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Opinion: Multilingualism in society

2021-08-09  Staff Reporter

Opinion: Multilingualism in society

Language is central to active citizenship and participatory democracy. The fundamental questions, therefore, are: How would a person actively participate in democracy if they had no voice and language to raise that voice? What languages or language do(es) one use to participate in the processes of democracy? And, when one’s skills in a single language fall short, is it plausible to capitalise on one’s multilingual dexterity?

This article attempts to address the difficult questions raised above, as well as other questions that may arise as we seek to understand the role of multilingualism as a resource for linguistic citizenship, and to find ways of facilitating speakers’ access to valued linguistic capital.

 Furthermore, the article stimulates research that is ultimately aimed at contributing to the promotion of socio-economic development and connectedness across and within diversity. Researchers should explore concepts and frameworks that will discover the workings of language under current social conditions in ways that will contribute to revisiting planning and policy around language whilst it encourages the communicative skill of ordinary people, which empowers and helps them across divides. 

It is noteworthy that current developments are ushering in a ‘new linguistic dispensation’. This new dispensation requires us to develop new ways of talking and thinking about multilingual societies and multilingualism. The envisioned research should, thus, aim to contribute to the mapping of the specific, local, profile of transnationalised speakers, communities and languages. The purpose is to increase the knowledge available to strategists, planners, developers and others to whom the growth of a healthy nation is important. At the same time, this knowledge aims to contribute to every citizen’s ability to nurture and develop their voice and active participation in a society in flux.

New linguistic dispensation

The globalised world of today is characterised by a ‘new linguistic dispensation’, where multilingualism is the norm. That is to say individuals and the global community no longer engage single, distinct language or languages to perform the common tasks of human life. They engage sets of languages and language varieties. Here, language emerges from the context in which it is used, and it is in a constant flux of development and change. In other words, an individual’s mastery of a language or languages may be fractured or fragmented, and characterised by code switches, loans and transfers among languages. The focus is not on linguistic rules and conventions, but rather on strategies of communication and languages as the means and target for democratic effort.

In this ‘new linguistic dispensation’, contact becomes more important than community. Multilingual individuals comprise a heterogeneous body of speakers without fixed identities. Populations are mobile, and individuals come together in temporary resettlements for the sake of convenience and personal interest. The emergence and spread of consumerism are also giving rise to the commercialisation of language, and speakers configure their linguistic repertoires to style their identities and personal commodities.

At the same time, the de-territorialised but interconnected community of internet and mobile technology users generate new ways of being literate and applying such literacy, while representations of self and others are transmodally coded by means of language, clothing, music and other semiotic systems that use new and conventional technologies for message transfer. It is within this new linguistic dispensation that the research on Multilingualism in Society finds its niche and from this enthusiasm that it draws its impetus.


*Paulinus Haingura holds a PhD in Linguistics obtained at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). However, although he currently works at the National Institute for Educational Development (NIED), the issues raised in this article are his personal ideas and opinions.

2021-08-09  Staff Reporter

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