Statistics say that there are around 7,000 languages, used in 193 countries in our world. This means that on average there are about 36 different languages in each country. However, the world is not a place in which everything exists harmonically; this creates countries that vary in linguistic diversity. For example, in Iceland there are only 2 indigenous languages, while in Russia around 100 languages are spoken. However, this statistical data give us the general idea about the modern world: there are no monolingual countries, no matter if multilingualism is officially recognized or not by their governments. Such countries as Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, and South Africa are all examples of governments with multilingual policies. But the list goes much farther — you may not notice it, but your motherland might be one of the numerous multilingual countries (personally, I was surprised to learn that there were speakers of such rare languages as Ili Turki and Plautdietsch in my country, Kazakhstan).
Talking about my personal experience, I live a country where half of the population speaks Kazakh as their mother tongue, while the other half speaks Russian. Here, in Kazakhstan, bilingualism is officially recognized by the state. Kazakh is determined as the state language and Russian as the language of interethnic communication. There are also a lot of other linguistic groups such as Dungans, Uyghurs, Tatars, Uzbeks, and so on which mainly reside in the southern part of the country. But, in reality, the whole region of Central Asia consists of multilingual countries. When I look to the north I see Russia, where native speakers of more than 100 languages co-exist. When I look to the east I see China with its cultural and linguistic diversity. When I look to the south I see Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where almost everyone speaks at least two languages: Kyrgyz & Russian, Tajik & Russian, Uzbek & Russian, respectfully.
Being aware of this, I have always been curious as to how multilingualism influences the lives of people. Does it make life easier or does it create some challenges? In this article I tried to answer this question using my personal experience of living in a multilingual country.
Access to a greater number of resources
For a person being a bilingual or multilingual speaker, it opens gates to the treasury of the languages they speak. It gives access to the literature, scientific research, and other heritage that was left by the native speakers of these languages. For example, the majority of the Kazakhstan population is fluent in both Kazakh and Russian. Such feature doubles the resources that our people can use: we can receive information from the books written in Kazakh and Russian, the TV programs broadcasted in these languages, etc.
Another advantage for the Kazakh population is that the Russian language is well connected to other languages. For example, according to the data provided by the Index Translationum, the Russian language is one of the most popular languages used in translations all around the world. It occupies the 7th position in the ranking of the target languages and the 4th position of the original languages. This gives the bilingual population of the country a great opportunity to access knowledge originally created in other languages and later translated into Russian, whereas monolingual Kazakh speakers do not have access to this.
Connection to other countries
A modern political map doesn’t clearly reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the world. There are some linguistic groups which are divided by state borders. In Africa, we can see perfectly straight lines which were drawn without considering the settlement of the ethnic and linguistic groups. As a result, such linguistic groups as Maasai people, find themselves living in different countries. However, there are similar situations all over the world: the Catalans in Spain; Andorra and France; the Kurdish in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
There are many diasporas living not alongside the borders, but far away from their historical homeland. For example, Armenian Americans are one of the biggest diaspora communities of the world with their own political organization, the Armenian National Committee of America. Such linguistic minorities can be a sort of connection between the countries in which they reside. China and its connections to the Chinese diasporas serve as an apt example. A lot of experts state that the financial support provided by the representatives of the Chinese communities from all over the world was the clue to China’s booming economy.
Higher level of empathy and tolerance
Learning a language gives an opportunity to understand its native speakers better. In her TED speech, Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist, stated that language influences our understanding of the world and our thought processes. Knowing several languages helps a person to see the differences between the ways they think and a representative of another linguistic group thinks. This experience, together with everyday communications with the native speakers of other languages, which inevitably takes place in a multilingual country, increases the level of empathy and tolerance towards each other.
There are a plethora of discussions and research aimed at proving the existence of the correlation between the multilingualism and higher empathy level. For example, there is a theory that bilingual and multilingual children are better at understanding other people’s perspective, tested by Samantha Fan, Zoe Liberman, Boaz Keysar and Katherine Kinzler. Based on the results of their experiment, the scientists suggest that bi- and multilingual children are able to understand other perspectives better. What’s interesting, the children who didn’t speak other languages, but were exposed to multilingual environment, showed the same results as the multilingual children.
The integrity of the society
In my opinion, the biggest challenge that a multilingual country can face is the integrity of its society. I myself witness how the approach to multilingualism has put my country in a troubling situation: in Kazakhstan the society is mostly represented by two large linguistic groups, those who speak Kazakh and those who speak Russian. After decades of being part of the USSR, Kazakhstan now faces a rise of national identity which is based on the Kazakh ethnic group, together with the Kazakh language and culture. The government supports the expansion of the Kazakh language, which in turn provokes the dissatisfaction and resistance of Russian speakers. Good examples of such trends would be the mandatory translation of all official papers into two languages, increasing the minimum length of airtime conducted in Kazakh language on the national TV channels, and increasing the number of scholarships available to the students who choose to take courses taught in Kazakh. These measures contribute to the rising feeling of alienation among the Russian speaking residents of Kazakhstan. Planned shift from the Cyrillic-based alphabet that the Kazakh language used for almost a century to the Latin-based one also works as a disintegrating factor. And I am sure that if not solved, this disintegrating trend may lead the society of Kazakhstan to some serious repercussions.
Living in a multilingual country means having both great opportunities and difficult challenges. It is in our hands to take advantage of what it offers and to mitigate the negative impact that it may have.