From traditional popular monolingualism to State language monolingualism: an impediment to plurilingualism

Posted by Denis Costaouec on February 28, 2011

Denis Costaouec is a senior lecturer in linguistics and general phonetics at the Paris University of René Descartes as well as a member of the SeDyl laboratory (CNRS, Inalco, IRD). He is currently working in Mexico, in the only village home to speakers of Ixcatec, a language of the Oto-Manguean family severely threatened with extinction.



Denis.Costaouec Along my work as a field linguist (Paraguay, French Brittany, Mexico), I’ve often witnessed situations where populations had shifted from traditional monolingualism (in some variety of Guarani, in Breton, or in an Oto-Manguean language) to monolingualism in the State language (Spanish or French) over quite a brief period (2 or 3 generations) of endured and problematic bilingualism.

These cases are frequent enough to be worth pondering, and I do stand in favour of the theory according to which there are many situations in the world where ancestral popular monolingualism seems to encourage a disuse of the primary language in cases of imposed bilingualism. A process that usually leads to a new form of monolingualism in the dominant language.

We must first consider that lasting monolingualism is a grassroots daily reality in certain areas of the world.



Certain local situations described as bilingual or plurilingual actually hide dominant monolingualism: that was the case, for example, of the Ottoman Empire where numerous linguistic groups coexisted, sharing the same space, sometimes the same villages, within a social organization based essentially on religious distinction, without the slightest will for linguistic unification.

Nevertheless, such a favourable context to plurilingualism stemmed a great variety of situations: alongside merchants and local figures who could speak several languages including Turkish; poor peasants – especially women – living in situations of local monoligualism as accounted by various chronicles and even recent studies.



In such situations, only few people find themselves involved in social relationships imposing some form of contact with the language of power, or other languages. The most frequent outcome is a majority of the population being monolingual: when nothing in daily life requires contact with populations who a speak different language, monolingualism remains an appropriate an sufficient response to social needs of communication.

Thus it is important to take the full measure of this lasting monolingualism, both in the scope of the world it contributes to develop, and in the feeling of language-world uniqueness it induces. One can easily understand the shock, and probably the trauma, caused by the irruption of another language in this elaborate construction.



In these situations, the infliction of a second language, often that of the State or the invader, creates a conflicting and troubling situation. The primary language loses value to those who spoke it, the teaching of language 2 is uneven, and its command remains insufficient for a long time, which appears to be socially stigmatized. Such inflicted bilingualism comes across as harmful, trouble.

A regularly observed outcome of differences in status between two languages, reflecting differences in status at political and economic scale among different fractions of the population, is the abandonment of the primary language to the benefit of a new form of monolingualism, this time in the dominant language.

The policies of a large number of nation states have not ceased to reinforce this trend of popular monolingualism by imposing monolingualism in the official language designated to replace indigenous languages in every aspects of social life. Thus the success of State monolingualism is also based on the traditions of local monolingualism.


In order to introduce policies that promote plurilingualism for the people, and not limited to ruling classes or influent social categories, the following conclusions may be drawn from the thoughts above: any support of plurilingualism must take the described situations into account, as well as their inner logic: the use of languages depends on how much of a social need they are.

Positions promoting plurilingualisme « per se », therefore, should not be relied on, including those raising the argument of democracy (rejection of inequalities due to the command of one single language, defence of cultural diversity, increase of autonomy, eased mobility both on social and geographic scale, etc.). The promotion of plurilingualism for the working-class must reach beyond the rhetoric designed for those who are immediately involved in international exchange, the European construction, or globalized trade. And it cannot limit itself to the promotion of certain State languages (French, German, Spanish…) against the prevalence of English.



In order to be understood and accepted, the promotion of plurilingualism must build in the promotion of « other » languages: languages of immigration as well as regional languages.


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When dominating languages threaten plurilingualism in Oceania

Posted by Claire Moyse-Faurie on February 21, 2011

Last week Claire Moyse-Faurie described the Oceanian continent the leader of plurilingualism with its 2,000 languages (1/3 of the world’s languages) for only 250 million people (under 4% of the world population). She also explained how the practice of plurilingualism was natural and un-hierarchized until the colonization period. Today she proceeds by unveiling the mechanisms that gradually imposed dominant languages to the expense of local linguistic multiplicity.

BY Fabvirge - 4th Arts of Melanesia Festival, New Caledonia

The once pre-colonial plurilingual situation prevailing in Oceania was gradually undermined by policies implementing exclusively monolingual education, and disfavouring the practice of linguas franca in the entire political, administrative and educational spheres.


In New Caledonia especially, the French colonial administration and its centralist traditions did all they possibly could to reduce this linguistic proliferation they considered as an impediment, possibly a danger, to decent administration of the local population. Therefore the use of vernacular languages was forbidden by decree under governor Guillain, in 1863; no more than ten years after annexation. Vernaculars were forbidden all the way to schoolyards. And the written use of Kanak languages outside religion was harshly suppressed until 1970.


Along with political colonization, evangelization contributed to weaken an existing balance between these different languages, on an equal footing at the time regardless of the number of people who spoke them. Indeed some of them were favoured at the expense of others, thus drawing a hierarchy between those recognized and involved in the translation of religious scripts on the one hand, and those utterly ignored and made consistently inferior on the other.


The very multiplicity of languages in this part of the world eventually precipitated their own decline: suddenly drawn as rivals, they were forced to adapt, incorporate modern life and stand up towards the others, or on the contrary, confine to gradually narrower uses up to the boarders of extinction. Linguistic unity at country or territory scale might have made vernaculars stronger against the brutal contact with European languages at the times of colonization and evangelization.


More recently, following the migrations towards the towns and cities, numerous situations of plurilingualism have seen the light in urban areas. Yet this particular form of plurilingualism is uncontrolled, imposed outside any kind of customary exchange, within an economic context of competition and individualism. Displaced languages find themselves weakened, cut off from their traditional environment, spoken by a very small number of people, and totally marginalized.


And while plurilingual practices were once systematic, nowadays they are often regarded as a handicap – including by the speakers themselves –, especially script-less tradition vernaculars, banned from education, lacking « international value ».


The most endangered languages of Oceania are currently located in countries where balanced vernacular plurilingualism used to be the standard. In New Caledonia, for example, mutual respect has yielded to competition between languages recognized by the administration, religious or education authorities to the detriment of others struggling to survive the pressure of both the colonial language and the vernaculars favoured by proper recognition, and taken into account in the various institutions.


Restoring the pre-colonial conditions would be impossible. Recovering a balanced form of plurilingualism including every vernacular suggests proactive policies that would protect and value the most endangered of these languages, not only preserving their words and grammars in archives or books, but also making way for their use in everyday life, media and education, and thus comforting the parents in their duty of transmittal from one generation to another.


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The Oceanian continent, a champion of multilingualism?

Posted by Claire Moyse-Faurie on February 15, 2011

Claire Moyse-Faurie is a CNRS Senior Researcher at the Laboratory of Oral Tradition Languages and Civilizations (LACITO), and a member of Sorosoro’s scientific board.



BY Sekundo (cc)- 4th Arts of Melanesia Festival, New Caledonia

BY Sekundo (cc)- 4th Arts of Melanesia Festival, New Caledonia

Nearly a third of the world’s languages are spoken in Oceania, which amounts to nearly 2000 languages for 250 million people mostly living as small scattered islander communities over thirty-seven countries or territories, an area equivalent to a ¼ of the planet…


Oceania, and Melansia in particular, has in fact one of the world’s highest linguistic densities, with Vanuatu holding the absolute world record: the archipelago indeed hosts over one hundred languages for approximately 200 000 inhabitants.


While in Polynesia and Micronesia there is usually no more than one language per island, Papua New Guinea, Irian Jaya (West Papua), the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia – which are either independent countries or trust territories – all have a multiplicity of languages: Melanesian languages in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia; Melanesian and Papu languages in New Guinea


How can we explain the high number of languages in these lands?


The reasons are various. Some are general and relate to the nature of language itself. Fragmentation is a general trend: over time, every variety of a language tends to diverge imperceptibly until it becomes a distinct language in itself. The more ancient the original language, the more differentiated its derived languages. Diversification therefore testifies to the antiquity of a settlement (35,000 years in the case of New Guinea).


Other reasons for this diversification belong to psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic factors.


Melanesian societies are segmental, fragmented into numerous chiefdoms with their own particular political organization. These chiefdoms are in contact but they are also particularly keen to assert their differences. Each group has its own language which forms an essential part of its individuality.


Before undergoing policies of language centralization in relation to the colonization process, Oceanian peoples practiced a balanced multilingualism, without a dominant language or, most often, a prevailing social centre. Each language was respected as part of the clan’s or community’s identity, and a bi- or trilingualism largely established by social practices allowed for intercommunication. One had no reason to imitate the neighbor but instead tended to accentuate the differences in order to stay at a distance from him. Until recently, we were facing a situation which linguist A.-G. Haudricourt called egalitarian multilingualism, as no language was more prestigious than another.


An example: New Caledonia


The cause for the differentiation of Kanak languages is not the supposed isolation of each valley. Instead texts of oral tradition reveal that trade between groups has always been intense. There have always been political games of alliances, intermarriage, and also breaking-offs, as with groups splitting or parts of a group moving away due to a conflict, and whose languages evolve separately, thus departing from their common origin. Women who marry outside of their group and live in their husband’s family (postmarital residence is virilocal) also promote multilingualism as they often continue to speak their mother tongue with their children.


Thus, the acceleration of the diversification process affecting Melanesian languages across history is rather explained by their intermingling.


Finally, the absence for most of them of a well-established norm, as well as a relatively small number of speakers, most probably contributes to explaining the speed of change.

> Read the second part of this article next week. Claire Moyse-Faurie will outline the ways in which dominant languages have gradually emerged in Oceania at the expense of multilingualism.

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African Plurilingualism in Writing

Posted by Aïssatou Mbodj on February 6, 2011

AïssatouMbodj is a postdoctoral researcher at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (Berlin) and research associate at the EHESS-based Centre d’Etudes Africaines.

BY Bruno Ben Moubamba (CC)

Contemporary African societies being plurilingual, regardless how well this is taken into account in linguistic policies, is obvious nowadays. While undisputable for spoken language, how much of this applies to writing?

The main written languages in Africa are the official languages – the old colonial languages – as well as Arabic, the language of culture and religion overlarge patches of West and East Africa.

It is worth noting that this does not include countries or areas with both a presence of orally fluent and anciently written African languages: the languages of Ethiopia and Swahili, in East Africa.

Outside these cases, however, a disjunction between oral and written languages remains the most common situation: the number of oral languages in Sub-Saharan Africa is significant, yet very few of them are used in writing.

Considering the cases of French-speaking countries where French is the only official language, it appears that African languagesrecognized as « national languages » are doing rather fine oral-wise: revealing examples are linguasfranca developing at country scale such as Wolof in Senegal, or Bambara in Mali.

But these languagesstruggle in achieving the status of written languages. True, since the 1960s, efforts have been granted to consolidate these languages through the adoption of an official spelling system and development of grammatical vocabulary. However, their written use remains confined to very limited fields and social spaces, like adult literacy teaching in rural areas.

That being said, in some places, efforts are also made to develop bilingual schooling: this is the case of Mali where following decades of experimenting bilingualism at school, it has now stepped into a phase of general implementation. The most important now is to make sure this willingness maintains itself over time, and observe whether this bilingual schooling is enough to make these languages enter the use of daily writing.

But it is important not to generalize at continent-scale, because African languages have very diverse relations towards writing. For some, the transition to writing and print reaches back to the colonial or missionary periods when literatures were born:Yoruba in Nigeria,or Kinyarwanda in Rwanda. On the other hand, many languages are exclusively oral and remainundescribed. Others have been codified but their written form lacks use by the speakers themselves.

Which leaves the question of the choiceof script: there are other spelling systems than the Latin system used by a great number of languages; some writing traditions in Africa turn to different kind of scripts. Ajami, which consists in using Arabic script for languages other than Arabic, is a common practice, for example in Hausa (spoken in Nigeria, Niger, and West African countries). In other places can be observed the use of an original script, sometimes with great vitality on regional scale,like the N’Ko writing system for Manding languages in Guinea and Mali.

While on the whole African languages remain underdeveloped in writing, there is potential to reinforce their use: our era has given birth to new writing practices, often very different to the bookish forms to which the idea of script is generally associated.

Thus the walls and signs of African cities display inscriptions bearing the blends of form, language and script way beyond the authorized uses of the official language.

Also worth pointing out, the use of so-far underwrittenlanguages when it comes to new technologies of information and communication, especially texting, emails and newsgroups. These new practices force to reconsider the disjunction between oral and written langue, and heralds a bright future for some of the many African languages, both orally and in writing.


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Plurilingualism in Senegal

Posted by Caroline Juillard on February 1, 2011

By Caroline Juillard, professor emeritus, University of Paris Descartes

© Muriel Lutz – Sorosoro film shoot in Senegal

As in numerous countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, plurilingualism in Senegal is a daily practice; it stems from a contact between an official language (French), a lingua franca spoken by over 90% of the population (Wolof), 14 national languages (therefore studied and codified) and a dozen lesser-diffused languages, all of which together constitute the richness of the country’s linguistic heritage. A contemporary state of affairs originating in ancient history.


Senegal was the first country in Africa where the use of French, as soon as the end of the 17th century, encountered that of African languages, mainly Wolof. Encounters which took place during the founding era of relationships between the French merchants and sailors on one side and the African on another, in where would later become the country’s capital, Saint-Louis of Senegal.


The two main common languages in Senegal nowadays are Wolof and French, the latter being the only one bearing a status of official language: written language is left to French, especially in secondary education and university, but also in the media, administration, and business.


Wolof is associated to Senegalese identity, both because of a large vehicularity and a transmittal spreading way beyond its ethnic span. Yet despite a very large diffusion, Wolof remains with the same status as other so-called national languages, though they weight a lot less in the demographic scale.


It is worth noting, besides, that in time, French and Wolof have fulfilled complementary roles for the urban elite: the contact of these two languages merged into a form of linguistic blend mainly characterized by French borrowings and an alternation of some sentences built on structural basis of French, and others built on structural basis of Wolof. The proportion and form of the features of French and features of Wolof vary depending on people, and are socially significant: a mixed code widely used within the Dakar elite nowadays, and taken up by a large part of the urban community, including people with non-existent or poor schooling.


Languages with a national language status currently reach 14. Besides Wolof, the five main languages having been granted such status under office of President Senghor are Fula (spoken as first or second language by approximately 25% of the population), Serer (spoken by ca. 18%), Jola (ca. 7%), Mandinka (ca. 5%) and Soninke (very low demographic weight). These languages are all part of the language family known as Niger Congo (Mande group and West-Atlantic group), and these past years, some of them have been introduced as mediums for reading/writing in primary education.


There are other small languages and numerous dialects in the process of being described that remain in use. All these languages may come as specific choices in communication, and thus become symbols of group, ethnic, regional or village belongings.


Additionally, some of the languages spoken in the neighbouring countries are also in use on the Senegalese territory, languages such as Portuguese-based Creole (Guinea-Bissau), Hassānīya Arabic (Mauritania) or Bambara (Mali).


To provide a comprehensive overview of plurilingualism in Senegal, it is important to mention the ability people have of enriching their linguistic repertoire along their lives and wanders. The Senegalese are at least bilingual, and sometimes largely plurilingual, especially in the South, in Casamance. This plurilingualism can be observed in daily conversation: according to given identity or stylistic strategies, speakers will turn to one language or the other, or even to language blends and most widely to French and Wolof borrowings.


Thus Senegalese plurilingualism characterizes by a rich linguistic repertoire that remains in use, especially in rural areas, the presence of a common language at national level, and a certain heritagization of French though borrowings and mixed code.


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