The definition of multilingualism has been debated on by researchers for a very long time. While some researchers prefer a more rigorous definition for the term by classifying individuals who are very close to more than two monolinguals as multilinguals; more recently, multilingualism has been redefined as a condition that makes humans function and communicate in more than one language. In some sense here, multilingualism represents a linguistic measure that lies on a continuous spectrum ranging from complete proficiency in two or more languages to minimal proficiency in which a person might be able to make partial use of the language(s) in question. The proficiency expressed can be either in the written or the oral component or both. More importantly, multilingualism does not merely involve linguistic competence only. It also represents life in two or more cultures where individuals are able to adapt or switch their language of communication based on the cultural context. India is a good example of a nation state comprising of multiple multilingual populations with mixed cultural backgrounds. It is very common for schoolchildren in India to learn multiple languages based on where they reside within the country – children may be fluent in their native language or their mother tongue, the state language and the official languages (Hindi and English) at the same time. They will also learn when and where to use each of these languages depending on the social and cultural context from a very young age.
Most of the world’s population today is observed to be bilingual or multilingual. This is due to the fact that there are very few populations that are isolated or immune to the process of language shift/language change (which commonly occurs when two groups of individuals speaking different languages come in contact with one another). Scholars have estimated that there are roughly five to eight thousand different ethnic groups in approximately 160 nation states (Stavenhagen, 1990). The current socio-political demarcation of geographic regions of the world is brought about by the construction of nation states. Here, we often find that there are multiple languages spoked within nation states and very few nations are mono-lingual or have populations from one ethnic background. This clearly demonstrates the fact that multilingualism is the norm and not an exception. This pattern is often disregarded or neglected in the field of linguistic anthropology and other linguistic studies. Linguistic anthropology deals with the understanding of languages as an instrument of social change and cultural transmission. When linguistic anthropologists study a particular ethnolinguistic form, the primary approach is to study the form on its own in order to discover the rule governing patterns and principles that give rise to the language and how are these rules tied together with the social and cultural practices within a group. In addition to this, linguistic anthropologists also study the functional role of these linguistic forms in larger communities that are identified by these languages and language practices.
In this context, multilingualism creates a significant problem in the field of linguistic anthropology as it simultaneously allows multiple cultural and social practices to emerge through the usage of different languages within the same space and time. There are several key aspects in which multilingualism can cause methodological problems in the field, two of which I will discuss in this essay.
(a) Multilingualism and the identification of social units such as ethnic groups
Linguistic anthropologists often use languages and its unique properties to identify and characterize ethnic groups or cultural units. One important assumption behind using this approach is that each social unit will have its distinct linguistic correlate (Hymes, 1967). In other words, since languages and social units bear strong associations with one another, we can often use linguistic features as “diagnostic markers” to decipher culturally distinct or overlapping social units; the fundamental assumption being that “each enduring social relationship entails the selection and/or creation of communicative means considered specific to it by it participants” (Hymes, 1962a). According to Hymes, the determining factor that would count for the establishment of culture-bearing units and the transmission of cultural phenomena are boundaries of communication. This can be understood by looking at the communicative relationships between individuals and groups. These relationships can help us understand the process of language differentiation and variation in the usage of the same.
Since speech communities, linguistic repertoire, variation and style are foundational in understanding and identifying language differentiation, several key points need to be remembered here. First and foremost, speech communities and language communities are emergent properties that rise from “ideological principles of differentiation” such as presupposed categorization of caste, ideas about gender etc (Gal, 2006). Second, the variation that we see amongst speakers could be a manifestation of social disparity. Third, we often expect to observe a system of stereotypes when linguistic forms co-occur and form clusters among speakers who use them at a higher frequency. In other words, we can make predictions about the linguistic correlates based on the associations between indexical signals and cultural systems. Thus, one way of identifying social units through language is by looking at distinctive social interactions (which arises because of indexical signals) and their role in communication. Gal highlights that “contact and interaction – not isolation – produce distinct language communities” (Gal, 2006).
There are often problems that may arise in looking at linguistic correlates in order to identify social units. In order to identify social units, two distinct and contrasting methods used. One is through a comparative approach that looks at the grammar specifically and the other is by finding rule-governed patterns of code-switching among different language groups. The first is more problematic and often presents methodological challenges. Ideally, in order to identify social units by conducting cross-cultural comparisons, one would require a complete dataset comprising the enumeration of language units, whole dialects along with their genetic classification (Hymes, 1967). This is not possible as there is not much accurate knowledge about the genetic connections of all the world’s languages today and this information may not even be retrievable from the literature. Gal proposes using ethnographic studies at the level of a speech community (or “fine-grained community studies” to examine the patterns of codeswitching behaviors. She highlights the need for a broader sociological framework within which we can explain these codeswitching practices. She explains that the “linguistic practices of bilingual groups reveal diverse forms of consciousness” and that they represent the responses to diverse forms of resistance within a historical and political context. One example of this would be political domination and post war industrialization produces conscious variation in the linguistic practices of individuals (Gal, 1987). She highlights that each speech community’s codeswitching practices must be examined in its own specificity: “In this view, the effort to find variables – for instance, industrialization, urbanization, economic development, “group vitality”- that will everywhere produce the same effects on minority language use or language evaluation, misses the mark” (Gal 1987, p. 649). Gal and Hymes both seem to agree on the fact that constructing social units based on linguistic correlates is problematic.
“Once the attempt to use languages as demarcations in an a priori way is abandoned, the really interesting problems appear”(Hymes, 1967 p. 43). They both emphasize that rather than supposing a linguistic correlate for a given social unit, anthropologists should be invested in examining “the factors governing the uses and boundaries of codes both within and between communities” (Hymes, 1967 p. 42). In other words, how linguistic codes are used under diverse social contexts do not necessarily map on to boundaries defined by such social units rather the usage of these codes depend on more complex factors (such as state power and political domination) (Gal, 1987). Since identifying social units is an essential component of conducting anthropological research, multilingualism may pose some serious problems if we aim to look at groups or populations of individuals as being demarcated by a single language ideology. In such a case, looking at language relatedness may not be as informative as looking at language structure between speech communities on a case by case basis as is described in the article by Susan Gal (Gal, 1987).
b) Multilingualism and inferences about prehistoric population movements and contacts
In modern times, we find that several standard languages have infiltrated areas in which they were not previously found. Such patterns emerge due to population movements and the field of linguistic anthropology has extensively looked at language groups in order to assess genetic similarities between related languages and assess movement and migration patterns within geographic regions. Studies done on language groups have provided key information on human migratory patterns especially when these evidences have been used along with archaeological artifacts. These two lines of evidence have helped us understand how ancient human populations came into contact. Investigating prehistoric population movements based on solely linguistic relatedness may be tough as there are very few written records found within that timeframe that would be preserved over time. But anthropologists have often used the idea of relatedness or similarities between linguistic groups or social units to trace how groups came into contact with one another in recent history. These studies become even more relevant when examining the impacts of colonization and trade practices across the globe. Since speech communities are regarded to be comprising of a group of people “who can interpret each others pragmatic, indexical signals to varying degrees” we observe greater diversity and variation in language practices between speech communities that are brought about by historical events.
“Since precolonial times, networks of exchange, commerce, travel and exploration have been creating speech communities that are diverse in social function, stability and extent” (Gal, 2006).
On the other hand, language communities can emerge as cultural systems containing several speech communities nested within them. Gal defines language communities as “groups of people bearing loyalty to norms of denotational system” (Gal, 2006). Language communities may not always reflect the fine scale changes caused by movement of populations or by groups of individuals coming in contact at any given time as they are often reinforced and linked to a larger state system and are “oriented to standardized form of correctness monitored by language academics, school systems and grammar books.” Moreover, Gal describes how colonization can lead to differentiation of the population based on whether individuals opt to speak the language of the state. In such circumstances, native speakers can perceive themselves to be peripheral in terms of their position within the society and this switch produces novel self-identities like “indigenous”, “minority” or “local” that was previously not present. It is interesting to note that such identities are legitimized by the state only if these groups are able to partially adopt the state’s standardizing ideology. By incorporating the state’s ideology, these indigenous groups produce a “denotational code” that is remarkably different and counts as a language on its own. This leads to several problems in linguistic studies. Gal remarks that anthropologists for several decades were solely interested in the ‘local” languages without taking into account the contact languages or multilingualism that made these indigenous speakers a part of the colonial rule. This was because at the time indigenous languages were considered to be “endangered” leading to the debate between scholars about what actually merits documentation.
Another example of how multilingualism can affect our understanding of population movement and contact is by looking at small scale diasporic events. Susan Gal writes:
“For many speakers resident in Europe, the language ideology I have discussed is not the only organizing principle of their sociolinguistic lives. It is useful here to invoke the classic distinction between speech communities and language communities. Migrant and diasporic populations in Europe are part of European speech communities in that they interact with speakers of languages and linguistic varieties spoken in Europe and can decipher the indexical signals provided by many kinds of multilingual and multi-varietal speakers. But their sense of linguistic correctness, their orientation to a denotational code and its literary norms, also links them to other regions where there are speakers of the named languages they use. Often they are linked to more than one such centre of linguistic norms located outside of Europe, for instance to language communities consisting of Hindi, Urdu, Indonesian, Turkish or Yoruba speakers” (Gal, 2006). Thus, it becomes important to invoke the idea of multilingualism and examine its associated effect on social function in order to fully understand language contact and language change over time.
Multilingualism is gradually becoming the social norm globally. Social units can no longer be classified on the basis of discrete linguistic correlates as more and more cultural groups come in contact with one another creating multiple avenues for social interaction, exchange and communication. Therefore, the impact that these inter-cultural exchanges may have on language shift and language structure cannot be ignored. Furthermore, in today’s world multilingualism may be a practical way of communicating in unique sociocultural contexts and the languages that are in use today are no longer represent cultural homogeneity. It is important therefore to account for such variations and incorporate the study of multilingual repertoires within the field of linguistic anthropology.
List of references
1. Gal, S. (1987). Codeswitching and consciousness in the European periphery. American Ethnologist, 14(4), 637-653.
2. Gal, S. (2006). Contradictions of standard language in Europe: Implications for the study of practices and publics. Social Anthropology, 14(2), 163-181.
3. Helm, J. (Ed.). (1968). Essays on the problem of tribe: Proceedings of the 1967 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society. Distributed by the University of Washington Press.
4. Hymes, D. (1962). The ethnography of speaking. Anthropology and human behavior, 13(53), 11-74.
5. Stavenhagen, R. (1990). The ethnic question: Conflicts, development, and human rights (Vol. 90). United Nations University Press.