Strategic Multilingualism

Strategic multilingualism derives from an essentially pragmatic principle : Multilingual states rely on several languages to contend with the demands of effective communication, with social, political and economic factors, etc.

In addition, strategic multilingualism (often confused with bilingualism, trilingualism and quadrilingualism) is neither driven by an affinity for a certain language, nor grounded in the choice of one language over another; instead, it considers such and such a language as complementary to another and strives to tap effectively into all of a country's linguistic resources. Not surprisingly, the approach works only in multilingual states where relations among various groups generally stem the floods of a dominant language.

The best-known cases are South Africa, Singapore and, in a different light, Spain.

South Africa

South Africa is home to more than 35 languages, the major ones generally belonging to the Bantou (also Bantu) family, except for Afrikaans, Portuguese, English and Tamil. Article 6 of South Africa's 1997 constitution recognizes 11 official languages: along with the two "white languages," represented by Afrikaans and English at the federal level, the list includes nine "black" Bantou languages: NdebeleSotho (or Sepedi), Sesotho (South Sotho), SwaziTsongaTswanaVendaXhosa and Zulu. The constitution requires that both the federal government and the provincial governments, by either legislative or other measures, regulate and oversee the official languages of these governments. In essence, all official languages, at both the national and provincial levels, must have equal status and, thus, be treated equitably. States cannot reduce the constitutional status of an official language. In that sense, the creation of nine provinces meets a specific need : each province chooses the language best suited to its context but must not limit its support to this one language.


The Republic of Singapore has more than 30 languages, but none has majority status. The principal language numerically is Min Nan (or Taiwanese Chinese), which accounts for 39.5% of the population. Oher languages totaling more than 1% of the population are Malay, Cantonese (8.9 %), English (7,3 %), Mandarin (4,6 %), Hakka (4,5 %), Tamil (3,4 %), Filipino (1,6 %), Thaï (0,9 %); with these come many minor languages spoken by tiny segments of the population.

To understand one another, Singaporians use of one four official languages : Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English. In general, these official languages are spoken mostly as second languages, and very little as first languages or mother tongues. Mandarin is the "linking" or "bridge" language for Chinese Singaporians, Malay for all Malaysians, Indonesians and Filipinos, Tamil for roughly 60% of Indo-Pakistanis, English for all the others. Malay is considered as the "national language," but only symbolically (it's used for the national anthem), as the governing party has always preferred to promote the use of English.


Spain isn't a linguistically homogeneous country. Mother tongues or first languages other than Castillan (Spanish) are used by a significant proportion of the country's citizens: Catalonian (10 million), Galician or Galego (3.8 million), Basque or Euskara (580,000), Tsigane (600,000), Asturian or Bable (200,000), Aragonian or Fabla (30,000), Aranese (3814), etc. Castillan is the "official Spanish language" of the state, but three other languages-Catalan, Galician and Basque-have been granted co-official status in some autonomous communities, whereas other languages have only limited status or protection. The statutory expression used to describe official languages other than Castillan is "lengua propria" or "lenguas proprias," meaning "language proper". In short, Spain has one nation-wide official language (Castillan), but also a few co-official languages (Catalan, Basque, Galician and Aranese) in certain regions.


In Canada, one could compare the situation in the Northwest Territories (NWT) and in Nunavut to strategic multilingualism. Indeed, in the NWT, English, Chipewyan, Cree, Northern Slave, Southern Slave, Gwich'in, Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, Inuvialuktun and Tåîchô are the official languages of the Territories and, as such, have equal status and privileges when it comes to their use in NWT government agencies and institutions. In Nunavut, the official languages are English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. Hence the contention that both of these territorial administrations practise a sort of strategic multilingualism.

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