LINGUIST List 6.1003

Tue Jul 25 1995

Sum: Are most people bilingual?

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • , 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
    From: <GA5123SIUCVMB.SIU.EDU>
    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". ===========================================================================

    REFERENCES 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 House. 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.