This International Mother Language Day (Feb. 21), Canadians celebrated their multilingual heritage by recognizing flexible uses of languages. According to UNESCO, “Mother tongue or mother language refers to a child’s first language, the language learned in the home from older family members.” As a linguistic anthropologist who studies language use in diverse communities, I know that multilingualism is part of our general human capacity for language.
In a globalized world, many associate multilingualism with mobility and migration. Increasingly, multilingualism appears to be the new norm.
But more than that, linguistic anthropology shows that multilingualism is an essential aspect of how we form belonging and difference. Research on language learning, especially heritage language learning and language revitalization, shows the universality of our capacity for multilingualism.
Multilingualism, globalization and colonialism
Many Indigenous communities in the Americas practiced multilingualism in economic, political and familial activities before European contact. As one of the most densely multilingual regions of the world, the northwest Amazon region is notable in this regard.
Since the 1970s, anthropologist Jean Jackson has conducted research among the Tukanoan people in the northwest Amazon. Jackson revealed widespread multilingualism in a small-scale society. People marked belonging to their kin groups through more than 16 distinct languages.
Due to restrictions on intermarriage, keeping languages separate helped to uphold the Tukanoan kinship system. With little contact from outside communities, the Tukanoan people used their diverse languages as a resource for building and maintaining kinship bonds.
The case of the northwest Amazon shows that contact is not essential for multilingualism. In fact, contact arising from settler colonialism has led to widespread language endangerment in the Americas.
Today, the Tukanoan people face language loss alongside colonial domination, climate change and globalization. Negative language attitudes towards Indigenous people who have lost the ability to speak their mother languages have compounded language loss. Amid stigma and changes to kinship structures, efforts to revitalize these diverse languages have proved particularly difficult.
Read more: Phys.org