What I mean by this is: has there ever been a country where the bulk of the population spoke two different languages as a matter of course?

This question is somewhat inspired by this video in which Simone Giertz says that "everyone in Sweden learns English from when they are eight." To my American ears, she speaks nearly flawless, unaccented English to the point where I don't, as a native speaker, think I'd even realize she was not one as well. It also brought to mind a scene in the Norwegian film Trollhunter in which some Norwegians run into some Polish plumbers. The subitled conversation is confused at first, then both parties switch to English to understand each other. Again, the Norwegians speak English with only a mild accent.

This has also been my experience professionally, working for a company that has a high Swedish representation due to past mergers. Now obviously there's some bias as to who would be working in the US, but again, often I don't even realize someone is Swedish until they start using the language. This is in contrast to many other foreign-born people I work with where, even when their English is quite good, there's still a clear accent. I've been told by a couple of Swedish coworkers that "well, everyone in Sweden knows English." (I also have some Belgian colleagues and the situation there is similar.)

So it seems that in that area of the world, there's a situation where one "native" language is used internally while another language is used to talk to people outside the country. It got me to wondering if this is a sustainable thing. If we go one hundred years in the future, will Scandinavia have become an English speaking territory, or will languages like Swedish, Norwegian, etc. persist. In other words, is what we see today in Scandinavia a transient situation on the road to English dominance, or a move to something different, with native languages and a "common tongue". So I was curious about historical precedents.

Now I know that this has not been unusual for the elites. For instance, in Roman times, most literate Romans spoke Greek, and in many periods in Europe, the elites would speak French to each other rather than their native tongue. But I'm more interested in the bulk of the population.

Have there been periods before the modern era where the bulk of the population in some region would know two languages at near fluency. For this purpose, we can define "before modern era" as "before World War II".

  • 4
    Is it important that its exactly two? India I believe currently has two official national languages, and some locally "official" languages in individual states and territories.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 18:43
  • 15
    The technical term for this kind of bilinguism is diglossia*. but your examples do not qualify as it because it does not happen within the community; Swedes among them will speak Swedish and if you go to live to Sweden you will still need to learn Swedish to live as a citizen and not as a foreigner.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 18:44
  • 3
    In any case I think this is more a question of linguistics. And when you ask for stable examples well, nothing is stable if you wait long enough...
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 18:47
  • 8
    'For this purpose, we can define "modern era" as "before World War II".' -- That should be 'before the French Revolution', after which official languages really started to get introduced (or reappear) on a backdrop of nationalism. Before that it was absolutely common to have multiple languages in each country, and multilingualism was routine. Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 18:55
  • 4
    As a general rule one can claim that in countries where television used only subtitles (as in Scandinavia in the 1960's and 1970's) the peaple learned a more natural English. In other countries of the same time an unnatural (School) English was more common. Commented Aug 16, 2019 at 19:30

7 Answers 7


Depending on the desired timeframe, that is: how long such a state should have been in existence, or region being in such a status, this might get to a very long list.

From Hellenistic times onward, we can assume that in for example Egypt the people in population centres would have understood Coptic and Greek, and later added Latin to the mix. The Rosetta stone series of mulitlingual stela come to mind easily.

Equally in Palestine, a mix of languages co-existed with people conversant in Hebrew and Aramaic, then Greek and Latin as well. As an example that not only elites were fluent in more than one language, take a Roman citizen of Jewish heritage and simple tent-maker who read Hebrew but probably had Koiné Greek as his first language, as evidenced from his dual name: Saul and Paul.

However lacking hard evidence in the form of reliable statistics aren't available from that early, so take statements about that long ago and especially for the general population level with a fair amount of salt.

If you look at a European map of languages before the World War you'll find Gaelic speakers using English, Alsatians speaking French and German, Belgians speaking Flemish and French, Schleswigers speaking Danish and German and Sorbs speaking Sorbish and German. Further East you'll get Polish/German, Kashubian/German/Polish, Hungarian/German etc. And this is not only considering societal elites but ordinary village people as well.

The oldest German University is in Prague. While the town spoke nominally Czech, Pragerdeutsch was considered the purest dialect of all German variants.

Before the war Low-German: (linguistically arguably an altogether different language from Standard German) most people in that region there were raised almost exclusively speaking Low German but learned their first foreign language in compulsory school: Standard German.

As a general trend: Whenever a lingua franca was being established, or foreign-language settlers come along you can bet that most of them will learn enough of two languages to trade, argue with and insult their neighbours. Whenever there is a language border, all along the border region most people will learn at least some of the other languages.

Although some are too arrogant or stupid to do so. Some also take pride in not knowing or pretending to not know another language. Go to France and experience a bit of that now. Go to multilingual Switzerland's nominally German-speaking parts, and realise that most people can speak excellent German indeed, but most refuse to do so on an everyday basis, opting instead for Schwiizertüütsch, which is so different from Standard German that to follow a conversation becomes very difficult.

The most interesting thing comparing Swiss German with Low German is that the temporal development is exactly opposed. After 1950s this kind of bilingualism declined for Low German as speakers were socially discriminated against for a few decades, while in Switzerland the Standard German lost considerable prestige compared to the local variant. Not in the least because Low German is now linguistically often seen as a distinct language and raising awareness for local patriotism, the trend towards extinction is tried to be countered both officially and on private initiative. It further seems that this conservation of variants and minority languages is now part of European Union policy.

If you are curious about very dynamic bilingualism within one conversation, then it is perhaps something like Code-switching in Hong Kong?

I heard Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have a pretty good command of English too…

Of course: Vatican City. Official languages: Latin, Italian

Why were there so many people being able to speak more than one language? Because not only trade but mere contact facilitates this. And for language acquisition there are two windows of opportunity when it comes really easy to really master a new language, even without having an accent. This only changed when one of the languages involved served no longer a practical purpose, lost any prestige it might have had or was actively suppressed.

  • 4
    I had “assumed” that there were three languages on the Rosetta Stone because there were enough monolingual people to make all three necessary.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 14:23
  • 4
    In the Vatican, even the ATMs speak Latin. :-)
    – WGroleau
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 14:38
  • 3
    From Hellenistic times onward, we can assume that in for Egypt the people would have understood Coptic and Greek, and later added Latin to the mix. The Rosetta stone series of mulitlingual stela come to mind easily. I don't think this is at all a safe assumption. The very existence of the Rosetta stone implies most of the population only understood their own native tongue; otherwise it wouldn't be necessary to record the same edict in triplicates. Especially considering literacy rates in the Ancient World in general would've been around 10%, so those who could read were already the elites.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 15:58
  • @Semaphore Well, reading and speaking or indeed two different things. It could also be read as a symbolic act of policy for unity, ackknowleding that there are different people there. I'd agree on 'safe' for a large part. Caesar's mother (wet-nurse) tongue was Greek, but we have from that time rarely so 'hard evidence' for safe. I'd meant "assume" as 'with reason quite possible for many regions of intermixing"', not 'for sure, everyone in all of them'. If you think of a proper 'downgrade' to what you quoted, I'm all ears. Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 16:20
  • 6
    I think some people have a natural tendency to think things that are fairly easy for them to do are similarly easy for everyone else, and thus people that can't/won't do those things must be stupid or lazy. The assumption here of course is that every human brain is the same. What a lot of people really don't want to admit is that everyone on earth has very different brain functioning, and "cognitively normative" is a social construct, that probably nobody meets perfectly without work in some area or other.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 18:15


English is the official language in this British Overseas Territory, but the populace is also highly fluent in Spanish due to physical proximity and social interactions with its larger neighbour. In fact, bilingualism is so deeply entrenched, the population of Gibraltar routinely engage in code-switching in everyday speech.

That is, they switch between English and Spanish while speaking. The result is Llanito, which Wikipedia describes as "speakers appear to switch languages in mid-sentence".

Yanito (or Llanito) is the name popularly given to the native of Gibraltar as well as the local vernacular he/she speaks . . . Dating from the early or mid-nineteenth century, it came to be used to refer to the people of Gibraltar who, at that time, were predominantly Genoese.

Levey, David. Language Change and Variation in Gibraltar. John Benjamins Publishing, 2008.

Given that Llanito emerged in the 19th century, we can surmise that Gibraltar must have already had a fully bilingual population by then. That is well before the deadline set by the question.


Bilingualism has been enshrined in Luxembourg's basic laws since the Grand Duchy's first constitution, drafted in 1848. In fact, bilingual instruction were mandated shortly after the modern Luxembourg achieved de facto independence in 1839:

In accordance with the Education Act of 1843, basic literacy was taught via standard German, and standard French was taught as an additional language in primary school.

Kaplan, Robert B., Richard B. Baldauf Jr, and Nkonko Kamwangamalu, eds. Language Planning in Europe: Cyprus, Iceland and Luxembourg. Routledge, 2016.

The net result of the commitment to bilingual (and later, trilingual) instruction is to create a trilingual populace:

Trausch . . . concludes that . . . 'from [the time of] the partition of 1839, the Luxembourgers became accustomed to using three languages in the course of their everyday life: their "native" Luxembourgish, German and French.'

Like Gibraltar, this everyday multilingualism become entrenched well before the Second World War.

  • 1
    One should add Letzeburgisch is a dialect of German heavily influenced by French vocabulary. It's halfway understandable to German speakers (fairly good to those of the adjacent German regions), but not at all to French speakers.
    – Janka
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 11:52
  • The most interesting part about Luxemburgish is that the 'native tongue' was only codified into a standard in 1946 and as an official language in 1984 ! Granted that it's closer to Standard German than many Alemannic variants, politically it is remarkable that a territory that defines itself as 'different' refrained from elevating the native language to official status for so long… Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 14:02
  • My Dutch friends tell me that they are required to learn another language in school; that most schools offer English, French, and German; that most take two, many three. In working with at least a dozen Dutch, only one or two didn’t speak all three.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 14:45

I want to make the case that this question is anachronistic in such a way that is is impossible to answer with a discrete list of cases. The idea of a country unified by a single language used both for official purposes and day-to-day conversation is itself very much a modern one. To a great extent, it was imposed from above by nation-building states over the last few centuries and didn't exist at all for most of human history.

As a result, many modern nation-states have more than one official language. Here is a list of 57 sovereign countries with at least 2 official languages. Certainly, in many if not all of these countries (and most of the others which are not included on this list), it is common for at least some groups of people within the country to use more than one language on a daily basis, and has been so for quite some time.

In pre-modern societies, where literacy was more limited and formal education effectively non-existent, language was dynamic and constantly changing. As a result, individuals bands, villages and regions all had different degrees of linguistic variation between them according to frequency of contact. This is why, for example, Papua New Guinea has over 800 recognized languages. While perhaps an extreme case due to the county's rugged terrain, it is illustrative of the point that far greater linguistic diversity would have prevailed in most of human history then we see in modern nation-states.

In sum, multiligualism is in many ways more historically "normal" than monoligualism.

  • 5
    Excellent answer; may I suggest emphasising the last sentence as well, since it’s the key point that’s missing from all other answers so far? Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 13:39
  • 3
    I don't think you've actually established that multilingualism is a historical norm. A country having multiple languages is usually due to being inhabited by discrete populations with different native tongues, not because "the bulk of the population" speaks the different languages "as a matter of course." as the OP is asking about. Historically speaking, the vast majority of the population almost never interacts with anyone outside their local village, and would have no reason to be code switching between multiple languages.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 15:49

PARAGUAY - Guaraní and Spanish

Note: before looking at this answer, readers might want to check my 'Notes on the Question' at the end of this post.

Most Paraguayans are mestizo, and Paraguay has a long history of bilingualism due to the fact that

the initial period of contact between the aboriginals and the Spanish was one of constant interaction. Collaboration between Indians and Spanish in Paraguay dated from the very beginning of Spanish colonization and continued through the initial years of Spanish occupation.

This 'collaboration' in the colonial period (mid 16th century to 1811) included a high proportion of mixed marriages:

One of the interesting aspects of Paraguayan social history is the frequency of mixed unions during the colonial period. Men greatly outnumbered women among European settlers, especially in the remote areas to the southeast of Bolivia, and an obvious solution to the problem was interethnic marriage. For much of the colonial era, then, the prototypical Paraguayan family consisted of a Spanish-speaking father and a Guaraní-speaking mother, a fact that may partly explain the widespread Spanish-Guaraní bilingualism that exists today in Paraguay.

Almost without exception in European colonialism, the colonizers language became that of the local elite while the bulk of the population stuck to indigenous languages. In Paraguay, though, this didn't happen:

As a result of an extremely limited immigration and the high percentage of mestizo households, a really insulated upper-class—differentiated by language, education, and economic status- did not develop in Paraguay. Unknown was the rigid association which developed in Peru between those in the elite and use of only Spanish.

Unlike almost all other native American languages, Guaraní did not just survive the spread of Spanish, it was adopted by Spanish settlers. From the time of independence in 1811, either Spanish or Guarani have been favoured at different times for different reasons, but never for long and never to the extent that one fell into a serious decline in usage.

Concrete evidence of bilingualism can be found in the Chaco War (1932–1935) when the military was instructed to use Guaraní and not Spanish on the battlefield. Such a change at literally the drop of a hat would not have been possible unless most of the soldiers at all levels were bilingual.

A 1960 survey of bilinguals in a rural area and an urban one threw up some interesting examples of how people switched from one language to the other depending on environment, mood and who they were talking to. Below are some situations and the language they were most likely to use in the city of Luque:

  • With your parents - Guarani
  • With your children - Spanish
  • With your spouse daily - both
  • With your spouse when angry - Guarani
  • With your sweetheart - Spanish
  • With the doctor - Spanish
  • With the curandero - Guarani

Since 1950, a greater emphasis has been placed on Guaraní but, even so, the large majority of the population remain bilingual; 90% of the population speak Guaraní while 87% speak Paraguayan Spanish.


In view of criticisms of the question and some of the content in a couple of the answers, it seems a few points need emphasizing:

- First and foremost, the OP clearly specified the "bulk of the population" (i.e not the literate elite from whom the bulk of our evidence of past bilingualism stems).

- Second, the question also states "at near fluency". While it is undoubtedly true that most international traders (for example) were bilingual or even multilingual, it cannot be assumed from this that they spoke / understood at a level 'near fluency' (not to mention that they were a small percentage of the population). Nor can we assume that the (undoubted) existence multilingual regions meant that people had 'near fluency' and switched languages "as a matter of course".

- Third, a country having 2 or more 'official languages' is categorically not evidence by itself of bi- or multilingualism and thus barely seems worth mentioning. That said, Semaphore's examples of Gibraltar and Luxembourg look rock solid and the type of answers the OP is looking for.

- Fourth, LangLangC has rightly pointed to one weakness of the question; 'region' lets in, as LangLangC demonstrates, numerous examples of border regions. To be fair to the OP, this is a tough one when covering all historical periods (for why, see the final point).

- Finally, Brian Z has highlighted the other weakness; the inclusion of pre-modern societies (see his answer for details). Restricting the question to no earlier than c.1500 AD (or perhaps 1750 AD) would have helped.

Other source:

Donald F. Fogelquist, 'The Biligualism of Paraguay' in Hispania Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb. 1950)


While this may not meet every specification of the question, in Cataluña, almost everyone is native in Catalá and Español. In Galicia, a majority in gallego and español. And in spite of years of suppression, there are still a sizable number of Basque speakers in “País Vasco.”

(But I was always amused that the Basque graffiti demanding independence and making only Basque official depended on words borrowed from Spanish)

  • I see that I missed the word "contemporary." Above answer describes the situation now (beginning of the 21st century).
    – WGroleau
    Commented Aug 19, 2019 at 23:01

South African have 11 official languages in our 'matriek' everyone is expected to do at least two official languages, while some do three or four. There is off course people living there who where not educated there who cannot speak something else than English, but if you were educated in SA you are expected to do a first language and a second language.

White people often at the very least speak Afrikaans and English although French and German are not uncommon for person who have had a 'western' education, there still are German schools in most big cities.

Among the black communities English and Afrikaans is often spoken as a lingua franca but it is not uncommon for them to speak a number of what is typically considered 'African' languages.

There is off course one caveat and this is the Zulu's of Natal. Typically it has been considered practice that if you have anything to do with them you are expected to speak there language as they typically don't speak anything else, but even that is changing as the country keeps on becoming more western.

It is even not that uncommon for Natal's most selective public schools to teach Zulu as if you are entering any sort of trade in that province, as an adult it behooves you to learn it.

Native English speakers would tell you English is the language of the workplace, but if you live in big Afrikaner communities, which still exist in SA, you going to find Afrikaners seniors that are only begrudgingly going to speak English with you.


Swiss Confederation has 4 official languages.

  • 7
    What proportion of the population are actually bi- or multi-lingual?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 7:02
  • @SteveBird due to a law that mandates being taught in at least one of the swiss languages not dominant in the region: 100/100 at least two...
    – Trish
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 13:13
  • 8
    Being Swiss from the german speaking part, i dont think this is a good example. While we all learn a second national language in school, the vast majority does a) not speak it even remotely on the level of a native speaker and b) does not use that second language as a matter of course. One could however discuss whether the switching from swiss-german to plain german counts as bilingualism. Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 13:37
  • @LeanderMoesinger They don't? I have met many Swiss who speaks good English and then they tell me it's their third language. Their second language should be better. BTW, I am Swedish and speak English and French.
    – d-b
    Commented Aug 17, 2019 at 20:45
  • @d-b There are of course many people who do speak a second national language fluently and as a foreigner you are much more likely to meet those people for a variety of reasons. But the question is whether the bulk of the population speaks a second national language fluently & as a matter of course, and that is definitely not the case. Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 17:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.