Factors Affecting Language Choice In A Multilingual Society

Project and Seminar Material for African Languages

Factors Affecting Language Choice In A Multilingual Society


The work looks into the factors affecting language choice in a multilingual society, from a sociolinguistic point of view. This study brings to light a number of what affect individuals language choice.

This work comprises of four chapters. The first chapter talks about the introduction, the second chapter is the literature review, the third one deals with data presentation and analysis, lastly, the fourth chapter discusses the findings, recommendations and conclusion.

Chapter One


1.1 Background to the Study

Most cultures have stories which seek to explain the origin of life and to explain why things are as they are in the world today. The story from Genesis would have us believe that linguistic diversity is the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1-11).

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech… And they said to one another… Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, behold, the people is one, and they have all one language,… Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So, the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore, is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.

In primordial time, people spoke the same language. God, however, decided to punish them for their presumptuousness in erecting the tower by making them speak different languages. Thus, multilingualism became an obstacle to further co-operation and placed limits on human worldly achievements.

Most communities in the world are multilingual. In these communities, there is more than one language that plays an important role, and many or all of the individuals in such communities are at least bilingual. Here, the context you find yourself determines the kind of language you use.

When you talk of language choice in any country, one bears in mind the multilingual societies. In monolingual countries, there is no worry about choice of language to use, they only have to use the language available to them.

One of the most obvious problems associated with newly formed multilingual communities, for example, in countries such as Australia and Canada which have seen considerable immigration from different parts of the world, is that of cross-cultural communication. Sociolinguistic research has made it clear that to communicate successfully in a language other than your own, it is not enough to learn the phonology, grammar and vocabulary of that language. You also have to learn how to use it appropriately in particular social situations according to the norms employed and accepted by its native speakers.

Potential multilingual speakers are people with a strong interest in a foreign language, people who find it necessary to acquire second or third language for practical purposes, such as business, information gathering or entertainment.

Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world’s population. In a multilingual society, not all speakers need to be multilingual. When all speakers are multilingual, linguists classify the community according to the functional distribution of the languages involved.

The researcher observed that before an individual thinks of language choice, there must be some motivational factors. Motivation and investment in this process, by the individual, will depend on the value attached to prospective gains accompanying proficiency in the relevant language. He also observed that language choice is affected by utilitarian considerations. A speaker may feel that the use of a particular language will place him in an advantageous position either within a group or within a wider social context. If his antagonists in a discussion or argument are less fluent than he is, this will clearly serve to give him a valuable edge. The perceived advantage does not have to be in relation to other individuals. It may be for purely personal considerations that a person chooses to speak a particular language. A student of a foreign language may prefer to use that language whenever possible, with the sole intention of improving his ability.

Acquiring an additional language, second, third or fourth, will be greatly affected by the social, political and economic environment within which the acquisition process takes place. Learners of additional languages are either born into or transferred to (as a result of migration) a multilingual context. Those born into such a situation usually accept the need for multilingualism as a natural phenomenon and hence can easily see the importance and the gains of achieving a high level of proficiency in the various relevant languages. Those transferred to a multilingual context as a result of immigration, have some difficult choices to make:

Maintenance of the heritage language in order to preserve the culture and ethnic identity.
Acquisition of the new national language in order to gain equitable access to the new country’s resources.
Acquisition of a language of wider communication, such as English for academic and professional purposes.
Finally, acquisition of another local language, which is needed for interaction with neighbours or fellow workers at the workplace. In this kind of situation, language choices may require certain “prices” to be paid by the learner.
Communication is only possible if both speakers share the same language, and there is little to gain from addressing someone in a language which they do not understand.

There is an almost universal taboo upon the use of a language which might exclude one or more members of a group from a discussion, even if the subject of that discussion has no direct relevance to that person or persons. For example, a group of Igbo speakers may be discussing plans for a farewell party for one of their work-mates who is about to retire. Another person, one who does not work at the same company, who does not know the gentleman in question, and who will not be invited to the party, joins the group. This new comer, moreover, does not speak Igbo. It is now incumbent upon the group to continue their discussion in a language which that person can understand.

Having to change the language of the discussion to one which may be a second or third language for a majority of the members can, of course, have a stultifying effect upon the course of the discussion, making it more difficult to express thoughts and ideas. In this case, however, the exclusion constraint takes precedence over the language preference of the group majority. In extreme cases, the requirement for a common language might force all of the speakers to adopt second or third languages. The search for a common language may sometimes prove unsuccessful, and a group will have to choose the language which allows participation of the greatest number of people.

1.2 Statement of Problem

The focus of this research work is on those factors that affect language choice in a multilingual community or society.

Keen observation and study have shown that there are many things that make people to think of language choice.

1.3 Research Questions

These questions have been posed to guide this study:

  1. What are the problems facing individuals when trying to make language choice in a multilingual society?
  2. What do we mean by language choice?
  3. What are the factors that affect language choice?
  4. To what extent do these factors affect language choice?

1.4 Purpose of Study

The purpose of this research work is to identify those things that affect people’s language choice in a multilingual society. To examine the problems individuals encounter when trying to choose a particular language.

1.5 Significance of the Study

The importance of this study is to reveal those factors that affects language choice in a multilingual society or setting.

1.6 Limitation of Study

This research work is limited to a multilingual society. It is restricted to factors that affect language choice in this kind of society mentioned above. The constraints associated with time shall not allow the researcher to stretch his hands to evaluate all the factors.

Chapter Five

Summary, Conclusion and Recommendation

5.1 Introduction

It is important to ascertain that the objective of this study was to evaluate factors affecting language choice in a multilingual society.

In the preceding chapter, the relevant data collected for this study were presented, critically analyzed and appropriate interpretation given. In this chapter, certain recommendations made which in the opinion of the researcher will be of benefits in addressing the challenges of language choice in a multilingual society.

5.2 Summary

The study set out to explore factors that dictate language choices made by multilingual speakers in a multilingual community. The study was conducted within the framework of Markedness Model (Myers-Scotton, 1993, 1998). Three domains that were investigated are education, tradition, and Christian worship. The results of this study are founded on data gathered from a linguistic survey, interviews, and participant observation. Research done on language choice in multilingual communities has established that among many considerations that multilingual speakers make in selecting a language for communication are the domains of language use, topic/activity, and the language background of speech participants (Kamwangamalu, 2000). Within the framework of markedness, the social and psychological associations that speakers attach to languages inform choices that are made. A language choice may therefore be perceived as unmarked or marked, depending on the extent to which it matches community expectations. In this study, community expectations are aligned with the set functions of the three major languages, typical of a triglossic community. In this paper, these expectations which are shared by members of the Leteh community represent Myers-Scotton’s rights-and obligations sets. Johnson’s set of rules (1975) for predicting language choice were also applied to the data where relevant. This study has shown that in addition to factors of language choice documented in the literature, national language policies play significant roles in determining language spoken in some speech domains.

5.3 Conclusion

Multilingual problems in the „geographical expression‟ called Nigeria pre dated 1914 when the Northern and southern protectorates were fused into one by the colonial administrators. In fact, multilingualism has always been the norm in both protectorates. The real problem in our view is the near absence of well articulated solutions, concrete 65 implementation strategies and the political will to meet the scope and nature of these hydra headed sociolinguistic problems; hence the need to adopt a multilingual approach in solving Nigeria‟s linguistic problems in public and social life. Both national, subregional and regional interrelated needs summon political leaders, linguistics, language planners, educators, etc to evolve a more vibrant and articulate policy which, no doubt should be armed with political teeth in the field. Far from being a plague, multilingualism in the country should in fact be seen as a source of wealth and strength, which if properly harnessed and managed will act as a source of synergy for a more effective, directed, guided as well as vibrant evolution of a modern, economically viable and technologically developed nation. Rather than resorting to an ad hoc approach to linguistic policy, the government should be seen and heard to be more committed in the implementation of a more vibrant and articulated language policy which is expected to usher the country into the 21st century. Nigeria should embark at once on a vigorous drive for the training of professional interpreters and translators in European and Nigerian codes. In tune with Ajulo (1990:18), It may be necessary to create national or regional schools of translation and interpretation, a usual practice of multilingual countries, whose areas of specialization should cover political, scientific, cultural, literature, technical, literary and philosophical fields.

5.4 Recommendations

The government should be seen and heard to be more committed in the implementation of a more vibrant and articulate policy which is expected to usher the country into the twenty-first century. Nigeria should embark at once on a vigorous drive 67 for the training of professional interpreters and translators in European and Nigerian codes. In tune with Ajulo (1990:18), it may be necessary to create national or regional schools of translation and interpretation, a usual practice of multilingual countries, whose areas of specialisation should cover political, scientific, cultural, literature, technical, literary and philosophical fields. Armed with the academic and practical knowledge of what each linguistic code entails, as well the technical art of translation, which would be acquired from programmes run in the tertiary institutions, these disciples of nation-building should embark on the translation into Nigerian codes of books on agriculture, politics, technology, economy, philosophy and prose, poetry, drama, written by Nigerians and foreign authors, official documents, laws, edicts, constitutions, and other texts of the State and Federal Governments as well as those of sub-regional and regional statutory bodies such as ECOWAS and AU. This will enable Nigerians to understand and follow government works in either their own codes or those of their immediate environments. In addition, Nigerians should be encouraged to write in their material codes where they possess the linguistic ability. This means that printing and publishing houses may be needed to re-adapt themselves to the changing tide of events in the country. Readership in diversified linguistic codes need not to be small if and when the reading culture is systematically drummed home to Nigerians and cultivated. It is, in fact, the usual practice of multilingual societies. In all spheres of life as well as in subjects such as politics, economics, agriculture, history, geography, mathematics, physics, chemistry, linguistics and foreign languages, books, work books, and pedagogical materials should be written by Nigerians, either individually or collectively, as a matter of educational policy. For the purpose of quality these books should be edited by a competent body of experts with regard to ideas, theories methodology and style as well as technical qualities such as binding and presentation.

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