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The Politics of Bilingualism

To say that a language is dead is like saying a person is dead. It could be no other way—for languages have no existence without people. A language dies when nobody speaks it anymore.

—David Crystal (2000: 1)


In this chapter, we explore the politics behind people’s language choices in a bilingual community. I will first describe the extent of language diversity in the world and factors that give rise to bilingual societies. Key sociolinguistic concepts such as diglossia, language shift, and language maintenance will be discussed, along with the different societal circumstances under which people become bilingual. I will look at a few of the world’s multilingual countries and consider the ideological motivations behind national language policies. I will show how individual language choices are influenced by societal power structures and how bilingualism frequently serves as a precursor to mono- lingualism for language minority populations.

Societal bilingualism is often a result of contact between two or more language groups that do not have the same numerical, economic, and political power (Grosjean, 1982). Linguistic prestige is not so much a reflection of an inherent beauty in individual languages but rather the perceived power of those who speak them. Far from being simply a communicative device, language is a means to seize and hold onto power. In a world where large numbers of people must compete for access to limited resources, mastery of the societal language is considered a ticket to upward social mobility. As we will see in this chapter, people who are in positions of authority will try to maintain their status by using their language as a barrier to social advancement for others while those in weaker positions will try to break through that barrier by learning that language.

Set against powerful societal languages that symbolize the finer things in life, many minority languages are struggling to survive. Rather than becoming bilingual, minority language speakers are switching completely to the societal language. In some cases, open discrimination and persecution of certain minority groups drive entire communities to abandon their native languages. I will discuss the role of national policies in deciding the language of education for the masses and dissuading some people from passing on their languages to their children. Learning a second language is often a matter of choice and individual preference for social majorities but a matter of survival for minority populations. We will see what language death means for the study of human history and thought and why preventing it should be everyone’s business, not just that of people whose languages are dying. I first begin with a definition of language.

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