AskDefine | Define multilingual

Dictionary Definition

multilingual adj : using or knowing more than one language; "a multilingual translator"; "a multilingual nation" [ant: monolingual]

User Contributed Dictionary



multi- + lingual


  1. Pertaining to multiple languages.
  2. In the context of "of a person": able to communicate fluently in multiple languages

Related terms


pertaining to multiple languages
able to communicate fluently in multiple languages

Extensive Definition

The term multilingualism can refer to an occurrence regarding an individual speaker who uses two or more languages, a community of speakers where two or more languages are used, or between speakers of different languages.
Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population.

Multilingual individuals

A multilingual person, in the broadest definition, is anyone who can communicate in more than one language, be it active (through speaking and writing) or passive (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). First languages (sometimes also referred to as mother tongue) are acquired without formal education, by mechanisms heavily disputed. Children acquiring two first languages since birth 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 and control over one language as they do 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 answer the question regarding 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 anything less than fluency in a second language by graduating school children is somehow inadequate.
On the other hand, 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 are 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 correctly recreate 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, a 'chien' and a '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. That means, 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 assert the feeling of having different personalities attached to each of their languages.
  • A sub-group of the latter is 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.
Many theorists are now beginning to view bilingualism as a "spectrum or continuum of bilingualism" that runs from relative monolingual language learner to highly proficient bilingual speakers that function at high levels in both languages (Garland, 2007)

Cognitive proficiency

Those bilinguals that 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 standards. 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 Latin 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 not able 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 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 begun to slowly study this issue.
Literacy plays an important role in the development of language in these immigrant children. Those who were literate in the first language before arriving in Japan, and who have support to maintain that literacy, are able to at the very least maintain and master their first language. On the other hand, without first language support, these immigrant children will likely 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 than in monolingual men. On the other hand, the neurolinguist Loraine Obler has suggested a link with the Geschwind-Galaburda cluster, which shows a high coincidence of 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 and 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 of mixed languages where each language is seen 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 likely become one, as one language becomes extinct in that area.
  • Children whose parents each speak a different language, in multilingual communities. In unilingual 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 unilingual. On the other hand, in unilingual communities, where parents have differentd 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 10-60 languages:
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 usually must 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 having perfect pronunciation.
In addition there is no clear definition of what "one language" means. The Scandinavian languages are so similar that a large part 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 has achieved something cromulent, but his "count" would still be only one "language".
Another example could be that a person who learnt five different languages like French, Spanish, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese, all belonging to the closely related Romance languages, has accomplished something less difficult than a person who 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 Czars to discourage national feelings. Another such example is Romanian and Moldovan, which are almost the same, barring a few spelling differences.

Multilingualism within communities

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 true 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.
  • ambilingualism: a region is called ambilingual if this functional distribution is not observed. In a typical ambilingual area it is nearly impossible to tell which language is used when in a given setting. True ambilingualism is rare. Ambilingual tendencies can be found in Luxembourg, Singapore, Catalonia, some places in Canada or in border regions with many cross-border contacts.
  • bipart-lingualism: if more than one language can be heard in a small area, but if 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

Whenever 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.
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.
Bilingual interaction can even take place without the speakers switching. In certain areas, it is not uncommon for speakers to consistently each use a different language. This phenomenon is found, amongst others, in Scandinavia. Speakers of Swedish and Norwegian can easily communicate with each other speaking their respective language. 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 .
The 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

Reasons for native language literacy include sociopolitical as well as socio-cultural identity arguments. While these two camps may occupy much of the debate behind in which languages children will learn to read, a greater emphasis on the linguistic aspects of the argument are necessary. In spite of the political turmoil precipitated by this debate, researches continue to espouse a linguistic basis for this logic. This rationale is based upon the work of Jim Cummins (1983).

Sequential model

In this model, learners receive literacy instruction in 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 immigrate 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, native language and the community language are simultaneously taught. The advantage is literacy in two languages as the outcome. However, teacher training must be high in both languages and in techniques for teaching a second language.

Coordinate model

This model posits that equal time be spent separately in both instruction of the native language and 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.


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 1960’s that learning two languages were 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 errors in acquiring the second language were related to the rules of the first language (Hakuta, 1990). Clearly, 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 higher analytic performance of 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 are 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 include 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, a lack of a software version in this language is very unlikely.
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 to install some additional packages (like MUI for Microsoft Windows) and/or endding the current session and relog in each time one want to select another language (like GNOME).



multilingual in Breton: Divyezhegezh
multilingual in Bulgarian: Многоезичност
multilingual in Catalan: Bilingüisme
multilingual in Czech: Bilingvismus
multilingual in Welsh: Dwyieithrwydd
multilingual in Danish: Tosproget
multilingual in German: Bilingualismus
multilingual in Spanish: Bilingüismo
multilingual in Esperanto: Plurlingveco
multilingual in Basque: Elebitasun
multilingual in French: Bilinguisme
multilingual in Indonesian: Bilingual
multilingual in Italian: Bilinguismo
multilingual in Hebrew: רב-לשוניות
multilingual in Latvian: Bilingvālisms
multilingual in Lithuanian: Dvikalbystė
multilingual in Hungarian: Többnyelvűség
multilingual in Dutch: Tweetaligheid (kennis)
multilingual in Japanese: 多言語
multilingual in Norwegian: Flerspråklighet
multilingual in Polish: Dwujęzyczność
multilingual in Russian: Билингвизм
multilingual in Serbian: Двојезичност
multilingual in Finnish: Kaksikielisyys
multilingual in Swedish: Flerspråkighet
multilingual in Tigrinya: ድርብ ቋንቋነት
multilingual in Ukrainian: Білінгвізм
multilingual in Chinese: 多语
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