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There are over 6,000 languages in the world today and only about 190 countries, which indicates how common bilingualism (or multilingualism) must be in the world’s nations. No matter where we go in the world, we are likely to find distinct linguistic groups within national borders. Communication between different groups involves either one group learning the language of another group, or both groups learning a third language for between-group communication. Rarely will two different groups living side by side learn each other’s language with equal eagerness. This is because in any contact situation, one group always has more resources, people, or political influence than the other. Since the more powerful group controls the affairs of the state, it has little incentive to learn the other group’s language. Most likely, the more powerful group will make their language the official language of the government, education, and the media, which increases their social and educational advantage. All other groups whose languages are not endorsed by the state are relegated to a minority status.

Dorian (2006) notes that there are two main types of language minorities. The first type involves minorities who migrate into an area where another group and their language are dominant. The second type represents indigenous populations, around which a modern nation-state came into being through a process of military conquest or political reorganization. The label “minority” is often simply a euphemism for non-elite or subordinate groups, whether they constitute a numerical majority or minority compared to some politically dominant group (Romaine, 2006). The relative status of minority languages varies widely—some countries support their linguistic minorities while others neglect or repress them. As we will see, the official bi-/multilingual policies of countries like Switzerland, Canada, and Belgium protect the language rights of the minorities in those countries. But in most places, minority languages have no legal status and speakers of those languages must either learn the official language or rely on bilingual interpreters if they want to participate in political, legal, and educational activities of the mainstream society.

Let us now turn to language maintenance and language shift, major concepts in our understanding of the bilingualism of linguistic minority groups.

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