Diglossia

To start off with a couple of potential biases: I’m a polyglot. I learn languages for fun. While I definitely understand how sharing a native language makes communication easier, I probably will never truly grasp the mindset of a person who is okay with remaining monolingual. There are languages that are more or less of a priority for me, but I would never be able to give up all foreign languages.

Secondly, at this time I would prefer not to comment on what the linguistic situation on Earth will look like in two or three centuries. That would require a lot more research than I’m willing to do for one blog post, and even then predicting the future with a high degree of certainty is usually impossible. The one thing I will say is that we are just about guaranteed to see a major die-off of languages over the course of the next century, and there is little we can do about it other than supporting extant speaker communities and recording as much information about those languages as we can.

Anyway:

This post, and a number of people whom I have spent time with, have argued that in the long run, it would be better if the world had only one language, so that all people could communicate with one another more easily. While I personally am very strongly in favor of preserving linguistic diversity, this post is not here to argue that point, so much as to show that linguistic diversity and ease of communication need not be at odds with one another.

To me, there is an obvious way to allow nearly everyone to communicate without unnecessary difficulty, while preserving the world’s languages: diglossia. For anyone unaware, the term “diglossia” refers to the situation in which two (or sometimes more) languages are used side by side in the same community. Typically, each language is used in a particular, well-defined domain — for instance, German-speaking Swiss use Standard German in written work and in education, as well as when communicating with people from Germany, but speak Swiss German (which is not mutually intelligible with Standard German) just about everywhere else.

The aforementioned diglossic system in use in Switzerland is probably a good model for what an ideal worldwide diglossia might look like, although there would probably be need for a few changes — for instance, every local language would retain their own literature and written language, and schooling would be conducted bilingually through secondary school. Universities would probably end up having a mixture of classes taught in the local language and those taught in the global one, much as modern European universities will occasionally offer classes in English. The result would be that almost everybody would be natively or near-natively bilingual in their local language and the global language, and could communicate with people across the globe without having to sacrifice their native culture.

One issue with multilingualism brought up in the blog post I cite is the existence of people who have little to no ability to learn a foreign language. While I personally am not particularly familiar with the science behind how common this is, or whether learning two languages natively would obviate this issue, it stands to reason that a generally bilingual world would probably have little trouble accommodating such a person. If a child were clearly struggling to acquire both languages even with extra help, they could prioritize the common language in order to ensure their ability to communicate in the larger world, without having to worry that they would then be unable to communicate with their (bilingual) family. And if they chose to prioritize the local language, there would be no shortage of bilingual citizens who could serve as impromptu interpreters and translators as need arose.

At any rate, there is no reason to assume that global communication requires everyone to give up their heritage languages. Multilingual societies have been around for a very long time, and it would serve us well as a global community to emulate their model.

3 thoughts on “Diglossia”

  1. Impromptu interpreters and translators may work for brief interactions, but they don’t work if a person wants to study at university or such. You can’t expect others to translate an entire book for someone else or translate everything that is said in class. It’s also extremely disempowering to be dependent on the help of others. Migrants with poor language skills often choose to lump together, thereby segregating themselves from the rest of society.

    Furthermore, the problems of demanding bilingualism go way beyond total inability to learn a language. Poor command of a second language can result in far poorer communication, when people are less able to find the right words and/or understand a smaller percentage of communications by others. When both the sender and receiver have poor command of the language, miscommunication becomes especially likely.

    I think that many people who think that they are bilingual actually only have a fairly shallow vocabulary in their second language. My personal experience when playing English vocabulary games has been humbling, for sure, even though I’m probably in the top-10% of Dutch people when it comes to command of the English language.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in a lingua franca, at least for shallow purposes, but it does seem weird to have (for example) Dutch professors teach Dutch students in English or as is often the case, in Dunglish. Most Dutch professors aren’t especially fluent in English and having students listen to bad English can mainly result in a poor classroom experience and the students learning bad habits that don’t serve them very well. Furthermore, most of those students will find work in their own country after graduation and then have to be able to deal with people in Dutch. If they can only communicate their knowledge in English, it can increase the gap between experts and the rest of the population even more, which can destroy trust in experts over time.

    Globalists have a tendency to ignore those who get left behind by their ideals and/or to implement their plans so fast that many people can’t keep up, so I’m skeptical that they are willing to do all the hard work and be patient enough to create a society that works for almost everyone, rather than create an increasingly segregated society where those who can’t measure up get told to use unworkable solutions. The track record is not great.

    PS. AFAIK, Switzerland mainly just has regions with different languages and it’s perfectly possible for a Swiss person to spend their entire life speaking and working in one language. A French-speaking Swiss can go to French schools, French university and then go to work at a French-speaking firm. You also seem wrong when you say that the German-speaking Swiss write in standard German. They actually write in ‘Swiss Standard German.’ Furthermore, informal, spoken Swiss German is not a single language, but rather a collection of dialects. We have dialects in The Netherlands as well. As long as it isn’t taught in schools and such, it’s generally not considered a separate language.

    PS2. Global communication seems to automatically destroy heritage languages. So we can just wait…

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    1. Impromptu interpreters and translators may work for brief interactions, but they don’t work if a person wants to study at university or such.

      That’s true — for those situations, you’d want to hire professional translators and arrange language-specific classes as needed. As for how difficult that would be in a society like the one I describe, that would depend on how many people actually are unable to acquire two languages, despite being raised essentially bilingually. I’m working under the assumption (which may be incorrect but at least matches my anecdotal experience) that this is fairly rare, such that the disutility incurred by having to accommodate people in that situation would be far outweighed by the benefit of keeping multiple languages around.

      I think that many people who think that they are bilingual actually only have a fairly shallow vocabulary in their second language.

      Also true. However, that would be less of a problem if children were educated bilingually from the beginning of their school days (since they would get far more practice in the lingua franca than most modern foreign language students do in their target languages). The world that I’m proposing would be natively bilingual, rather than just having a universal second language.

      it does seem weird to have (for example) Dutch professors teach Dutch students in English

      A Dutch professor teaching exclusively Dutch students would still speak Dutch, but if teaching a mixed class of Dutch and non-Dutch-speaking students, they would speak the lingua franca. Again, their command of the lingua franca would be better than modern Dutch professors’ command of English, because it wouldn’t be a foreign language to them.

      Globalists have a tendency to ignore those who get left behind by their ideals and/or to implement their plans so fast that many people can’t keep up

      Yeah, that’s true. But this is just a suggestion, not a plan for implementation. There are still many, many questions that would have to be answered before putting implementing an idea like this, not the least of which is deciding which language to use as the global lingua franca (personally, I would emphatically say not English, with my preference being for a constructed auxiliary language, but I can see arguments for other perspectives).

      PS. AFAIK, Switzerland mainly just has regions with different languages and it’s perfectly possible for a Swiss person to spend their entire life speaking and working in one language. A French-speaking Swiss can go to French schools, French university and then go to work at a French-speaking firm.

      I was referring specifically to the German-speaking regions. As I understand it, the language used for communicating between Swiss people from the German-speaking regions and French-speaking regions, or either of those and the Italian- or Romansch-speaking regions, is usually English.

      You also seem wrong when you say that the German-speaking Swiss write in standard German. They actually write in ‘Swiss Standard German.’

      The difference between Swiss Standard German and German Standard German is fairly minimal (pronunciation, some minor differences in spelling, and a few different vocabulary items — not unlike American and British English). I speak Swiss Standard German fairly fluently, and usually don’t have any problems communicating with Germans (although I regularly get mistaken for a Swiss person).

      Furthermore, informal, spoken Swiss German is not a single language, but rather a collection of dialects.

      The question of what constitutes a language versus a dialect, and when a dialect should be considered part of a given language, is far beyond the scope of this post, and I opted to avoid even bringing it up. You should assume that “Swiss German” refers to whichever dialect the hypothetical Swiss person speaks natively.

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      1. But this is just a suggestion, not a plan for implementation. […] A Dutch professor teaching exclusively Dutch students would still speak Dutch, but if teaching a mixed class of Dutch and non-Dutch-speaking students, they would speak the lingua franca. Again, their command of the lingua franca would be better than modern Dutch professors’ command of English, because it wouldn’t be a foreign language to them.

        What is merely a suggestion for you, is a change that is being implemented in my country right now. I see that the scrupulous care that you suggest we should employ is not actually being observed. The professors are made to teach in English, regardless of ability. The rational path is not followed:
        1. Test the teacher’s/professors’ command of English
        2. Educate those who are deficient
        3. Change the language of the course if the teacher/professor is up to par

        Instead, the university management starts with step 3 and then merely responds reactively if too many students complain. So at that point damage is already being done. Furthermore, it is doubtful that students are properly capable of estimating the true cost in teaching efficiency. One would expect research institutions to first experiment with these changes while measuring the teaching efficiency before and after the change; and then only rolling out the change broadly once it’s clear what the real downsides are and how to mitigate the problems, but this is not done. This strongly suggests that this is an ideology-based, fact-resistant change, rather than a rational plan.

        Similarly, Dutch society is not being rational if the goal is true bilingualism for all of society, because then one would logically implement strong bilingualist elements at earlier and lower levels of education. Instead, the current implementation seems designed around the needs and desires of a fairly small, highly educated globalist elite. There are many other changes that similarly benefit this group at the expense of the rest of society, not just in The Netherlands, but throughout the West (and to which we see a strong counter-response).

        Obviously, you are well-intentioned, but I think that your faith that the downsides of a strongly bilingualist society will be mitigated is misplaced. History is full of optimists who assumed that the (potential) downsides of the changes they support would be addressed by those who implement the plans, only to find out that those who implemented the plans were a lot more cavalier than them, causing enormous damage.

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