Does Bilingualism Have a Downside?

The Dark Side of Bilingualism: the Number of Official Languages Grows, But Problems Do Not Decrease

Representatives of pro-Russian organizations in Ukraine often allude to some “European tradition” or “global experience” as they build up arguments in favor of bilingualism. In reality, it is exactly this tradition and experience that show it is better for a country to have just one official language. First, this saves government money spent on supportting bilingual or multilingual facilities (which in Canada, for instance, requires at least an additional 20 percent in public authorities’ expenditures). Second, several official languages are an inefficient tool in solving language and national issues.

Countries with two or more official languages are the exception rather than the rule. One group of these includes states with certain historical peculiarities. For instance, those which comprise territories inhabited by distinct ethnic groups speaking their own distinct languages (like Belgium, Switzerland, or Canada. They do have a practice of using distinct official languages in certain territories, but conflicts ignite as soon as it comes to their use on the national level, as well as in localities with ethnically mixed populations.

The second group is former colonies or dependent territories, where the language of colonizers has kept its official status as a tribute to tradition, or a guarantee of the rights of their descendants, who now live on the territory of the now independent states. But in most cases the country becomes virtually monolingual, and it is the language of the titular nation that is eventually defeated.

Overall, there are not that many examples of multilingual states: Ireland, Belarus, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland, and Luxemburg. And each has its own problems stemming from multiple official languages.


Belgium is by Constitution a federal state divided into three administrative regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and the Brussels-Capital Region), and is inhabited by three communities (Dutch-speakers, French-speakers, and German-speakers). The latter comprises roughly 70,000 people, who only reside in the Walloon province of Liege. The special constitutional status of the German minority is defined by the obligations undertaken by the Belgian crown in the process of acquisition of the “Eastern cantons.”

In fact, Belgium is a country with two large monolingual areas, Flemish (58 percent) and Walloon (40 percent). The division of Belgium into two large linguistically homogeneous regions is more and more frequently raising the question of the appropriateness of its existence as a single state. The Flemish, for instance, are not happy about the kingdom’s budget system, which redistributes a large proportion of tax money in favor of Wallonia. Significantly enough, in the last parliamentary election a relative victory in Flanders was won by Flemish Interest, a party advocating the independence of Flanders.

So far Belgium’s official trilingualism has not eliminated conflict from enforcing of citizens’ language rights in the mixed Walloon-Flemish districts, in particular, in the Brussels-Capital Region. These problems were among the important causes of the record political crisis in the country. Only on December 5, 2011 was Belgium able to form a coalition government, after the longest government crisis in present-day history which lasted 541 days. Language problems are essential to the rise of conflicts in Belgian society. In particular, this is true of the old dispute concerning Brussels–Halle–Vilvoorde, an electoral and judicial arrondissement, which allows Francophones to vote for French-language parties and, consequently, to use French as a language of official papers. The Flemish insist that these territories be added to the Flemish electoral arrondissement. In turn, the Walloons are ready to concede only if a Francophone corridor from Brussels to Wallonia is created which will turn the country’s capital from a French-speaking enclave in Flanders into a constituent part of Wallonia.

Language conflicts in Belgium have resulted in interferences in citizens’ civil rights. In particular, in 2010 some Belgian mass media reported that in Flemish Brabant the mayors of some communities hinder Francophones in purchasing real estate. This led to grievances being submitted to the European Commission.

Like Belgium, the Swiss Confederation is an agglomeration of monolingual districts. Out of 26 cantons and half-cantons 19 are German-speaking, six are French-speaking, and one is Italian-speaking. Cantonal authorities have a very wide range of powers, in particular, in what concerns the local language of official documents, education, and so on.

The bilingual model in the canton of Bern has not justified itself as it has resulted in the aggravation of national and language conflicts. Before the 1970s, this canton incorporated German-speaking and French-speaking communities. This caused a powerful separatist movement in the Francophone, Catholic historical province of Jura, and resulted in the splitting of a distinct French-speaking canton of the same name off Bern. Today its population is almost 70,000.


Some colonial countries which gained independence in the 20th century tried to combine two missions: consolidate their own identity via the revival of the national language on the one hand, and preserving equal rights for all citizens and a special (sometimes even official) status for the language of the former mother country on the other. This has actually resulted in the dominance of the language of the former colonizers.

In Belarus, bilingualism has degenerated into the virtual dominance of Russian. The 2009 census shows that only 23% of the population speak Belarusian at home. Polls show that only 6% use Belarusian on a daily basis, while 74% speak Russian. Kazakhstan, where Russian dominates, is now following the same path, with 60% of the population speaking fluent Kazakh (for Russian the figure is 80%).

The example of Ireland is revealing: insufficient efforts to support Irish have resulted in its being ousted by English. After gaining independence in the early 20th century, nearly 20% of the Irish spoke Irish exclusively; now only 70,000 out of the 4.5 million population use it daily (although nearly a third of the population names it as their mother tongue). This is the result of the limited areas where Irish is obligatory as an official language. As a subject on the curriculum, it is only compulsory at primary schools; it is also taught at middle schools, but universities are dominated by English. The latter is also the language of official documents. Only in 2005 was Irish introduced into official communication alongside English. This is what threatens Ukraine, if the scope of using Ukrainian as the official language continues to be reduced.


Finland is a bilingual country, where such problems do not have any centrifugal or any other negative reverberations. In fact, the country is on the road to Finnish becoming the sole language. The Constitution defines two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Bilingualism in Finland has a long history and was regulated by international obligations.

After the First World War, during the Aland crisis the young Finnish state promised to the League of Nations that the rights of the local Swedish-speaking population would be respected, as well as those of ethnic Swedes and Swedish-speaking Finns on the Finnish mainland. And today Finland actually includes an exclusively Swedish-speaking region, the Aland Islands, with a population of 26,000.  Finland keeps all its obligations concerning respect for its Swedish-speaking citizens’ right: their language is used in court, in government and administration, as well as in the secondary and higher education. Meanwhile, it should be born in mind that despite all constitutional guarantees of the relevant rights of the Swedish-speaking population, it would be an exaggeration to say that Swedish is a full-fledged official language in Finland.

Under the new Language Act, passed in 2003 and enacted on January 1, 2004 (this new law voided previous legislation dating from June 1, 1922), the municipality is a basic unit of the country’s linguistic division. Meanwhile, Finland is one of the most decentralized states in Europe: most authority on the local (regional) level is vested within this level of the territorial and administrative structure. Under Section 5 of the Language Act, Finnish municipalities can be either unilingual (Finnish or Swedish) or bilingual (Swedish-Finnish). Bilingual status is given to municipalities where the language minority makes up at least 8 percent of the population (or at least 3,000 persons). Every 10 years the status of municipalities is revised. At present, there are the following types of municipalities in Finland: 21 bilingual, with a Finnish majority; 23 bilingual with a Swedish majority; three unilingual (Swedish), and 399 unilingual (Finnish).

In this case, unilingual status means official communication (including that between the members of the community and the municipality) in one language only. For instance, if the unilingual municipality is Finnish, a citizen can only apply to a public officer in this language. For instance: in de jure unilingual Ukraine every citizen can not only appeal to a local authority in Ukrainian or Russian, but also receive a reply in the same language. Even official documents in Finland are not always bilingual: it depends on the municipality in question being in or outside the jurisdiction of a certain public authority.

Notably, although Helsinki has been complying in good faith with its obligations before the national minority, which it assumed 90 years ago, the number of Swedes and Swede-speaking Finns has considerably shrunk since then. If in the 1920s the country’s population comprised more than 10 percent Swedes, and 18-20 percent of the population spoke Swedish, today the Swedish language community makes up just 5.4 percent of the population.

In the near future, Finland could lose the status of a bilingual state altogether, because the costs for bilingual facilities are too high. Coincidentally, the number of people speaking Swedish in Finland is much lower than the number speaking English.

Taken from The Ukrainian Week