bagga-Gupta, Hilaire Valiquette, Juliet Tembe, Jean-Christophe Verstraete. B2. Communities with large shared language inventories were reported from: Northern and Western Australia, Papua New Guinea, the inland Niger delta of Mali (Mopti region), the North-West Amazon, India (and in particular, western India, in present day Mumbai and Pune), Cameroon.

LL Issue: 16.139
Date Posted: 18-Jan-2005
Original Query: Read original query


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