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Re: How common is bi-lingualism?
It's pretty commonly acknowledged now that the people of
Australia, pre-colonization, had between two and five languages
apiece. This is because, as far as people who work on this are
able to determine, Australia had an extraordinarily high (by
world standards) concentration of genetically unrelated, or at
least distinct, languages in very very small geographic regions.
Furthermore, social practices required or encouraged (via very
complex rules which I don't understand) marriages and other
alliances to take place outside of villages/linguistic
communities. Since marriage and much trade took place
across linguistic communities, a certain degree of fluency was
required for this level of intercourse. Children of cross-community
marriages were generally bilingual in at least their parents'
languages, and if their grandparents spoke different languages
(again this depends on complex and internally-varying rules)
then they might know those too (being possibly semi-speakers).
I have a friend who does field work in the Northern Territories
and her informants typically speak, or semi-speak, five distinct
Aboriginals may be multilingual or semi-multilingual (semi-fluent
in many languages) but those people are dying. Most of the
languages of Australia are extinct or nearly so.
I am a native Californian. I have before me a map of California,
taken from Leann Hinton's book (1995) _Flutes of Fire_, which
names 45 languages indigenous to California which still have
speakers or had speakers at the time language records were
kept by anthropologists & linguists. The description of the map
says "there were probably at least fifty other languages in California
when Europeans arrived." Some of the geographical
areas associated with these langauges (at the time of record,
which might not be historically accurate for pre-contact) are the
size of an area you could walk across. Again, assuming that
trade and other social intercourse would have taken place, it's
reasonable to assume that some speakers of some of these
languages will have been bilingual.
Most of these languages are extinct now. Most of the indigenous
languages of North America are extinct now.
I look forward to someone who specializes in this to properly
answer your question, as my response is admittedly
impressionistic. Also, I've focused on the relationship between
indigenous languages and the language of colonizers, which
immediately raises the question of "linguistic cleansing", if you
will, or the enforced extinction of languages. This is an issue
separate from the prevalence of bi/multi-linguialism, but it is
certainly related to the question of whether European
colonization has contributed to multilingualism or contributed to
monolingualism. (Almost assuredly, both.)
Dr Claudia Brugman
Linguistics Section, School of Languages
University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand
messages (English department office): (64) (3) 479-8633
office: (64) (3) 479-8101