BlogGeneral ArticlesBeing multilingual in a multilingual country

Being multilingual in a multilingual country

Being multilingual in a multilingual country

Most people live in a country where only one main language is spoken. Let’s take a look at a place where things are very different.

Papua New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth, with over 820 indigenous languages, representing 12% of the world’s total, but most have fewer than 1000 speakers.

English is the language of government and education but is not spoken widely.

The primary lingua franca of the country is Tok Pisin, in which much of the debate in Parliament is conducted, many information campaigns and advertisements are presented, and until recently a national newspaper, Wantok, was published. The only area where Tok Pisin is not prevalent is the southern region of Papua, where people often use the third official language, Hiri Motu.

It is estimated that more than a thousand cultural groups exist in Papua New Guinea. Because of this diversity, many styles of cultural expression have emerged. Each group has created its own expressive forms in art, dance, weaponry, costumes, singing, music, architecture and much more. Most of these cultural groups also have their own language.

So why does Papua New Guinea have so many indigenous languages? Deep valleys and unforgiving terrain have kept the different tribes of Papua New Guinea relatively isolated over 40,000 years, so that the groups’ languages are not blended together but remain distinct. While the country is thought to have over 800 living languages, some, like Abaga, are spoken by as few as five people.

There is also a correlation between the social structure, cultural attitudes and language diversity. For example, the existence of a large national state typically correlates with a smaller number of dialects/languages, while a tribal system supports the existence of many smaller languages. In Papua New Guinea language is often perceived as a badge of a community’s unique identity, as that which defines each tribe in relation to the others, so that tribal system together with cultural attitudes towards language promote linguistic diversification.

But these languages are dying out. As cultures change and technology, urbanisation and external influences increase, younger generations are losing their knowledge of the languages spoken by their grandparents and parents. Here’s an interesting article discussing this loss of languages and biodiversity across the world.

With so many languages spoken, many people would have knowledge of at least 2 languages, or like Benny in the article, even 9 or 10. Interpreting and switching between languages would have been second nature a few generations ago if people wanted to travel or trade. Familiarity with multiple languages helps create understanding and cooperation.

In contrast, many people today live in an environment where only one language is spoken or heard, and any interaction with another tongue occurs at best when going on holiday or perhaps if you live in a place with a multi-racial background.

Highly skilled linguists are now much less common and have a professional status in society thanks to their expertise and training. Interpreting and translating are now at least a degree level skill with specialist training and qualifications. Professional linguists can help your company trade and communicate across the world, reaching an audience in their mother tongue and helping them understand your message.

If your business needs professional interpreters or translators, particularly in the fields of technical, marketing or legal work, get in touch with us now on 0844 856 1086 or . Learn more about the skills our linguists have and discover how we can help.


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