Why Do People Speak More Than One Language?
May 13, 2016
Mastering the language skills to be bilingual or trilingual would seem easy for those of us who grew up in the land of opportunity. After all, due the enormous immigrant population that settled our country, languages from all over the world were being spoken as American cities developed from coast to coast. In fact, if you add up the number of languages spoken in the United States as compared to other countries like China, the difference is huge in our favor. Ironically, our percentage of multilingual citizens remains very low, as 75% of Americans are monolingual. So how did that happen?
As it turns out, a country's linguistic mixture develops for differing reasons. Colonial history played a major role in spreading the English language to many parts of the world, including our own. There's always the influence of regional loyalties to a native tongue, which offers insight as to why many French speaking Canadians never learn English, and vice versa. Unavoidable cultural influences often top the list of driving forces and provides some explanation as to a rapid growth of bilingualism (Spanish and English) in many areas of the United States.
People in European countries with populations that speak multiple languages typically converse fluently in four or five tongues. Since they seldom have a mastery of those languages, it often leads to more than one language being used in the same conversation, or even the same sentence. Plus, the need for a lingua franca (even in the most remote areas of the world) has led to the adoption of numerous linguistic mixtures including dozens of versions of creolized English.
Above and beyond all of the reasons given for multilingual development is the mandate of an "Official Language" by a government. Most often, this is the language that is considered to be the country's native tongue. In addition, some countries adopt and require "Working Languages" to be taught as compulsory subjects in schools, though the level of literacy often varies greatly. It isn't unusual in ethnically-diverse cities that the state's official language is not what is actually being spoken on the streets.
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