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The term multilingualism can refer to rather different phenomena. Sociolinguists distinguish:

  • multilingualism at the personal level
  • multilingualism at the societal level.
  • multilingualism at the interaction level

Multilingualism at the personal level

A multilingual person is, in the broadest definition of multilingualism, anyone who can communicate in more than one language, be it active or passive. More specifically, the terms bilingual and trilingual are used to describe comparable situations in which two or three languages are involved.

Multilingual speakers have acquired at least one language during childhood, the so-called L1. L1-type languages are acquired without formal education, by mechanisms heavily disputed. A rather broadly held, yet nearly as broadly criticised view, is taken by the American linguist Noam Chomsky, whose professional life has so far mainly been dedicated to the description of what he calls the human language module, the mechanism that enables us to recreate correctly the rules that speakers around us apply to the language they speak. This language module, 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 language learning, as compared to young children.

Multilingual speakers have extra languages at their disposal. These can be either "L1s" or L2s, languages that have been learnt at a later age. If language learning is a cognitive process, rather than a language module, as the school led by Stephen Krashen suggests, there would only be relative, not categorical, differences between the two types of language learning.

Even if someone is a highly proficient bilingual at the performance or output level, his so-called bilingual competence may not be as balanced. Linguists have distinguished various types of bilingual competence, which can roughly be put into three categories:

  • coordinate bilingualism: the linguistic elements (words, phrases) in the speaker's mind are all related to their own unique concepts. That means, a French-English bilingual speaker of this type (as can be found in large numbers in Quebec) has different associations for 'chien' and for 'dog'. This type of bilingual speaker usually belongs to different cultural communities that do not frequently interact. These speakers are known to use very different intonation and pronunciation features, and not seldom assert the feeling of having different personalities attached to each of their languages.
  • compound bilingualism: speakers of this type attach most of their linguistic elements to the same concepts. For them, a 'chien' and a 'dog' are two words for the same concept. Those speakers are reported to have less extreme differences in their pronunciations. Such speakers are often found in minority language communities, or amongst fluent L2-speakers.
  • subordinate bilingualism: the linguistic elements of one of the speaker's languages are only available through elements of the speaker's other language. This type is typical of, but not restricted to, beginning L2-learners.

Coordinate and compound bilinguals are reported to have a higher cognitive proficiency, and are found to be better L2-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.

It should be noted that the distinction between compound and coordinate bilingualism has come under scrutiny and this comparison is not currently fashionable. 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.

Receptive bilingualism occurs when someone has the ability to understand a language, but (for various reasons) doesn't speak it. Receptive bilingualism can occur when a child realizes that they are dominant in a community language over the native language of their parents, and choose to speak to their parents only in the community language. While some see this as a failure to become bilingual, families who adopt this mode of communication can be highly functional, and receptive bilinguals can rapidly achieve oral fluency when placed in situations where they are required to speak the subordinate language.

Multilingualism at the societal level

This is a multilingual sign at the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Pier in the Macau Special Administrative Region of China. The two at the top are Portuguese and Chinese, which are the official languages of the region. The two at the bottom are Japanese and English, which are common languages used by tourists.

Chinatowns and other communities that are multilingual often make use of multilingual signs, like this one in Brisbane.

A caution message in English, Kannada and Hindi found in Bangalore, India

A trash can in Seattle attempting to have a label in 4 languages: English, Chinese, Vietnamese (incorrectly), and Spanish.

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/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, 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.

Multilingual at the interactional level

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 one of the languages is not very elaborated, like Frisian, Sorbian and other minority languages, 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 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.

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. The transition into a community language class is then made.

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 e.g English and American.


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. While this hypothesis would thus support the Sequential Model, how robust this model under languages of diverse origins would threaten this logic.

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 high level. Examples of such programs include international schools and multi-national education schools such as French-American, Korean-American, and Swiss-American schools.

Examples of multilingual countries/regions

There is a distinction between social and personal bilinguism. Many countries, such as Belgium, which are officially multilingual, may have many monolinguals in their population. Officially monolingual countries, on the other hand, such as France, can have sizable multilingual populations.

  • a majority of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is multilingual. Under its 1996 Constitution, South Africa has 11 official languages including Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English.
    • In Kenya, educated people will typically speak a minimum of three languages: a tribal language (such as Bukusu), the national language – Swahili, and English, which is the medium used in teaching all over the country.
  • Brussels, the bilingual capital of Belgium (15% Dutch-speaking)
  • Canada is officially bilingual under the Official Languages Act and the Constitution of Canada that require the federal government to deliver services in both official languages. As well, minority language rights are guaranteed where numbers warrant. Approximately 25% of Canadians speak French with 18% speaking both English and French. See Bilingualism in Canada
    • the Canadian province of Quebec, (10% English-speaking) Note: Although there is a relatively sizable English-speaking population in Quebec, French is the only official language.
    • the province of New Brunswick, Canada (35% French-speaking) New Brunswick is the only province in Canada with two official languages.
    • there are also significant French language minorities in the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. Though those provinces are not officially bilingual they do provide a number of services in French.
    • Nunavut is a Canadian territory with a population that is 85% Inuit. Its official languages are the Inuit dialects of Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun as well as English and French.
  • In China, Putonghua (Standard Mandarin) is a statewide official language. While Putonghua is spoken at school and at work, local dialects of the spoken variants of Chinese, such as Standard Cantonese (Cantonese) or the Shanghai dialect (Wu), would also be spoken in daily life. In the autonomous regions, minority languages would be widely used (such as Tibetan in Tibet or Mongolian in Inner Mongolia), in addition to Putonghua.
    • In Hong Kong, both English and Chinese are official languages. For Chinese, both Cantonese and Putonghua are spoken. All the three spoken and two written languages are taught in schools, and are mandatory subjects. In everyday life, Cantonese is the predominant spoken language.
    • In Macau, both Chinese and Portuguese are official languages. For Chinese, both Cantonese and Putonghua are spoken. Chinese is taught in all schools, while Portuguese is mainly taught in government schools. In addition, English is also taught in many schools. In everyday life, Cantonese is the predominant spoken language.
  • Finland (5.5% Finland-Swedish, Åland unilingually Swedish). Most Finns are also fluent in English.
  • India: Eighteen official languages. The largest, Hindi, is spoken natively by 18% of the population and is largely understood by educated Indians. English is also widely understood, although mainly in urban parts of the country. An Indian with a high-school education would generally be trilingual - speaking his own native language, in addition to Hindi and English, with varying fluency, both the languages being compulsorily taught in most schools and colleges (provided, of course, that the person does not already have Hindi as his / her mother tongue and is living in a Hindi speaking province. In which case, there is a high chance of him being at least bilingual in Hindi and English). For more information, see Indian languages.
  • Most people in Indonesia are bilingual at an early age. They speak a local native language with their families whereas the official language Indonesian which is used to communicate with people from other regions and is taught in schools as a compulsory subject. Indonesia has over two hundred native languages.
  • It's not an exaggeration to say that *all* people in Malaysia are *at least* bilingual (many Chinese and Indian citizens are trilingual). They speak Malay, the official language of the country (which is a compulsory subject learnt in all public schools, and the language by which all subjects taught in school is instructed, except for Science and Math), English (brought by the British rule over Malaya until 1957, and is still a compulsory subject in public schools), and various Chinese dialects (mainly Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka as well as Mandarin), and Tamil. The indigenious peoples of Sabah and Sarawak speak their ancestral languages (Dayak etc). Multilinguilism is common in Malaysia, most notably among the Chinese and Indian communities. A big portion of them can speak English, Malay, their native tongues and some of their dialects. A burgeoning population in Malaysia is also learning foreign languages like Spanish, Thai, Korean and Japanese, as a result of the increasing television demands. Malaysian terrestrial tv airs an average of 10-15 different languages in a week or so, including the popular English, Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Korean and Japanese. Others include Tamil, Indonesia, Thai, and a small portion of Arabic demands.
  • Ireland, where three languages have some form of official status. In the Republic of Ireland, Irish (one of the Goidelic languages) is the first official language while English is the second. Approximately 1.5 million Irish citizens are either fluent or semi-fluent in Irish, making it by far the most commonly spoken Goidelic language. However English is far more commonly used as less than 3% speak Irish as their 1st language and they are all located in the remote Gaeltacht regions. Ulster Scots, a variety of Lowland Scots, is spoken by some in northern regions, but again English is far more commonly used and Ulster Scots is less actively used in media. Irish and Ulster Scots now both have official status in the Northern Ireland as part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
  • many Koreans living in Japan speak both Korean and Japanese
  • Mauritius, children are taught Mauritian Creole, French, and English.
  • Philippines: Filipino and English are official languages in the constitution. People in native Tagalog areas are usually bilingual, while in non-Tagalog speaking areas it's common to be bilingual in the native Philippine languages and English.
  • Paraguay, 48% of its population is bilingual in Guaraní and Spanish, of whom 37% speak only Guaraní and 8% only Spanish but the latter increases with the use of Jopará.
  • ex-Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries: many people fluently speak Russian, especially in Slavic countries within the area of the former USSR (typically in Belarus, Ukraine. However few Poles, Slovaks and Czech people speak Russian, despite huge expenditure in the past)
    • Republics of Russia. The language of titular nation is also official in those republics. Chuvash, Bashkir and Mari residents of Tatarstan also use to speak 3 language: own, Russian and Tatar.
    • Abkhazia. Elder generation of Abkhaz spoke Georgian, Russian and Abkhaz language
  • Parts of Lower Silesia vovoidship of Poland, where live many people for which German is mother tongue
  • Singapore: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil are all official languages. As English links the different races, a group with diverse races communicate using English. In addition to English, individuals speak their ethnic language, a dialect, and usually have some proficiency with a third language.
  • certain cantons of Switzerland
  • Spain, where many regions have more than one official language: Euskadi and Navarra (Basque-Spanish), Galicia (Galego-Spanish), Valencia, Balearic Islands and Catalonia (Catalan-Spanish), but especially in Catalonia, where Spanish and Catalan both enjoy great social esteem and are both used in almost every social situation)
  • Sri Lanka. Sinhala and Tamil are official language.
  • Sweden. Tornedalen and Haparanda in North Bothnia, Finnish-speaking. Most Swedes are also fluent in English.
  • USA. Three US states are officially bilingual: Louisiana (English and French), New Mexico (English and Spanish), and Hawai'i (English and Hawaiian). Three US territories are also bilingual: American Samoa (Samoan and English), Guam (English and Chamorro), and Puerto Rico (Spanish and English). One US territory is trilingual: Northern Marianas Islands (English, Chamorro, and Carolinian)
  • Wales, and to a lesser extent other Celtic-speaking regions of the UK, and London
  • In New Zealand, approximately 10% of the population has some reasonable degree of bilingualism with English and Maori, mostly among the Maori themselves, few are fully fluent in Maori.
  • On the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba, where Dutch is the official language, but most inhabitants of Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire are multilingual and speak Papiamentu, Dutch, English and Spanish.
  • In most countries of Former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian is understood by all three groups (see Serbo-Croatian)

Personal multilingualism generally develops:

  • among immigrants and their descendants.
  • among children of ambassadors and expatriates.
  • in border areas between two countries of mixed languages.
  • among children whose parents each speak a different language.

See also


  • Bhatia, Tej K. and Ritchie, William C. (2006). Handbook of Bilingualism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Collier, V.P. (1992). A synthesis of studies examining long-term language-minority student data on academic achievement. Bilingual Research Journal, vol. 16, 187-212.
  • Gillespie, M. K. (1993). Profiles of Adult Learners: Revealing the Multiple Faces of Literacy. Tesol Quarterly, 27(3), Fall 529-533.
  • Hakuta, K. (1990). Bilingualism and bilingual education: A research perspective. Occasional Papers in Bilingual Education. Washington, DC: Delta Systems & the Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Ramirez, J.D. (1992). Executive summary of the Final Report: Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language minority children. Bilingual Research Journal, vol. 16, 1-62.

External links

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