Multilingualism is a powerful fact of life around the world, a circumstance arising, at the simplest level, from the need to communicate across speech communities. There have often existed important lingua francas which serve as aids to cross-group understanding, and which usually represent the language of a potent and prestigious society; thus, Greek, Latin, French, Arabic and, currently, English have all held sway, as have pidgins and ‘artificial’ or constructed languages (like Esperanto) in more restricted contexts. But the strong and obvious attractions of the lingua francas have generally co-existed with, rather than eliminated, more local forms and they have not spelled the death of multilingualism so much as they have been a product of it and, indeed, a contributor to it. Serious questions have been raised, however, about the greater language-killing potential of the present ‘world language’, English, and this is something to be discussed further; it is worth noting at the outset, though, that where a strong external variety actually pushes out a weakening indigenous one, the former has necessarily ceased to be merely a lingua franca, a language of intergroup convenience, and has come to possess—due to a variety of factors—outright replacement value.
To be bilingual or multilingual is not the aberration supposed by many (particularly, perhaps, by people in Europe and North America who speak a ‘big’ language); it is, rather, a normal and unremarkable necessity for the majority in the world today. A monolingual perspective is often, unfortunately, a consequence of possession of a powerful ‘language of wider communication’, as English, French, German, Spanish and other such languages are sometimes styled. This linguistic myopia is sometimes accompanied by a narrow cultural awareness and is reinforced by state policies which, in the main, elevate only one language to official status.
While there exist something like 5,000 languages in about 200 countries, a fact which itself argues for the prevalence of multilingualism, only a quarter of all states recognize more than one language. Also, even in those countries in which two or more varieties have legal status, one language is usually predominant, or has regional limitations, or carries with it