Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nomen mihi legio est…

In his paper to the Castelló symposium (see November 18 post), Ricardo Muñoz Martín (RMM - see photo) began by estimating the extent of bilingualism in the world. His survey is relevant to this blog because the Natural Translation Hypothesis asserts that all bilinguals can translate, subject to certain limitations like the extent of their proficiency in their languages. So the number of bilinguals would be an indication of the number of people, or the proportion of the world population, who can translate something, no matter how limited.

The starting point for his calculation is that more than half the UN member states have two or more official languages. This is a poor indicator, however, because there are countries that are bilingual but whose individual inhabitants are not. It’s the case of Canada, for example, where over half the population is not bilingual in the two official languages, English and French. But then RMM adds the officially monolingual states, such as Brazil, which also have linguistic minorities that in total speak hundreds more languages, “exact number uncertain,” as he says. Indeed, even countries that have more than one national language may have many more regional or ethnic ones: some 200 in Cameroon alone, where the only official languages are French and English. He cites the “citizens of independent states as tiny as Andorra [who] go about their business not only in their only official language (Catalan) but also in French and Spanish.”

He continues with some other factors.
There is probably no country in the world with no immigrants at all. Qatar, with a population of 800,000 citizens, has Arabic as its only official language, but more than 150,000 Filipino immigrants live there who speak other languages as well [and] Spain, where there are at least twice as many speakers of Moroccan Arabic as there are of Basque [which does have official status].
That last figure really surprised me, and here’s another factor with more impact than one might think, tourism:
In the last decades, for example, English has become the third language spoken in Spain during the summers, and the locals have had to deal with it.
Nor does it end there:
We should also consider the impact of educational institutions and mass media, which offer foreign language training to some or all of the citizens in most countries. In Finland, for instance, 60% of adult residents claim to speak English, and more than 15% think of themselves as speakers of German.
(This last figure is on top of the thousands of Finns who have Swedish as a first language.)

In any case,
…we cannot know how many bilinguals there are in the world. Firstly, because languages and dialects are difficult to tell apart, as in the case of Arabic, Chinese and Bantu (Niger-Congo) languages. And secondly, because the definitions of bilingualism range from being able to use a single expression in another language to never showing deviant elements in any of the languages a person speaks… We can, however, safely assume that bilingualism ‘is present in practically every country in the world, in all classes of society, and in all age groups.’
He concludes that “Most human beings can be said to have attained a certain degree of bilingualism… By some accounts, bilinguals might even comprise 80% of the world‘s population.” I’m reminded of a saying I saw attributed to the late King of Morocco: “In today’s world, to know only one language is to be only semi-literate.”

To all that, I want to add another category which RMM does not mention and which gives me pause. The common notion of a bilingual is someone who can speak two languages. But what about the people who can understand a second language yet can’t speak it? This less evident relationship between languages is called passive bilingualism. It’s the bilingualism of the many people who learn dead languages like Latin or Biblical Hebrew. But it’s not confined to dead languages. In a survey of residents of the city of Valencia, Spain, all of whom can speak Spanish, only one quarter of the respondents declared they could speak Valencian but three quarters said they could understand it. That’s a big difference: half a million people. What does the Natural Translation Hypothesis have to say about passive bilinguals? Logically it might imply that they can translate but only in one direction. However, in the absence of any data, I wonder.

Ricardo Muñoz Martín (University of Las Palmas, Canary Islands). Nomen mihi Legio est: a cognitive approach to Natural Translation. Paper to the 10th Symposium on Translation and Interpretation, Jaume I University, Castellón de la Plana, November 2009. To be published eventually in the proceedings; but as no publication date has been fixed yet, I’d advise you to email the author for a copy. His address is:

The Latin in the title, Nomen mihi Legio est, is a Biblical allusion that translates in full as My name is Legion, for we are many.


  1. I saw a presentation by a Google guy last year, who said that they estimated that there are 600 Million+ functional bilinguals from the online population (many who are trilingual e.g. Europe and India and major Latin American Cities)

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