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Multilingualism as a Sociolinguistic Phenomenon: an African Perspective
Eyamba G. Bokamba (Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Bernard Comrie, in his book on Languages of the World (1990), estimates that there are at least 4,000 languages spoken in a few hundred nations in the globe. David Crystal (1992) and the Ethnologue survey of 2001 estimate this number to be respectively 5,000 and 6,000. Whichever estimate one chooses, what any of them indicates is that societal multilingualism, the existence of three or more languages as media of communication, is a pervasive, rather than a unique, phenomenon that requires serious scientific inquiry. In spite of this “knowledge”, however, societal multilingualism and its corollary, viz., individual multilingualism, remain largely understudied and misunderstood even at the most elemental levels. For example, there are currently no adequate definitions of these phenomena, nor a characterization of their effects on societies and individuals. In contrast, there exists a large body of research on variation in languages due to language contact. Further, multilingualism is characterized in the linguistic literature largely in terms of “bilingualism” to privilege a Western perspective, hence distorting the realities of both phenomna.
In this paper I will attempt to fill not only the gaps in our understanding of bi- and muli-lingualism from functional and formal perspectives, but I will also interrogate the imposed theoretical analysis that is informed by pervasively monolingual ecologies in the West. First, drawing on data from selected nations in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America, I will propose a definition of multilingualism from both social and linguistic points of view. Second, I will provide a characterization of multilingualism as a social and linguistic phenomenon by drawing on data from Africa and South Asia. This part of the paper will discuss the various issues related to language choice in communicative events in a range of domains, and the implications of such multilingual strategies for language policies. Third and finally, I will consider a few key theoretical issues regarding the place and role of multilingualism in the formulation of linguistic theories. I will argue in this regard that the study of multilingualism is critical in advancing our understanding of the following key questions posed in Chomsky (1986):
- What constitutes knowledge of language?
- How is knowledge of language acquired? And
- how is knowledge of language put to use.
In addressing how research on multilingualism is better positioned than the current monolingual, mono-dialectal focus, I will attempt to demonstrate that the benefits to be derived from this extension are potentially identical to those we obtained from the study of tones in the 1970s that led to the development of auto-segmental phonology.