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What anthropology can tell us about multilingualism

Anthropological research on the lifestyle of traditional small-scale societies sheds light on the history of multilingualism and its role in the past of the contemporary western world.

Abstract representation of multilingualism


In the world, there are around 7,000 languages. Nine of them are first languages for more than 100 million people each and account for over one-third of the world’s population. These “giants” are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese. However, most of the languages on the planet are spoken by groups of a few thousand people or less. “The smallest” of them (spoken by 60-200 people) can be found in the African continent and in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the limited number of speakers, these languages are particularly interesting for anthropologists, since the way they are practiced and learned in traditional societies can help shed light on how languages in modern state societies were once practiced and learned in the past.

Jared Diamond studies the case of tribe languages in New Guinea, an island with 1 million people and the world’s highest language diversity (about 1,000 languages). Some of these languages are merely dialects and members of neighbouring tribes can understand each other. Others are mutually unintelligible and belong to several distinct language families. Some of them are tonal like Chinese, others are non-tonal like English.

“Multilingualism is widespread or routine in traditional small-scale non-state societies”

In the light of this rich language diversity, people have to be multilingual. Some native New Guineans can know up to 15 languages, while fluency in 5-8 languages is the rule. Multilingualism is a requirement when communicating with neighbouring communities, trading, negotiating alliances and access to resources and even finding a spouse. In the contact among members of different tribes, various languages can be used to show respect or disregard. For instance, it is customary to begin a conversation in the language or dialect of the person you address or in the language of the host, if you are a guest. By switching languages, one can also send implicit messages. For example, one choice of language can mean “you and I have no quarrel,” another means “you and I do have a quarrel but I wish to cool it”, and yet another means “I will insult you by talking to you disrespectfully.”

The acquisition of multiple languages usually begins in early childhood. First, children learn their parents’ tongues. Later, they continue to expand their repertoires by learning the languages of peers whose mothers often come from different communities. In addition, most also learn some other languages from visitors.

“Socially acquired multilingualism was routine in our past, and monolingualism or school-based multilingualism of modern state societies is a new phenomenon.”

Based on this study of small-scale traditional societies in New Guinea, Diamond draws some insights into multilingualism and language learning in the past of modern state societies. First, he suggests that “socially acquired multilingualism was routine in our past” (Diamond 2013 : 385), the same way it is routine practice today for numerous tribes in New Guinea and in other parts of the world. Second, languages were primarily learned socially as a result of frequent contact with communities with distinct languages. All together, these observations imply that monolingualism, which quite often is considered as the norm in many modern states, is a recent historical phenomenon and a higher proportion of the population in the past were actually multilingual.

The history and literature of European states can also provide evidence supporting these anthropological conclusions. For instance, the medieval history of Italy is rich in facts showing that multilingualism has always been present in society. To illustrate this, in our next post, Alessandro Carlucci will tell about Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” and will explain what role multilingualism could play in its dissemination.



Diamond, J. M. (2013). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? Penguin.