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I live in the USA where speaking basically only English is common but I know in most parts of the world, this is unusual and I believe elsewhere, especially in smaller countries, a second language is almost universal. I think in Netherlands or Israel, at least 50 percent but probably higher of the adult population is close to fluent in English.

Is it possible that bilingualism is a relatively recently-evolved ability because in the more remote past, a human was likely to only encounter others who spoke the same language.

This might be tangentially related to the loss of regional accents: both bilingualism and the dropping of heavy regional accents (and I have seen the Boston accent go from something one had to be aware of to talk to a Bostonian sometimes to where I can't recall the last time I had trouble understanding someone from that town -- probably 40 years).

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    Define "relatively recently"? As far back as ancient Mesopotamia people would speak multiple languages.
    – Draconis
    Oct 20, 2023 at 3:14
  • In Israel, definitely, much less than 50% are fluent in English. Much more are fluent in Russian or Arabic than in English.
    – Anixx
    Oct 20, 2023 at 4:39
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    Bilingualism happens whenever you have to interact with a secondary social community that refuses to speak the local language. This is how Japanese-American children become bilingual: momma only speaks Japanese at home and punishes her son if he tries to speak English. It's rare for someone to become bilingual purely through intellectual study but it has happened (Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti, John Stuart Mill, Nikola Tesla).
    – Fomalhaut
    Oct 20, 2023 at 5:32
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    In fact in the past I believe bilingualism was more common, not less. The lack of a standardized school meant there were frequent cases of neighboring communities speaking different languages. The idea that all people in an area ought to speak the same language is a relatively modern one Oct 20, 2023 at 7:43

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The ability "evolved" a really long time ago (100 KYA or more) when people evolved the ability to learn language at all, and when more than one language existed. We have had the ability to be bilingual essentially forever.

The actual increased frequency of bilingualism is probably a relatively modern development, being a consequence of longer-distance migrations, and the fact that dialects tend to diverge in the absense of frequent linguistic contact. If you wind the clock backwards a few millenia, most people lived and died in one relatively small location, hence ethnic and linguistic homogeneity were more the norm, because there wasn't the kind of migration seen in the past 5,000 years (and especially the past 500), and you would not regularly encounter people speaking another language.

On the other hand, rampant large-scale monolingualism as you see in certain areas esp. China, the Middle East and the New World arises because of the concentration of massive numbers of English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese over a wide geographical area, and such really big areas of single ethnic groups is a more modern social development. We really have no way of knowing that kind of detail about life 10,000 or more years ago.

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    But if you wind the clock backwards a few millennia, particularly if you go back to before the advent of agriculture, you will also find a much higher ratio of peoples who lived nomadic lives than nowadays. Not large-scale migrations, but smaller communities of people continuously ‘migrating’ through an area certainly large enough to frequently encounter speakers of other languages as well. The overwhelming immobility of people is as much a later (≈ last millennium or two) phenomenon as an ancient one. Oct 20, 2023 at 10:19
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    That's something that linguists researching American Indian languages (N, C, & S America) have to be real clear on. Due to exogamy and occasional slavery, most of the people in any social group, migratory, settled, or both, spoke several (often a lot) of languages, and children grew up speaking them all. Same with local dialects, only more so. The social unit (village, tribe, clan, family) had its own identity and that was separate from language or land, and it's not surprising that assemblages like the NW Coast Sprachbund eventually formed.
    – jlawler
    Oct 20, 2023 at 18:42
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I think, bilingualism is not an "ability" at all (as in the sense of an RPG game).

For a human brain, there is really no difference between knowing one language of several ones. They are just perceived as one "big" language.

When composing a sentence in any language you first search among the international words to use and think "can I use this word in this context?", then you analyse how should you modify the spelling, fonetics, suffixes and endings for the given language and if there is no suitable international word, you look if there is a possible local translation.

For instance, in English it's "mathematics", and in Russian it's "matematika". In spoken Hebrew you would use the same word as in Russian. So, you think "ok, I have to modify the word for English but do not have to modify it for Hebrew". You just have a table of corresponding suffixes in your brain while the word is remembered as one word for all languages.

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  • That is, like, not at all how bilingualism works, perhaps except for those international words that come from Latin and Greek (and I say "perhaps" even there); but those are not at all the kind of words that are the everyday words one uses in everyday language. If you pay attention to how word origins are distributed in English, original Germanic words are incredibly more frequent than Latin (French) and Greek loans when it comes to everyday speech, while in technical discourse the latter may predominate. When we talk about bilingualism in general, your argument is squarely invalid.
    – LjL
    Oct 23, 2023 at 17:19

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