Does learning a new language feel like a trip to an unknown country? If it does, it may be because you come from a monolingual environment. Foreign languages are part of our daily lives here in Switzerland. While mastering several languages may be highly valued in France, it is expected in a multilingual country. In this article, you will find out more about multilingual countries and the issues multilingualism raises.

Multilingual regions

Did you know that there are more multilingual than monolingual countries in the world? In fact, there are almost a hundred of them. The two countries where the most languages coexist are Papua New Guinea (four official languages and more than 850 indigenous dialects) and Mexico (Spanish may be its official language, but 290 languages are recognised as national languages).

Next comes Bolivia (37 languages), followed by Zimbabwe and Poland (with 16 languages each).

Let’s have a look at the Western World: in Spain, Castilian is the official federal language, but Basque, Occitan and Catalan are recognised in their respective regions. Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh.

On average Swiss people speak two foreign languages (in terms of European countries, only Luxembourg has a higher number of languages spoken with 3). Indeed, 71% of German-speaking Swiss people speak French and 67% speak English. Meanwhile 47% of French-speaking Swiss people speak German (or Swiss German) and 43% speak English.

The advantages and disadvantages of multilingualism

Mastering several languages has its advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious benefit is globalisation: speaking many languages makes interpersonal communication easier (lingua francas such as English are often very useful). What’s more, new studies have shown that a bilingual brain is faster and sharper than a monolingual brain and is also better at clarifying ambiguities and managing conflicts.

Multilingualism may be a real asset in some fields, but it has also its downsides. The European Union has almost 24 official languages, posing a real linguistic challenge. To face the challenges of intercultural dialogue, Europeans often use English as a lingua franca.

Perceiving multilingualism as a major issue of the twenty-first century, in some states, Public Education Bodies have opened bilingual classes, sometimes as early as kindergarten.  This is the case, for example, in California and Florida, where the majority language is no longer English, but Spanish.