Multilingualism Today—Educational, Cultural, Historical Facets


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

15 Nov 2018 – There are several countries which are multilingual – in other words have two or more official languages. Apart from India which has 22 official languages and several other languages and dialects that are spoken by large Indian communities, other countries that are multi-lingual are UK, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, China and several other nations of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

One will be surprised to see that UK, New Zealand and Canada in this list because one assumes that all these three nations have only English as their official language. But apart from the preponderant English language, UK has Welsh and Scottish; Canada has French and a few indigenous or aboriginal languages such as Cree, Inuktitut; New Zealand has Maori language. There are several other regions of Australia, Latin America, Asia and Africa where several aboriginal languages are spoken even today.

Languages are not just a means of expression – written or oral but also have their distinctive features such as cultures, cuisines and histories. Languages had earlier evolved due to several factors – colonialization by powerful countries, interaction with other language and religious groups, trade and economic relations, and today due to the large scale globalization and the impact of internet and digitization that is taking place.

Buddhism, which evolved in India, spread to many eastern parts of the globe including Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, China and Japan. With the spread of this faith, religious vocabulary also influenced the language of those countries.

Colonial powers such as Portugal, Spain, France, England and briefly Holland (Netherlands) had been colonizing various parts of the world due to their military and naval prowess for hundreds of years. Initially it started with trade, but gradually several decades later, they became masters of the regions that they had set foot in.  Portugal colonized not only the region that is now known as Brazil but also became masters of a small region of Goa and its surroundings on the Western coast of India. France also set foot in some regions of the southern parts and also a small region on the eastern part of India. Of course England was the most successful power in colonizing most of the Indian subcontinent and left only in 1947 after dividing it into two distinct countries — India and Pakistan.   As a result of this colonialism, English language became widespread and western education and healthcare, political forms of governance including parliament, judiciary and other institutions were created.

Not only India, many parts of Asia, Africa, and North America came under British rule. Winston Churchill used to boast that ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’. Politically, England has diminished but it rules the world through the English language and its American variant culture.

France was also successful in spreading its powers in several countries of Africa and a few in Asia – Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam (apart from a few regions of India). As a result, their language and culture also spread in these regions. In fact, the French language not only became dominant languages in the countries it colonized but also influenced many other languages and regions. Surprisingly, English language owes much of the vocabulary of diplomacy to French. It was also an important alternate language of the British monarchy till about a century back. It also influenced other languages – Russian and Persian languages. As a matter of fact, Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace had in its original version, several pages written in French.  The Persian language of modern day Iran has many French words and expressions including the simple word Merci (Thank you).

The eastern part of Canada comprising Quebec, Newfoundland was mainly French speaking since it was colonized by France. There used to be tensions and conflict between the English and French speaking peoples due to political and commercial reasons but these have substantially decreased due to effects of globalization as well as an attitude of give and take and harmony that a civilized society instills. Of course English is the dominant language and has a definite edge over French due to several well-known factors – business interests, education, S & T, and the world wide dominance of English in all fields.

The other major colonial power, Spain overpowered many regions and peoples of today’s South America, including Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia etc. The only country in the region which is not Spanish speaking is Haiti (French speaking) and as mentioned before, Brazil which is Portuguese speaking. But all colonial languages — English, French, Spanish, Dutch overcame not only the indigenous populations of those countries but also their tribal languages. Spain had also colonized Philippines but subsequently was overpowered by USA.

Sanskrit was earlier and even today is a rich language. The first grammar was written in this language by Panini. Many epics including Vedas, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Shakuntalam, Kamasutra, etc. were originally written in Sanskrit and then translated into other languages – European, Chinese, Japanese, Persian and several Indian languages. The language also influenced other languages especially German.

India not only has several religions and diversities of geography, cultures, cuisines, it is also a multilingual country. It has 22 official languages and hundreds of other languages and dialects, apart from several languages spoken by the indigenous populations (Adivasis) of the country. Hindi is the most common language and is spoken or understood by more than half India’s population of 1.2 billion. English is also widely used in education, science and technology, judiciary. It also has several tribal languages spoken by Adivasis in different parts of the country. Many of these tribal languages are decaying and some becoming extinct as the number of people speaking these languages in the modern complex world is reducing.

The Adivasis of India who inhabit many parts of the country live simply and harmoniously not only with other communities but also with nature. Their life styles have over the centuries, adjusted to the sparse conditions of the forests and remote areas of India and thus protect and preserve the environment and flora and fauna of these regions. This is true for the other aboriginal peoples of the world as is being realized by the world at large including political powers and social scientists.

Learning foreign languages is not only beneficial when one travels oversees, but also has interesting cultural, historical and religious facets that are interesting and enlightening.

Long live multilingualism! Vive la multilinguisme!


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Nov 2018.

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One Response to “Multilingualism Today—Educational, Cultural, Historical Facets”

  1. Zia saifi says:

    Thank you so much sir for this great ful article …The way you have described the multilingualism is marvellous ..