Vladimir Putin, Language Ideology, and Tracking Multilingualism

The Ethnologue continues to be widely used as a source by various media outlets and, of course, we're always happy to see the data being used.

In its May 10th edition, The Economist ("Linguistic Imperialism: The World According to Putin," p.52), poked a bit of fun at Vladimir Putin's language ideology citing his justification of Russia's occupation and annexation of Crimea as being based on the need to protect Russian speakers wherever they are found. The writer used the Ethnologue as one of their sources for language statistics.

The Economist applied Putin's principle to redraw the global map based on the presence of speakers of the major languages. In the article they noted that such an approach would "lead to chaos" as the British Empire would once again include all of North America, South America would once again be united as Nueva España, and much of Africa would become part of La Francophonie.  What the authors of the articles also note is that such a restructuring of the geopolitical map would not only create these larger unified "states" but would also engender a whole new set of conflicts as less-well-known languages within those empires would apply the same principle to claim their right to autonomy.

What Putin, like many speakers of dominant languages, overlooks is that there are other languages in the world that are not nearly as visible as Russian, English, Chinese, French or Spanish.  If one's mother- (or even other-) tongue becomes the basis for political unity,  the world would indeed be a very fragmented place.

What the article also brings to mind is that Putin's perspective is a monolingual one, whereas most of the world's lesser-known language communities are multilingual.  While those of us who are users of the largest, more dominant, languages feel little pressure to acquire second languages,  members of the less dominant communities find it advantageous, indeed a necessity, to have multiple linguistic tools at their disposal.

The Ethnologue began as a research project before this awareness of widespread multilingualism had come to the fore.  We generally have attempted to identify a population of first-language users for each language we list, but those numbers may fall far short of the actual number of people who use the language (as their second or third or fourth language) in their daily lives.

Recently we restructured the database so as to allow us to better track L2 (sociolinguistic shorthand for second- or other- language use).  Acquiring that data is a new priority in our research plan and we expect you will gradually see us able to offer more detailed information about other languages in use by each speaker community.  We welcome any contributions from you, our Gentle Readers, in bringing those numbers up to date and we encourage you to use the language feedback mechanism (become a Registered Ethnologue User!) in order to do that.


Submitted by MICHAEL SIMPSON on Tue, 2014-09-23 17:12
Putin seems to forget that he is the president of Russia, not of the Russians. His job is to look out for the interests of all people who live within his borders, not all people everywhere who happen to share a single L1. If I were a member of a minority group within Russia I'd find his attitude quite offensive as it suggests such groups are effectively second-class citizens, tolerated but not embraced.
Submitted by Jean-François Blanc on Fri, 2014-12-05 10:06
We should also strongly oppose the ideology of one language = one nation. Nations in Eastern Europe that have won their independence at the collapse of Soviet Union have suffered a long lasting period of russification (eg Eastern Ukraine and Western Kuban for Ukrainian) where native languages have been replaced by Russian.