There are only 500 people here — yet they speak 9 different languages!

Let’s follow up my post of November 25 about hyperpolyglots and the book Babel No More by taking a look at a small island where 500 people speak nine different languages, as described in an article in The Atlantic by Michael Erard, author of Babel No More. It’s pretty safe to guess that you haven’t even heard of eight of these nine languages. I certainly hadn’t (except from this article). The ones I hadn’t heard of are Mawng, Bininj Kunwok, Yolngu-Matha, Burarra, Ndjébbana/Na-kara, Kunbarlang, Iwaidja, and Torres Strait Creole. Oh — since we’re talking about Australia, the ninth is English.

What’s interesting here is not just the sheer numbers: nine languages for a mere 500 people. What’s interesting is how the locals communicate. It’s not that each person speaks nine languages; that would be a truly amazing feat of multilingualism in this small community! And it’s not that there are a few dozen people who speak one language and another few dozen who speak another, without interlingual communication. That might be sociologically surprising, but not linguistically. No, what’s interesting is that each person may speak four or five and then the usual means of communication is that Person 1 speaks Language A while Person 2 speaks Language B in the same conversation. Somehow they manage to communicate successfully with this paradigm.

Do read Victor Mair’s post on receptive multilingualism. He discusses Erard’s article in a different context — the multilingualism of Singapore‚ thereby providing a different but related point of view.


Categories: Linguistics