Why Are Humans Multilingual, And Have We Always Been?

Whether you’re a master polyglot or a reluctant monolingual, you live in a multilingual society. But will that always be the case?
Multilingual History

Going back far enough in time, humans all came from the same geographic place: southern Africa. We’re able to track the progress of human migration thanks to the bones that have been discovered in various places around the world.

Unfortunately, language doesn’t have bones. Thus, it’s much harder to trace the lineages. There’s no knowing for sure if there is some proto-language from which all languages spawned, or if various languages popped up independently in various parts of the world. What we do know is that at some point, humans started speaking a variety of languages, and then individuals started speaking multiple languages. All this raises questions as to why and how humans became multilingual in the first place, and why we continue to be. Isn’t it possible, after all, that humans could all speak the same language? To explore the question, let’s take a brief excursion into the past, present and future of multilingualism.

Who Were The First Multilinguals?

To get the bad news out of the way first: there’s really no way to know which exact group of people made up the first multilingual society. Part of the reason for that is just a factual inability to know what languages were spoken before writing systems developed. The bigger reason, however, is that multilingualism seems to have been around since the beginning of human languages.

The very earliest societies that wrote down their history recorded instances of cross-language communication. The Amarna letters, written in the 14th century BCE, for example, detail a conversation between the Egyptian pharaoh and the Assyrian ruler, who definitely didn’t speak the same language. By the time of Latin and Greek, bilingualism pervaded society in every aspect. Logically, there must have been the first bilingual at some point, but it will likely forever be unknown. Multilingualism is so pervasive in societies that knowing which people spoke multiple languages first is almost irrelevant.

The spread of languages doesn’t mean every person was multilingual thousands of years ago, but rather that there were multilingual people pretty much everywhere. As long as two languages exist, there will be a person who learns to speak both (well, except in cases of pidgins). All in all, it’s very hard to find any society that does not have some form of multilingualism.

How Multilingual Is Society Today?

With over 7,000 languages in existence in a globalized society, it’s really no surprise that multilingualism is prevalent. In fact, over half of the world’s population speaks more than one language. This can be shocking if you live in a largely monolingual place like the United States, but that just shows the diversity of language experiences people can have. Looking at other places in the world, you can see how widespread multilingualism has become.

Take Indonesia, which has about 700 languages spoken around the country, and is thus ripe for multilingualism. Add to that the fact that the government has been trying to have everyone speak a single language, Bahasa Indonesia. So far, the government’s attempts have failed because no one actually speaks the language in their free time. Many Indonesians learned the language, but find it too rigid for casual conversation. Thus, people are bilingual by virtue of this alone. There are many countries where multilingualism is encouraged, and they provide fascinating counterpoints to those places where monolingualism is assumed.

Multilingualism is also strong in Europe, where 54 percent of people speak at least two languages conversationally. While it’s not enforced by any governments, English is the popular choice for a second language in most European countries. Because English tends to be a lingua franca in the realms of politics and business, people who live in cities are very likely to have learned at least the basics of it. This helps explain why England and Ireland have some of the lowest bilingual numbers in Europe. But in most places in the world, being multilingual is a helpful asset and a way of life.

What’s The Future Of Multilingualism?

So far, we’ve established that multilingualism has basically always been around and that it is still vitally important around the world. Will this always be the case, though? The future is uncertain, but there are a few possibilities.

One thing that might happen is that language death will continue at a steady rate until there is only one language left. This prediction is pretty easy to debunk, however, because even the grimmest of predictions posit that only 90 percent of extant languages will be gone by the end of this century. Over 6,000 languages disappearing would still be a terrible thing — and more conservative estimates show only 20 percent of languages are in danger right now — but it would not lead to a single language taking over all the others.

Even if everyone died suddenly except, say, those who speak Spanish exclusively, multilingualism would not disappear forever. For one, people would need to learn languages to understand the history and culture of the world. And over time, thanks to the random nature of language evolution, Spanish would start to break off into other languages. Language death is a real problem that societies face today, and it should be addressed. But we can rest assured that one language will never replace all others.

Another possibility is that multilingualism could disappear because all translation is done by machines. In this scenario, everyone could seamlessly communicate with anyone in the world using their native languages, and a computer would instantaneously translate it for other people to hear. This may seem like a pipe dream given the fact that automatic translation so commonly makes mistakes, but certain Silicon Valley people believe we’re not too far from universal translators existing outside of science fiction.

Universal translators, despite fantastic predictions, will also not replace multilingual people. It could lead to fewer people learning new languages for travel or leisure in the short-run, but technology is hardly a replacement for human connection. Ignoring all of the word ambiguity, just think about how many times your sarcastic texts have been confused for serious ones. And it will be very hard for humans to ever trust a computer to not make mistakes in the translation. Someday, somehow, there is a remote chance that a machine translator will capture all of the intricacies of spoken and written communication. But multilingualism will survive even that.

It may seem like a good idea for all humans to speak the same language so everyone can communicate, but multilingualism is just too intrinsic to humanity for it to go away. This can seem hard to accept when you’re struggling to learn a second language and everything feels unnatural, but the desire to speak with people who are different from us has knocked down language barriers for thousands of years. As long as humans are around, multilingualism will be, too.

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