Multilingualism Normal in Rapidly Changing World

Sean Para, Columnist

This summer, I spent a week staying with a friend in São Paolo, Brazil. There I noticed a linguistic situation far different than those I had previously encountered. My friend, his family and most everyone he knew belonged to a largely Anglophone expatriate community. Most people spoke two or three languages every day: Portuguese, English and Spanish or some other language from their native country. I was rather shocked by this as I had grown up in a monolingual world. In every other place I had visited around the globe people spoke usually only one language a day, be it French or Balinese.

Yet, in São Paolo, among the community I encountered, multilingualism was the norm. One girl even remarked to me that she could hardly imagine speaking only one language a day. The effect this has on the culture and values of a community is difficult to gauge. In essence, though, it is a reflection of the internationalism that has taken on its own culture. Speaking English is no longer the preserve of Britons, Americans and Australians. English is now divorced from its roots; it has taken on a life of its own.

Let me be clear — the people I encountered in Brazil were a very small subsection of the population. Most Brazilians speak only Portuguese. The community I encountered was largely based around the American schools in São Paolo, specifically the Graded School of São Paolo (I know, an odd name for an American school, but let’s not rest on it). Speaking with my friend’s high school companions, I learned that their families had all come to Brazil from other countries, such as Guatemala or the Netherlands, for business reasons. They said all of this in perfect, often accentless English. Had I, the American, not been present, they still would have conversed among themselves in English, whether they had been born in São Paolo or halfway around the world. Several had never visited the United States. Never had I seen clearer evidence of the way that English, a language I had grown up speaking, had taken on a global identity.

This polyglot community is a precursor of the globalized world to come. English is no longer tied to a national identity. But perhaps, in the face of multilingualism and internationalism, national identity as we have come to understand it will soon fall by the wayside as well. Nationalism is a thoroughly modern construction, springing largely from the French Revolution’s new definition of the citizen and the collapse during the 19th century of the multi-ethnic empires that had previously dominated world history. However, the most important aspect of each self-identifying nationality is that it is tied to a language. The international expatriates all continued to see themselves as members of one or another nationality yet, they were all part of the same community. What is the fate of nationality when Brazilians and Dutch converse in flawless English in an upscale São Paolo apartment? I am not predicting the imminent demise of nationality or global order. I am simply pointing out that in a brief and limited experience I saw a community in Brazil different from any other I had ever witnessed in terms of the use of language. This is possibly a precursor of things to come. Nationality has always been an imagined identity and it is possible that with the advent of globalization and a truly international community, nationality as we know it will begin to break down.

Before my trip to Brazil, I had never reflected on the transitory and malleable nature of national identity. However, I have realized that nationality is entirely a creation and not at all based in the concrete. In a world where people feel more comfortable in English than their native tongue, where many speak several languages a day, national identities begin to grow hazy.

There is no tangible marker that makes use of our nationality, only our own self-conceptions. Nationality as we know it is beginning to separate from language. Yet nationalism, when created, was tied so intimately to language that only time will tell what comes of it.