In this chapter, I discussed the politics behind people’s language choices in multilingual societies. Quite simply, bilingual societies come about as a result of contact between groups of people that speak different languages. Such contact always produces a power differential—speakers of one language have more political, economic, and social influence than those of another. We saw that linguistic prestige is not an indication of intrinsic beauty in languages but rather of the perceived status of those who speak them.
We saw power differentials at work in the concept of diglossia—the functional separation of two languages (or dialects) in a multilingual society. In a diglossic situation, one language is reserved for use in formal contexts such as school, government, and the media (i.e., the High variety) while another language is used in informal settings of the home and the ethnic community (i.e., the Low variety). What this means is that people who do not know the High variety are kept out of the activities associated with power in the societies in which they live. And since the High variety is learned only at school, education takes on a special meaning. We saw that speakers of the High variety often use that variety to wield power over speakers of a Low variety and limit other people’s access to socioeconomic opportunities.
We also saw that linguistic diversity is quickly decreasing around the world, with the majority of the 6,000 or so languages spoken today predicted to be gone by the end of the twenty-first century. Many small languages are dying because their speakers are no longer using them and teaching them to their children. Official language policies of most nations favor the languages of people in power, and the burden to become bilingual falls on speakers of minority languages. In the face of powerful social and political pressures, many minority language communities are turning their backs on their mother tongues. The imminent extinction of the majority of the world’s languages is a tragedy, something we should work hard to avoid.
We examined the official language policies of different countries, and saw that there is often a mismatch between policy and actual patterns of people’s language use. I described officially bi-/multilingual countries, whose citizens are in fact mostly monolingual (e.g., Switzerland, Canada) and officially monolingual countries whose citizens are highly multilingual (e.g., Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal). We saw that the officially multilingual countries are essentially collections of largely monolingual regions whose languages are protected by law. I presented the monolingual policies of Latvia and Morocco, which are de facto bi-/multi- lingual countries. These policies reflect the desire of the governments of these countries to bring back power to their newly independent nations. But many people in both countries see a complete move to monolingualism as unrealistic and even harmful to their national competitiveness in the wider world.
Finally, we saw in the case of Singapore that language policy can have a profound effect on people’s language use. Although the Singaporean government has promoted bilingual education in English and mother tongue for all of its citizens, the government’s rather peculiar definition of mother tongue, based on a student’s father’s ethnicity, has privileged Mandarin over all other Chinese dialects. This has resulted in a massive shift to Mandarin among the Chinese majority who are originally speakers of other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokkien. One reason that the government’s “Speak Mandarin” campaign has been so successful is the widely held view among the different Chinese dialect groups that Mandarin is a unifying symbol of their ethnic identity. I will address the topic of identity in Chapter 5.