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Review of  An Introduction to Multilingualism

Reviewer: Irina Ustinova
Book Title: An Introduction to Multilingualism
Book Author: Florian Coulmas
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 30.3224

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Florian Coulman offers a broad overview of the concept of multilingualism and analyses the multiplicity of languages on the global scale from diverse perspectives, such as bilingualism of young children and adult migrants; mixing of ethnicities and languages in the international organizations, cities, countries, and regions where population uses official and minority languages; and Internet linguistics. The subtitle of the book, Language in a Changing World, indicates that multiple languages are changing together with the sweeping dynamics in policies, ideologies, and societies; in this book, the discussion centers on multilingualism as an ongoing process and on its dimensions, such as the geographical distributions of languages; the accounts of complex history of the world language systems with the explanations grounded in sociology and political philosophy; the phenomena of bilingualism in individuals, institutions, multiethnic counties and cities; and the use of multiple languages in cyberspace as well as research and theory of multilingualism. Each of the twelve chapters includes fascinating examples, graphics, and tables that provide visual representation of data and concludes with relevant and challenging questions for discussion that relate to current-day context and problems. The book contains a vast bibliography, online resources, and indexes of names and subjects.

In a short review, it is impossible to summarize the vast amount of material and due to word limitations, I have chosen a selected number of chapters to describe in greater detail. Each chapter in the book, however, deserves a full review because the book An Introduction to Multilingualism will be of great interest to scholars in the fields of linguistics, sociology, communications, culture, multimedia, and humanities.

Chapter 1, “The Polyphonic World,” focuses on the richness of the languages on the planet and offers their geographical distribution. The distribution of the languages across continents reflects the stories of expansion, population growth, and civilization changes. The author presents convincing statistics of the top twelve languages by number of native speakers, with Chinese being at the top with 982 million speakers; English is the third with 375 million speakers; and French and Korean are at the bottom of the twelve languages ladder with 79 and 78 million speakers, respectively. The author develops a linguistics diversity index, having compared continents by percentages of world population and languages. Thus, Oceania is the most linguistically diverse geographical area, with an index of 36, and Europe is the least, with an index of 0.5. The author looks deeply into the nature of the correlation between the richness of languages and the wealth of the nations; the data yielded by this study provide strong evidence that linguistically homogeneous countries are usually more developed and wealthy than countries with diverse languages. The premise of Coulman’s point of view is that economic development favors linguistic homogenization and standardization. A closer look at political, legal, social, medial, ideological, cultural, and religious parameters explains why some languages thrive while others perish. The multiplicity of languages constitutes a complex system and the inequity in language status is revealing: thus, only 211 languages, less than 3% of all languages, are recognized as official, co-official, or national. The United Nations identifies only six official languages, while English as lingua franca and a language of international, economic, and political power has the official status in 64 countries.

The current book appears to validate the real nature of multilingualism based on its capacity, practice, ideology, and theoretic inquiry as discussed in Chapters 2, 3 and 4. Chapter 2 gathers more than twenty definitions of multilingualism, and the author groups them into four clusters; these clusters focus on the capacity of individuals to communicate and co-use multiple languages, the ideology of the state that might be associated with positive or negative attitudes to other languages. This also includes willingness to communicate with speakers of other languages and the theoretic inquiry generated by language contact. In Chapters 3 and 4, the discussion revolves around different language perspectives, such as linguistics, political science, economics, history, and education, and provides definitions of the concepts of diglossia, pidgin, code and code-switching, bilingual and native speakers, mother tongue, and community language. The basic premise of Coulman’s argument is that the coexistence of several languages in one community is considered ideal; however, in reality, linguistic nationalism, restrictions on language choice as a political strategy, and economic and cultural repression prevail. To support his stance on the impact of politics on minority languages, the author analyses the situations with Chinese characters in Indonesia, the Catalan language in Spain, and the Russian language in Ukraine.

In Chapters 5 to 9 the discussion centers on the coexistence of multiple languages on the individual, institutional, state, nation, and multiethnic city levels as well as in cyberspace. Coulman offers a closer look at polyglots as people who have acquired and use several languages in daily life and addresses the issues of the order of language acquisition, dominance of one language over the other, and hardships for raising a bilingual child. The book abounds with examples of the autobiographical reports of multilinguals, such as William Gerhardie, Vladimir Nabokov, Elias Canetti, and Artur Koestler. The forgoing discussion emphasizes the importance of social issues in multilingual education and in the distinction between elite and transition bilingualism. There is overwhelming evidence for the benefits and the cost of (1) developmental bilingual education by choice, with the purpose of becoming biliterate and embracing two cultures and two languages and (2) transitional bilingual education by necessity, with the purpose of helping immigrant children catch up with their dominant language peers. The author provides apt data about multilingual International institutions and develops a claim that, although the European Parliament, the European Council, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the association of Southeast Asian nations, and the African Union confirm their attachment to cultural diversity and fairness, the financial constraints and demand for efficient communication pose challenges and aggravate tensions between practicality and equality. The review of those organizations reveals the importance of analyzing multilingualism using social and political practices.

Along similar lines, Chapters 7 and 8 argue that language policies reflect and regulate the language behavior of citizens in various domains of social life and exhibit the language situation in super-diverse cities such as Brussels, Macau, and London; in multiethnic countries and regions such as the Balkans, Switzerland, and Singapore. The author provides illustrations of linguistic landscapes as well as multilingual advertisements indicative of the diverse speakers’ standing in those areas, and the local government’s policies and attitudes toward minority speakers and languages. The code-switching of languages in those multiethnic communities with dominant and community languages leads to multi-ethnolects. The social and linguistic diversity mirror the coexistence of different ethnic backgrounds and languages; the author is in favor of the view that linguistic heterogeneity is slowly taking root in Europe and at the same time reflecting the social inequality typical for those communities. The author explains the complicated relationship between language and governance, discussing in detail the language regimes in Switzerland and Singapore. He reveals that the contrast and at the same time the parallels between the traditional European confederation and postcolonial Southeast Asian republic exist. Much of the content in Chapter 8 is devoted to exploring the types of minorities in modern states, their definitions, and examples, e.g., indigenous like Welsh in the UK, immigrant like Brazilians in Japan, national like Russians in Estonia, and transnational like Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The author comes to the conclusion that multilingual countries provide different accommodations to the language status of minority ethnic groups.

Based on the role of cyberspace in modern life, the author claims in Chapter 9 that Internet linguistics emerged as a research field in its own right because the language used in cyberspace has its own social conventions, political settings, and differences in grammar, writing, literacy, and discourse. The data gathered in this study suggest five top Internet users by language, i.e., English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and Portuguese. Coulman develops a claim that while English is in the vanguard of online communication, the highest number of Internet users is in Asia nowadays. The absolute number of English websites continues to increase but there is a steady decline of the share of the English language content websites. The author adopts the approach that statistical machine translation (SMT) dealing with huge bilingual databases and translation software has significantly changed communication. Two visions of the role of the Internet for the minority languages are offered in the book: new opportunities for endangered languages that would empower them, or, in contrast, overpowering of minorities by technology, which may promote language shift to a dominant lingua franca.

In Chapters 10 and 11 the discussion points to the effects of multilingualism on integration and separation of language and society, and the last chapter evaluates the research methods for studying multilingualism. Issues of linguistic purism are discussed and illustrated through examples of Dutch, French, and Chinese languages. The underlying argument is against the idea that the openness of the language systems to borrowings on lexical and structural pattern levels depends only on similarity or distance between source and target languages; instead, power relations and social issues between communities play a greater role. The author gives the example that the geographical distance may and may not provide a rationale for linguistic separation; thus, Serbians live close to Croatians and the overlap of content words in their languages exceeds 90%, but mostly for political reasons the Serbo-Croatian language broke into two more than twenty years ago. Another current debate revolves around whether lexical borrowings amount to enrichment or contamination of a recipient language.

The data gathered in the study suggest that since language is a part of global and national power structure the social changes affect linguistic change, and the process is reciprocal. The author explores and describes twelve aspects of society, such as territoriality, essentialism, ideology, migration, segregation, and integration, and reveals how those aspects are interwoven between society and language, e.g. ethnic cleansing and purism, population flow and lexical flow, people of an ethnic group and the language of an ethnic group, and mixed community and multi-ethnolect. According to Coulman, contacts between migrants and natives in multi-ethnic communities affect both linguistic and social systems and provoke clashes between the practices of assimilation and globalization. There is a rapid growth of literature on multilingualism but no unified theory on its general principles. The author claims that issues such as gradations of multilinguality, gradual shift on lexicon and grammar, a bilingual child’s proficiency at different ages, and comparatism of minority and majority languages. should serve as implications for future studies.


The book is a fascinating read for specialists, and students majoring in linguistics, as well as those interested in issues of language and culture, language and politics, sociolinguistics, and language research methods. As the content of the book indicates, the research being undertaken in the field of multilingualism is multidimensional and multidirectional.

While the collection is a marvelous read, some critique may still be offered. The author believes that simultaneous bilingualism is a burden for young children because they struggle to attain proficiency in two languages (pages 96-98). This is controversial because some data show that young children build lexicon and grammar in two or three languages effortlessly and many scholars believe that more brainwork is not a burden but a benefit for developing critical thinking skills and even a gift for life.

On pages 86-87 the author points out that Vladimir Nabokov emigrated from Russia to England as an adult in his twenties and that is why he was not able to acquire a full mastery of the English language and especially a native-like accent. In fact, as Nabokov describes in his memoirs, Speak, Memory, his governess, Miss Clayton, was British, and Nabokov started speaking English and Russian at the same time; what is more, he was reading in English before he started reading in Russian. He was exposed to British literature, poetry, and culture from a young age and this was reinforced when he studied Slavic literature at Cambridge University. The author mistakenly claims that Nabokov had an identifiable accent because he was exposed to English past the time of the critical period hypothesis. The most probable explanation of Nabokov’s accent is that, though he had attained a British accent in early childhood, he moved to the United States when he was forty and never acquired American English pronunciation.

Some translational typos and inaccuracy in meaning can also be noticed. Thus, on page 213 Russian COBET (a noun) should not be translated as Soviet (adjective) but rather as a piece of advice, or committee. Oceania, by definition is not a continent, a large land mass, and should be called a geographical area (page 7).

Diverse in research topics and approaches, overall An Introduction to Multilingualism covers multilingual phenomena with clarity and erudition. The strength of the study is the attention it pays to new concepts such as multiethnolects and subfields of linguistics, such as Internet linguistics, that should prove to be of great use and serve as implications for future research.
Irina Ustinova, Ph.D., is a Professor at Southeast Missouri State University, USA. She has taught Linguistics, Sociolinguistics, Intercultural Communication, Methods of Teaching, Curriculum Design, Research in TESOL to graduate students from the United States, Brazil, China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Vietnam, and Ukraine. Her research interests include English as a global language, language of advertising, cooperative learning and teaching, semantics, the use of new technologies in the second and foreign language classroom.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780198791102
Pages: 320
Prices: U.S. $ 81.00