Multilingualism

wordcloudmultilingualismAlthough it is often difficult for those raised in English-speaking contexts to grasp the ubiquity of multilingualism, the reality is that the majority of the world’s population lives in societies who regularly use more than one language. And the percentage is increasing. Due the changing role of English, which is riding the recent waves of globalization and massive migration,  some scholars are even speaking of a „new linguistic dispensation“ in which English appears to be first universal language of wider communication in the history of the world.

To understand this global phenomenon, I find it helpful to first distinguish between societal and individual multilingualism. When a community uses more than one language, this is referred to as „societal multilingualism. However, it is important to remember that there are no stand-alone communities.

Gateway languages. In the hierarchy of languages of wider communication based on use, English is clearly at the top – a fact reflected in the number of English versions of the Bible. However, below English there are dozens of regional languages of wider communication. A great number of these gateway languages also have one or more versions of the Bible. A growing number of Bible access strategists see these languages as a high priority for ongoing translation to quickly reach as many people as possible, and to provide source texts for translation in less widely used languages.

Local languages. These less widely used languages are typically important sources of identity for smaller ethnic groups. Thus they are used by smaller numbers of people and are less commonly used for communication outside of one’s own ethnic group. However, they are critical for spiritual, social, and emotional engagement – thus central to effective missions strategy. They are an indispensable factor in Scripture access and engagement. What this looks like is discussed under „user needs„. The organization most active in these languages for many decades is SIL International.