Many countries around the globe have populations who speak multiple languages. But in the most multilingual nations, everyone is at least trilingual and many people can converse fluently in four or five tongues, sometimes using multiple languages in the same conversation (or even in the same sentence).
This linguistic mixture develops for differing reasons. It can be caused by a complex colonial history, by strong regional loyalties or even by the unavoidable cultural influence of nearby superpowers. Here are the most multilingual places on Earth.
A sign in Aruba warns beach visitors in three languages. (Photo: Joe Mazzola/Flickr)
Aruba sits in the far southern Caribbean, near Venezuela. Because it is one of the “constituent countries” that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Dutch is an official language and is taught in all schools. Both English and Spanish are also required languages in Aruba's education system, and most students become fluent by the time they finish school. English is widely used because of the busy tourist industry on Aruba and Spanish because of the island's proximity to Venezuela.
However, none of these three tongues is considered the native language of Aruba. On the street and at home, locals communicate with one another in Papiamento, a creole language based on Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English. Papiamento is an official language alongside Dutch, and it is used regularly in the media and in government.
This tiny European nation's populace is more or less fluent in four languages. When conversing with one another, locals use Luxembourgish. This tongue is related to German, but incomprehensible to native German speakers thanks, in part, to its large number of French loan words.
French and German, both co-official languages, are spoken by everyone and are a required part of every child's education. Official government business is conducted in French. In addition, a fourth language, English, is a compulsory subject in schools. Thanks to this aggressive approach to linguistic education, virtually every Luxembourger is fluent in at least four languages.
Multilingual street signs guide visitors to attractions in Singapore. (Photo: goodmami/Wikimedia Commons)
Singapore has four official languages: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Signage in this ethnically diverse city-state contains all four of these languages. However, hardly any resident actually speaks all four. English is the main lingua franca used between the different ethnic groups in Singapore. It is a required subject in school and virtually every Singaporean is fluent.
On the street, some Singaporeans use a unique English-based creole language known as Singlish. Most words are recognizable to native English speakers, but the Chinese grammar and Chinese and Malay loan words can make it very difficult to understand. In addition to English, students learn their “mother tongue” in school: Indian Singaporeans learn Tamil, Malays learn Malay, and Chinese learn Mandarin. A number of Chinese Singaporeans speak an additional Chinese dialect, with Hokkien and Hakka being the most widely use.
Despite having fewer “official” languages, Malaysia is, in many ways, more multilingual than neighboring Singapore. Everyone can speak the official tongue, Malay. Most people are fluent in English, which is a compulsory subject in school and is widely spoken in cities. A creolized English known as Manglish is used on the streets.
Malaysians whose ancestors came from India can speak their familial language in addition to Malay and English. Chinese Malays learn Mandarin in school, but most also speak other dialects (such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka) at home or on the street. In big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru, it is not uncommon to find Chinese Malaysians who can speak two or three Chinese dialects in addition to Malay and English.
South Africa has a whopping 11 official languages. In urban areas throughout the country, English is a lingua franca. It is also the main language of the government and media, even though less than 10 percent of South African's speak it as a first language. Afrikaans, a Germanic tongue similar to Dutch, is spoken in the southern and western regions of the country.
South Africa has nine official Bantu languages; Zulu and Xhosa — the native language of Nelson Mandela — are the most prominent. The most distinguishing trait of some of these languages is their “clicking” consonant sound. Many South Africans speak English, the language of their homeland and whatever language is dominant in the area where they live. Though they might not be completely fluent, many people can converse in three or more tongues.
This island nation in the Indian Ocean is usually considered part of Africa. The population has to learn English and French in school. All Mauritians are fluent in both these languages, but neither is the primary language on the street.
Mauritian Creole, a French-based creole that is incomprehensible to French-speakers, is spoken by everyone on the islands and is the first language of most people. A number of Mauritians of Indian descent speak Bhojpuri, a dialect of Hindi, while descendants of other immigrants from as far as Chinese have some knowledge of their ancestral tongue as well. So virtually all Mauritians can speak three languages, and many speak four fluently.
Hindi and English are the official national languages of India, and a majority of educated Indians and urban dwellers have knowledge of both, though English is preferred over Hindi in southern India. Each state in India has its own official language(s), most of which differ from Hindi. These languages are used in local media and on the street.
This means that a majority of educated Indians are at least trilingual, and people who move between states may have a working knowledge of additional languages. So although they might not have fluency in each one, many Indians are able to communicate and understand four or more languages.
This Dutch-speaking nation in northern South America is dominated by dense rainforests. Dutch, imported by the country's former colonial ruler, is the native language of more than half of all Surinamese. It is the language of education and is used in commerce and in the media as well. The main language on the street is a creole called Sranan Tongo (or just Sranan) that is influenced by Dutch and English. It is the native language of the country’s "creole" population but is spoken as a lingua franca by virtually everyone.
Suriname has large population of people of Indian descent. They still speak a dialect of Hindi, while some of the descendants of Javanese and Chinese immigrants also still use their mother tongue at home. English is an important language as well. It is quite popular, especially since Suriname is culturally closer to the Anglophone Caribbean than to South America.
East Timor (Timor-Leste)
This tiny, young nation sits in the far southeastern corner of the Indonesian Archipelago. It officially gained independence from Indonesia a little more than a decade ago. Once a colony of Portugal, Timor decided to adopt Portuguese as an official language after independence. The local tongue Tetum, which is heavily influenced by Portuguese, is the most widely spoken language on the street.
In addition, English and Indonesian are heard throughout the country, and both are officially recognized as “working languages” in the constitution. Though illiteracy remains high, an ever increasing number of Timorese speak both Portuguese and English fluently alongside Tetum. Though many prefer not to speak it, a number of Timorese can understand Indonesian as well.
What about the U.S.?
Thanks to a large immigrant population, languages from all over the world are spoken in American cities. However, about 75 percent of Americans are monolingual in English, though there is a rapidly growing section of the population that is bilingual in Spanish and English.
So although the number of languages spoken in the U.S. is huge compared with many other countries, the percentage of multilingual citizens is quite low compared with the other countries on this list.
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