Bilingual and Multilingual

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The concepts Bilingual and Multilingual are two extremely important concepts in understanding South African culture

(See also Culture and Multicultural)


The website Smart Words[1] actually has an interesting outline of the complexity of this issue: "Bilingualism (or more generally: Multilingualism) is the phenomenon of speaking and understanding two or more languages. The term can refer to individuals (individual bilingualism) as well as to an entire society (social bilingualism). The term can also refer to the corresponding scientific research which studies the phenomenon itself. Bilingualism, multilingualism and polyglotism can all be used as synonyms for the same phenomenon".

Multilingualism is likewise defined by Wikipedia[2] as "the use of more than one language, either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers", however in South Africa there is a clear distinction made between .

Southern Africa, like much of Africa has always had many spoken languages and there have always been people able to speak and understand two or more languages with varying degrees of fluency. This was particularly true of workers living in the cities and of white farmers living in rural areas. So the issue of multilingualism and the ability to communicate in more than one language has always been important - especially as language identity is a central cultural factor in much of human society.

Under colonial rule of course, only the European languages of the colonialists (Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese, etc.) - and later the Germanic derivative Afrikaans - were recognized as national languages in the various colonies. Hence the term bilingualism gained a particular meaning in most countries, especially so in South Africa.


The usual dictionary definition of bilingual is "speaking two languages fluently" (or "a person able to speak two languages fluently", "an organization employing two languages for communicative purposes", "a literary work written in two languages", etc.). However, in South Africa, for most of the 20th century, the terms bilingual and bilingualism would specifically be used to indicate "speaking English and Afrikaans fluently", or in the case of organizations, schools and literary works, etc. "utilizing both English and Afrikaans".

In the late 20th century, and particularly after 1994, the special use of the term has become problematic, though it is still used in this way by some members of the older generation.

With 11 official languages recognized in the country since 1994, bilingual has apparently now regained its original meaning of "able to speak any two languages fluently". Indeed the concept of multilingual and multilingualism has become an equally - if not more - important point of debate.


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