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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: February 2015

2 - Patterns of societal multilingualism


If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela


This chapter sets the stage for the discussion in the rest of the book, and the perspective adopted changes from the historical to the contemporary. First, clarification is offered for a number of terms and concepts used for the description of languages and their speakers in multilingual contexts. A brief overview of some of the most salient present-day social developments that encompass language contact in intra-national as well as international situations then leads to the discussion of the following questions: What are the basic patterns of societal multilingualism in terms of languages and speakers? What criteria determine these different patterns? What ideologies and legal principles guide multilingual organisation? The summary case study of Peru in the final part of the chapter exemplifies a number of the theoretical issues introduced in the earlier sections.

Terms relating to languages

Most people have a clear notion of what a language is and an understanding of concepts such as dialect and standard, although the proposition that the standard version of Language A is just another dialect of A may seem less obvious. Even less straightforward is the task of defining and distinguishing between these terms, especially when faced with varieties that appear to be similar yet are perceived to be different linguistic entities by those who own the language. In sociolinguistics the question of whether one is dealing with a dialect or a language, or what exactly delimits one language from another, always involves considering social criteria in addition to linguistic ones. For instance, ‘mutual intelligibility’ is one of the linguistic criteria used to decide whether the respective varieties one is dealing with are dialects or languages. In traditional dialectology, different dialects are supposed to be intelligible to other dialect speakers of the same language, especially if they are not too distant from each other on the dialect continuum. However, mutual intelligibility alone does not have enough explanatory value, as can be seen from the following two examples.