Food for thought

When multilingualism is the norm

Why linguistic diversity in societies should be embraced: a guest article by Professor Heike Wiese from Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.

Issue 1 | 2023

Societies that long viewed themselves as predominantly monolingual are nowadays witnessing growing multilingual dynamism as a result of globalisation, increased international networking and migration. While my generation for example knew English as a foreign language taught at school, many young people in Germany today routinely watch American series in the original version, follow English-speaking influencers on YouTube and write their TikTok posts in English. In their text mes­sages they combine German not only with English but also with languages that they know as the native tongues of their parents, grandparents or friends.

In multilingual urban settings this linguistic diversity has spawned a phenomenon known in German as “Kiezdeutsch”, an urban dialect whose vocabulary is enriched by new words such as the Turkish “lan” (“guy”), the Arabic “habibi” (“darling”), the Russian “brat” (“brother”) or the English “nice”, and on a grammatical level expands on and pushes forward ongoing developments in German. And even at urban markets, we find a diverse range of languages. At Maybachufer market in Berlin, for instance, we observed how traders con­tinually broaden their linguistic repertoire, taking advantage of these resources in their interactions with customers, without allowing themselves to be confined by linguistic boundaries. In this context, multilingual grammatical patterns can evolve – a kind of “market grammar system” that provides a framework for certain expressions and allowing, if necessary, the incorporation of words from other languages.

Such linguistic diversity is often regarded as something entirely novel and challenging for our society. Far from being unusual, however, multi­lingualism is in many cases the norm. Human communities have always been shaped by language variation and contact with others. This is particularly (though not exclusively) noticeable in cities, which have always been a focal point for social and linguistic diversity.

Mediaeval towns in Germany brought together not only different regional dialects but also a diverse collection of languages that included High and Low German, Latin as the language of education and religion in Christian communities, Hebrew and Aramaic as written languages, and Yiddish as the colloquial language spoken by Jewish communities. Additionally, languages such as Romani, Sorbian and Danish, still spoken as minority languages in Germany today, were added to the mix, as were many other lan­guages introduced through foreign business relations between merchants or by students and migrants from other countries. Mixing different languages has therefore always been an integral part of language use. Among 16th-century scholars for example it was the done thing to combine German and Latin, as evidenced by the after-dinner speeches given by Martin Luther. The letters that Liselotte von der Pfalz wrote in the 17th and 18th centuries became famous not least for their virtu­oso blend of French and German, while the Prussian statesman and reformer Freiherr vom Stein incorp­orated both these languages into letters to his wife, for instance.

Multilingualism and multilingual practices are nothing new, in other words, but were already the norm in the past. What is more unusual is monolingualism. Studies in the fields of psycholinguistics and neuroscience have revealed a series of cognitive advantages of multilingualism, such as improved reflective capacity, attentional control, cognitive flexibility, working memory, creativity and the later onset of mental degeneration in old age. Viewed in this way, it is rather monolingualism that is the problem: a linguistic deficiency that can entail cognitive disadvantages.

“Multilingualism is nothing new, but was already the norm in the past. What is more unusual is monolingualism.”

So why is it then that monolingualism frequently is considered the benchmark for language practice, language proficiency and “native speaker abilities”, whereas multilingualism is viewed as an exception and potential problem? This perception is a legacy of the European nation-state formation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of a nation as the basis for a state was central, and a presumed monolingualism, as the ideological link of “one nation – one language”, often served to construct this nation. Though this monolingualism did not reflect the reality of that time any more than it does today, the construct means that we can still observe something that the educational scientist Ingrid Gogolin termed a “monolingual habitus”: an attitude implying that we live in a monolingual society.

This habitus is particularly widespread in the Global North, namely in Europe and those countries that evolved out of former European ­colonies
(such as the USA and Australia). The notion of monolingualism being the norm is thus a peculiar­ity not only in historical but also geographical terms. Namibia for example recognises, in addition to English as the “official language”, 13 “national languages”, which include not only the Bantu and Khoisan languages but also German. The German-speaking minor­ity in Namibia dates back to the period of German colonial rule from 1884 to 1915, when Namibia was a settlement colony of the German Empire (it was during this time that colonial crimes were also committed, including the Herero and Nama genocide). Unlike among German minor­ities in the USA, the German-speaking community in Namibia is thriving: German is widely spoken not only at home, but also in schools, churches and the media; furthermore, it is not being suppressed by English as the national language, as is the case in the USA. In such situations multilingualism can contribute to social diversity, and minority languages are not threatened by an overwhelmingly dominant majority language, which occurs when a monolingual social habitus prevails, as it does in the USA and Germany.

In other words, the multilingualism that we are witnessing nowadays in Germany, not to mention the growing linguistic diversity in the public sphere, are thus restoring some degree of linguistic normality to our society. —

Professor Heike Wiese holds the Chair of German in Multilingual Contexts at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research focuses, among other things, on urban contact dialects in Europe and Africa and the development of the Kiezdeutsch dialect, for which she has also launched an online portal. From 1998 to 1999, she was a guest researcher at Brandeis University in the USA on a DAAD postdoc scholarship.