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The term multilingualism can refer to an individual speaker who uses two or more languages, a community of speakers in which two or more languages are used, or speakers of different languages.

Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population.


Multilingual individuals

A multilingual person, in the broadest definition, is one who can communicate in more than one language, be it actively (through speaking and writing) or passively (through listening and reading). More specifically, the terms bilingual and trilingual are used to describe comparable situations in which two or three languages are involved. A generic term for multilingual persons is polyglot.

Multilingualism could be rigidly defined as being native-like in two or more languages. It could also be loosely defined as being less than native-like but still able to communicate in two or more languages.

Multilingual speakers have acquired and maintained at least one language during childhood, the so-called first language (L1). The first language (sometimes also referred to as the mother tongue) is acquired without formal education, by mechanisms heavily disputed. Children acquiring two languages in this way are called simultaneous bilinguals. Even in the case of simultaneous bilinguals one language usually dominates over the other. This kind of bilingualism is most likely to occur when a child is raised by bilingual parents in a predominantly monolingual environment. It can also occur when the parents are monolingual but have raised their child or children in two different countries.

Definition of multilingualism

One group of academics argues for the maximal definition which means that speakers are as native-like in one language as they are in others and have as much knowledge of and control over one language as they have of the others. Another group of academics argues for the minimal definition, based on use. Tourists, who successfully communicate phrases and ideas while not fluent in a language, may be seen as bilingual according to this group.

However, problems may arise with these definitions as they do not specify how much knowledge of a language is required to be classified as bilingual. As a result, since most speakers do not achieve the maximal ideal, language learners may come to be seen as deficient and by extension, language teaching may come to be seen as a failure. One does not expect children to "speak chemistry" like Nobel prize winners or to have become a professional athlete by the time they have left school, yet for graduating school children anything less than fluency in a second language could be seen as inadequate.

At the other extreme, arguing that someone who can say "hello" in more than one language is multilingual trivializes the language learning process.

Since 1992, Cook has argued that most multilingual speakers fall somewhere between these minimal and maximal definitions. Cook calls these people multi-competent.

Learning language

A broadly held, yet nearly as broadly criticised, view is that of the American linguist Noam Chomsky in what he calls the human 'language acquisition device '— a mechanism which enables an individual to recreate correctly the rules (grammar) that speakers around the learner use. This device, according to Chomsky, wears out over time, and is not normally available by puberty, which explains the relatively poor results adolescents and adults have in learning aspects of a second language (L2).

If language learning is a cognitive process, rather than a language acquisition device, as the school led by Stephen Krashen suggests, there would only be relative, not categorical, differences between the two types of language learning.

Comparing multilingual speakers

Even if someone is highly proficient in two or more languages, his so-called communicative competence or ability may not be as balanced. Linguists have distinguished various types of multilingual competence, which can roughly be put into two categories:

  • For compound bilinguals, words and phrases in different languages are the same concepts. That means that 'chien' and 'dog' are two words for the same concept for a French-English speaker of this type. These speakers are usually fluent in both languages.
  • For coordinate bilinguals, words and phrases in the speaker's mind are all related to their own unique concepts. Thus a bilingual speaker of this type has different associations for 'chien' and for 'dog'. In these individuals, one language, usually the first language, is more dominant than the other, and the first language may be used to think through the second language. These speakers are known to use very different intonation and pronunciation features, and sometimes to assert the feeling of having different personalities attached to each of their languages.
  • A sub-group of the latter is the subordinate bilingual, which is typical of beginning second language learners.

The distinction between compound and coordinate bilingualism has come under scrutiny. When studies are done of multilinguals, most are found to show behavior intermediate between compound and coordinate bilingualism. Some authors have suggested that the distinction should only be made at the level of grammar rather than vocabulary, others use "coordinate bilingual" as a synonym for one who has learned two languages from birth, and others have proposed dropping the distinction altogether (see Baetens-Beardsmore, 1974 for discussion).

Many theorists are now beginning to view bilingualism as a "spectrum or continuum of bilingualism" that runs from the relatively monolingual language learner to highly proficient bilingual speakers who function at high levels in both languages (Garland, 2007)

Cognitive proficiency

Those bilinguals who are highly proficient in two or more languages, such as compound and coordinate bilinguals, are reported to have a higher cognitive proficiency, and are found to be better second language learners at a later age, than monolinguals. The early discovery that concepts of the world can be labelled in more than one fashion puts those bilinguals in the lead.

There is, however, also a phenomenon known as distractive bilingualism or semilingualism. When acquisition of the first language is interrupted and insufficient or unstructured language input follows from the second language, as sometimes happens with immigrant children, the speaker can end up with two languages both mastered below the monolingual standard. The vast majority of immigrant children, however, acquire both languages normally.

In Japan, it has been found that a large number of older immigrant children, whose parents have come from other Asian nations or South America to work in Japanese factories and whose first language is seen by society at large as less prestigious than Japanese, were able to communicate with other children in the school grounds but were unable to master the language necessary for learning in the school system. As a result, thousands of these children have dropped out of the school system, without mastering either their first or second language. While community activists have long called for government help, only in the past few years has the Japanese Ministry of Education slowly begun to study this issue.

Literacy plays an important role in the development of language in these immigrant children. Those who were literate in their first language before arriving in Japan, and who have support to maintain that literacy, are at the very least able to maintain and master their first language. On the other hand, without first language support, these immigrant children will probably never fully master either language.

The neuroscientist Katrin Amunts studied the brain of Emil Krebs and determined that the area of Krebs' brain responsible for language — Broca's area — was organized differently from monolingual men. On the other hand, the neurolinguist Loraine Obler has suggested a link with the Geschwind-Galaburda cluster, which shows a high correlation between left-handedness, homosexuality, auto-immune disorders, learning disorders and talents in art, mathematics and, possibly, languages.

Receptive bilingualism

Receptive bilinguals are those who have the ability to understand a language, but do not speak it. Receptive bilingualism may occur when a child realizes that the community language is more prestigious than the language spoken within the household and chooses to speak to their parents in the community language only. Families who adopt this mode of communication can be highly functional, although they may not be seen as bilingual. Receptive bilinguals may rapidly achieve oral fluency when placed in situations where they are required to speak the heritage language.

Receptive bilingualism is not the same as mutual intelligibility, which is the case of a native Spanish speaker who is able to understand Portuguese, or vice versa, due to the high lexical and grammatical similarities between Spanish and Portuguese.

Potential multilingual speakers

  • People with a strong interest in a foreign language.
  • People who find it necessary to acquire a second language for practical purposes such as business, information gathering (Internet, mainly English) or entertainment (foreign language films, books or computer games).
  • Language immersion children.
  • Immigrants and their descendants. Although the heritage language may be lost after one or two generations, particularly if the replacing language has greater prestige.
  • Children of expatriates. However, language loss of the L1 or L2 in younger children may be rapid when removed from a language community.
  • Residents in border areas between two countries with different languages, where each language is seen as of equal prestige: efforts may be made by both language communities to acquire an L2. Yet, in areas where one language is more prestigious than the other, speakers of the less prestigious language may acquire the dominant language as an L2. In time, however, the different language communities may reduce to one, as one language becomes extinct in that area.
  • Children whose parents each speak a different language, in multilingual communities. In monolingual communities, when parents maintain a different-parent/different-language household, younger children may appear to be multilingual; however entering school will overwhelm the child with pressure to conform to the dominant community language. Younger siblings in these households will almost always be monolingual. On the other hand, in monolingual communities, where parents have different L1s, multilingualism in the child may be achieved when both parents maintain a one-language (not the community language) household.
  • Children in language-rich communities where neither language is seen as more prestigious than the other and where interaction between people occurs in different languages on a frequent basis.
  • Children who have one or more parents who have learned a second language, either formally (in classes) or by living in the country. The parent chooses to speak only this second language to the child. One study suggests that during the teaching process, the parent also boosts his or her own language skills, learning to use the second language in new contexts as the child grows and develops linguistically.


A person who speaks several languages is called a polyglot. The following individuals are claimed to be able to speak 10 or more languages:

Definition of "language"

However, there is no clear definition of what it means to "speak a language". A tourist who can handle a simple conversation with a waiter may be completely lost when it comes to discussing current affairs or even using multiple tenses. A diplomat or businessman who can handle complicated negotiations in a foreign language may not be able to write a simple letter correctly. A four-year-old French child would usually be said to "speak French fluently", but it is possible that he cannot handle the grammar as well as even some mediocre foreign students of the language do and will surely have a very limited vocabulary despite possibly having perfect pronunciation.

In addition there is no clear definition of what "one language" means. For instance the Scandinavian languages are so similar that many of the native speakers understand all of them without much trouble. This means that a speaker of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish can easily get his count up to 3 languages. On the other hand, the differences between variants of Chinese, like Cantonese and Mandarin, are so big that intensive studies are needed for a speaker of one of them to learn even to understand a different one correctly. A person who has learned to speak five Chinese dialects perfectly is quite accomplished, but his "count" would still be only one language.

As another example, a person who has learnt five different languages like French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese, all belonging to the closely related group of Romance languages, has accomplished something less difficult than a person who has learnt Hebrew, Standard Mandarin, Finnish, Navajo and Welsh, of which none is remotely related to another.

Furthermore, what is considered a language can change, often for purely political purposes, such as when Serbo-Croatian was assembled from Serbian and Croatian and later split after Yugoslavia broke up, or when Ukrainian was dismissed as a Russian dialect by the Russian tsars to discourage national feelings. Another such example is Romanian and Moldovan, which are almost the same, barring a few spelling differences.

Multilingualism within communities

Further information: List of multilingual countries and regions

This 1896 calendar from Selanik, Ottoman Empire (modern Thessaloniki, Greece), is printed in Ottoman Turkish, Ladino, Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian and French, and uses the Islamic, Hebrew, Julian and Gregorian calendars.Widespread multilingualism is one form of language contact. Multilingualism was more common in the past than is usually supposed: in early times, when most people were members of small language communities, it was necessary to know two or more languages for trade or any other dealings outside one's own town or village, and this holds good today in places of high linguistic diversity such as Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Linguist Ekkehard Wolff estimates that 50% of the population of Africa is multilingual.

In multilingual societies, not all speakers need to be multilingual. When all speakers are multilingual, linguists classify the community according to the functional distribution of the languages involved:

  • diglossia: if there is a structural functional distribution of the languages involved, the society is termed 'diglossic'. Typical diglossic areas are those areas in Europe where a regional language is used in informal, usually oral, contexts, while the state language is used in more formal situations. Frisia (with Frisian and German or Dutch) and Lusatia (with Sorbian and German) are well-known examples. Some writers limit diglossia to situations where the languages are closely related, and could be considered dialects of each other.
  • One of the many bilingual signs found in Gibraltar, printed in both English (official) and Spanish.ambilingualism: a region is called ambilingual if this functional distribution is not observed. In a typical ambilingual area it is nearly impossible to predict which language will be used in a given setting. True ambilingualism is rare. Ambilingual tendencies can be found in small states with multiple heritages like Luxembourg, which has a combined Franco-Germanic heritage, or Singapore, which fuses the cultures of Malaysia, China, and India. Ambilingualism also can manifest in specific regions of larger states like Spain and Canada that have a clearly dominant state language (be it de jure or de facto) as well a protected minority language that is spoken in a given region. This tendency is especially pronounced when, even though the local language is widely spoken, there is a reasonable assumption that all citizens speak the predominant state tongue (English in Canada and Spanish in Spain). This phenomenon can also occur in border regions with many cross-border contacts.
  • bipart-lingualism: if more than one language can be heard in a small area, but the large majority of speakers are monolinguals, who have little contact with speakers from neighbouring ethnic groups, an area is called 'bipart-lingual'. The typical example is the Balkans.

Multilingualism between different language speakers

This is a multilingual sign at the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Pier in the Macau Special Administrative Region of ChinaWhenever two people meet, negotiations take place. If they want to express solidarity and sympathy, they tend to seek common features in their behavior. If speakers wish to express distance towards or even dislike of the person they are speaking to, the reverse is true, and differences are sought. This mechanism also extends to language, as has been described by Howard Giles' Accommodation Theory.

Various, but not nearly all, multilinguals tend to use code-switching, a term that describes the process of 'swapping' between languages. In many cases, code-switching is motivated by the wish to express loyalty to more than one cultural group, as holds for many immigrant communities in the New World. Code-switching may also function as a strategy where proficiency is lacking. Such strategies are common if the vocabulary of one of the languages is not very elaborated for certain fields, or if the speakers have not developed proficiency in certain lexical domains, as in the case of immigrant languages.

Chinatowns and other communities that are multilingual often make use or try to make use of multilingual signs, like this one in Brisbane (which, however, inconsistently mixes the Traditional and Simplified scripts).This code-switching appears in many forms. If a speaker has a positive attitude towards both languages and towards code-switching, many switches can be found, even within the same sentence. If, however, the speaker is reluctant to use code-switching, as in the case of a lack of proficiency, he might knowingly or unknowingly try to camouflage his attempt by converting elements of one language into elements of the other language. This results in speakers using words like courrier noir (literally mail that is black) in French, instead of the proper word for blackmail, chantage.

A caution message in English, Kannada and Hindi found in Bangalore, IndiaBilingual interaction can even take place without the speakers switching. In certain areas, it is not uncommon for speakers each to use a different language within the same conversation. This phenomenon is found, amongst other places, in Scandinavia. Speakers of Swedish and Norwegian can easily communicate with each other speaking their respective languages. It is usually called non-convergent discourse, a term introduced by the Dutch linguist Reitze Jonkman. This phenomenon is also found in Argentina, where Spanish and Italian are both widely spoken, even leading to cases where a child with a Spanish and an Italian parent grows up fully bilingual, with both parents speaking only their own language yet knowing the other. Another example is the former state of Czechoslovakia, where two languages (Czech and Slovak) were in common use. Most Czechs and Slovaks understand both languages, although they would use only one of them (their respective mother tongue) when speaking. For example, in Czechoslovakia it was common to hear two people talking on television each speaking a different language without any difficulty understanding each other. Another example would be a Slovak having read a book in Czech and afterwards being unsure whether he was reading it in Czech or Slovak. This bilinguality still exists nowadays, although it has started to deteriorate after Czechoslovakia split up.

A trash can in Seattle with a label in 4 languages: English, Chinese, Vietnamese, and SpanishThe now-defunct magazine High Fidelity once published an article about a classical recording session where everyone spoke several languages. (It is not unusual for classical musicians to speak French, German, Italian, and English.) People addressed people in each other's languages: a Frenchman would ask a German a question in German, and the German would reply in French. This was apparently customary among highly-educated Europeans and Asians, as well as between Americans and Europeans; an American who speaks German and a native German might speak to each other this way. This is the reverse of non-convergent discourse (where the speaker speaks in the listener's language instead of his own), and is meant to show respect for the listener.

Multilingualism at the linguistic level

Models for native language literacy programs

Sociopolitical as well as socio-cultural identity arguments may influence native language literacy. While these two camps may occupy much of the debate about which languages children will learn to read, a greater emphasis on the linguistic aspects of the argument is appropriate. In spite of the political turmoil precipitated by this debate, researchers continue to espouse a linguistic basis for it. This rationale is based upon the work of Jim Cummins (1983).

Sequential model

The three language (Tamil, English and Hindi) name board at the Tirusulam railway station in South IndiaIn this model, learners receive literacy instruction in their native language until they acquire a "threshold" literacy proficiency. Some researchers use age 3 as the age when a child has basic communicative competence in L1 (Kessler, 1984). Children may go through a process of sequential acquisition if they migrate at a young age to a country where a different language is spoken, or if the child exclusively speaks his or her heritage language at home until he/she is immersed in a school setting where instruction is offered in a different language.

The phases children go through during sequential acquisition are less linear than for simultaneous acquisition and can vary greatly among children. Sequential acquisition is a more complex and lengthier process, although there is no indication that non language-delayed children end up less proficient than simultaneous bilinguals, so long as they receive adequate input in both languages.

Bilingual model

In this model, the native language and the community language are simultaneously taught. The advantage is literacy in two languages as the outcome. However, the teacher must be well-versed in both languages and also in techniques for teaching a second language.

Coordinate model

This model posits that equal time should be spent in separate instruction of the native language and of the community language. The native language class, however, focuses on basic literacy while the community language class focuses on listening and speaking skills. Being a bilingual does not necessarily mean that you can speak, for example, English and French.


Traffic sign near Koper Slovenia. The city of Pula (in Croatia) is written in Slovene and Italian (official languages of the region) and in Croatian (official language of Croatia)Cummins' research concluded that the development of competence in the native language serves as a foundation of proficiency that can be transposed to the second language — the common underlying proficiency hypothesis. His work sought to overcome the perception propagated in the 1960s that learning two languages made for two competing aims. The belief was that the two languages were mutually exclusive and that learning a second required unlearning elements and dynamics of the first in order to accommodate the second (Hakuta, 1990). The evidence for this perspective relied on the fact that some errors in acquiring the second language were related to the rules of the first language (Hakuta, 1990). How this hypothesis holds under different types of languages such as Romance versus non-Western languages has yet to undergo research.

Another new development that has influenced the linguistic argument for bilingual literacy is the length of time necessary to acquire the second language. While previously children were believed to have the ability to learn a language within a year, today researchers believe that within and across academic settings, the time span is nearer to five years (Collier, 1992; Ramirez, 1992).

An interesting outcome of studies during the early 1990s however confirmed that students who do successfully complete bilingual instruction perform better academically (Collier, 1992; Ramirez, 1992). These students exhibit more cognitive elasticity including a better ability to analyse abstract visual patterns. Students who receive bidirectional bilingual instruction where equal proficiency in both languages is required perform at an even higher level. Examples of such programs include international schools and multi-national education schools such as French-American, Korean-American, and Swiss-American schools.

Multilingualism in computing

In computing, software is said to be multilingual when the user interface language can be switched. Translating user interface is usually part of the software localisation process which also includes other adaptations such as units and date conversion. Many software applications are available in several languages, with a total number of languages usually ranging from a handful (the most spoken languages) to dozens of languages for the most popular applications (like office suite, web browser, etc). Due to the status of English in computing, software development nearly always requires using it (but see also Non-English-based programming languages) and so almost all commercial software version is available in English.

While switching from one language to another for an application can be easily and swiftly done (selecting the language and possibly restarting it), doing the same with the desktop environment can be more complicated since it may require installing some additional packages (like MUI for Microsoft Windows) and/or ending the current session and relogging in each time one wants to select another language (like GNOME).




Published - October 2008

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