There is a dichotomy in the world today. In many parts of the world, people are comfortably multilingual, while in others, they never become anything other than stubbornly monolingual. Why is there such a huge difference in the attitude of even young people to the role of language in their life?

Learning another language is like acquiring a passport. It allows you into the secrets of another language group so much more than not knowing or understanding what those people are saying. Even if you never intend travelling outside your own borders, it is rare these days to live in a completely monolingual society. International migration trends, because of the need for immigrant labour, escape from persecution and civil war and for a better economic life have meant that different language groups have mingled more than ever, even if new migrants by necessity become bilingual.

It is easy to understand why some certain groups value multilingualism more than others. It’s rare to find anyone from a Scandinavian country (Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway or Finland) who don’t at least speak English as well as their own language and probably at least another too.  Scandinavians are affluent and love to travel as well as rely on international trade to exist. Because of their small populations and lack any history of colonisation the chance of anyone outside their country being able to understand them in their own language is slim, hence the need to learn at least another major language quickly.

Similarly, some countries have evolved within artificially designed borders, usually because of a history of invasion and colonisation. Many modern nation states created in the twentieth century were comprised of people speaking many mutually unintelligible languages. Most chose either the language of their former colonial power (typically French or English) or a language that had been used as a lingua franca. Good examples are Kiswahili in East Africa, Arabic in many North African countries and Spanish throughout Latin America.

The most resistant to multilingualism seem to be those whose language is the most widespread. English language communities are notoriously slothful when it comes to learning other languages, even though individuals can and do break through the multilingual barrier and become accomplished speakers of another language other than English.

The fact that many uneducated citizens of some countries seem to acquire the knack of communicating in two, three, four or even more languages easily suggests that necessity is the major motivator for multilingualism. Research shows that the earlier people learn a second or third language the more comfortable and fluent they will be but this may be restricted t those who are conscious of the role of language in their lives.

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