most people in the world

Suzanne E Kemmer kemmer at RUF.RICE.EDU
Fri Mar 8 03:56:09 UTC 1996

Susanna Cumming writes:
>is it even true that most people in the world are monolingual?

I found the presupposition there quite suprising--which made me
question my own supposed knowledge.

In a TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT LANGUAGE questionnaire I give to intro
ling students, and to students who wander by the Linguistics table at
'Major's Day' fairs, one of the "True or False?" statements is: "Most
people in the world are monolingual".  The answer, according to the
sheet, is "FALSE! Most people in the world speak more than one
language."  [at this point comes nervous laughter by monolingual
American student]

I borrowed the idea of the questionnaire from Michael Barlow, but
this particular question I adapted from a "Myths about
Language" section in a little handbook that Leonard Newmark put
together for the undergraduates at UCSD. That means it's probably 25
or 30 years old, at least. Maybe it dates back to HIS early years in
the profession. I never thought to question it, I'm embarrassed to
admit; I don't know what his source was.

Does anybody know the real (and current) answer to Susanna's question:
what percentage of people in the world are monolingual vs.
bi/multilingual--and, I would add, how reliable is the figure (given
that it requires certain decisions about what counts as
bi/multilingual, how it's reported, etc.). If I were counting, I'd
include people who use more than one language in oral interaction in
their daily lives.  Beyond that, thinking about criteria for
"lingualism" starts to get a bit hairy. But surely some linguist
has tried to work it out, ballpark-wise...or have they?


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