I am continually amazed that so many people regard bilingualism as special or unusual.
Half the World
It’s estimated that almost 50% of the entire world is, under certain definitions, bilingual. You can find bilinguals on every continent, in all walks of life – far from being the sign of a wealthy or privileged educational background, bilinguals are found across the entire spectrum of human existence: Rich, poor, educated, even illiterate!
Half the population of Europe, for example, is bilingual. Thirty-five percent of the population of Canada and twenty percent of the population of the USA are bilingual. Simply put, there are so many languages in the world, over time borders have shifted and many countries find themselves host to a myriad of languages.
Indonesia, for example, has populations speaking over seven hundred different languages and dialects – seven hundred! India has between four hundred and five hundred languages to deal with, and these are just the easiest examples. These countries themselves are bilingual politically and culturally, and often the competing ethnic and political groups have enshrined their languages in legislation that promotes bilingualism.
Throughout history, of course, economics has often been a key driving force behind bilingualism, and that remains the case today. Whereas in the past Greek or Latin or French have spread around the world due to the dominant economies and cultural exports of those countries, today English has spread across the globe because of the dominant position of the U.S. economy and the popular culture it exports as well.
However, bilingualism is a shifting statistic. In the United States, for example, bilingualism has historically been short-lived as immigrants have traditionally striven to be ‘American’, to speak English without an accent and be accepted as part of the dominant culture. This has resulted in many second- and third-generation immigrants being unable to speak their native language as they have become fully ‘American’. There is some evidence that this trend is changing and that immigrants are working to hold onto their native languages – and so the statistics are shifting again!
Despite all these shifting factors, bilingualism remains much more common than many people imagine. Just as American tourists are surprised to discover just how many people across the globe speak English; people are surprised to learn the statistics on bilingualism. I personally think the number will only increase in the coming decades as the world gets smaller, and the benefits of bilingualism become more and more obvious!