Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: December 2009

11 - Partitioning language space – two, three, many



The monolingual nation state exists ideologically if rarely in observable language practice. In multilingual nations, the significance of two or three or more major languages is recognized. However, there is no reason to suspect that it will be this linguistic fact rather than people's perception of it that will be the driving force of language policy. In this chapter, we deal with nation states that have recognized not just the existence but also the claims of more than one language and have attempted to satisfy these claims by partitioning their linguistic space and assigning a portion to each.

How might this be done? An initial problem is the sloppiness of the labels we have available. The word bilingual is used for both an individual and a society, and commonly assumed to carry the meaning of equality of proficiency or use. A bilingual individual in this sense is rare: plurilingual proficiency, as the Council of Europe experts more sagely named it, covers wide ranges of difference in the kinds and domains of language competence in two (or usually more) varieties of language. An Israeli may do physics in English, but prefer to talk about football in Hebrew. Most people probably continue to count in the language they first spoke and are more comfortable speaking of certain topics in one of their various languages. Plurilingual proficiency is better described or profiled than measured.