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The term multilingualism can refer to phenomena 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.

Bilinguals and multilinguals outnumber monolinguals in the world's population (de Bot & Kroll).

Multilingualism within an individual

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.

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. It is possible, although rare, for children to have and maintain more than one first language.

Definition of multilingualism

One group of academics argue for the maximal definition which means that speakers are as native-like in one language as they are in other and have as much knowledge and control over one language as they do the other. Another group of academics argue 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 no 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 rather broadly held, yet nearly as broadly criticised view, is taken by the American linguist Noam Chomsky in what he calls the human language module - a mechanism enables an individual to recreate correctly the rules (grammar) that speakers around the learner use. 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 learning aspects of a second language (L2).

Multilingual speakers have more than one language at their disposal; either first or second languages. 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.

A third school of thought has emerged in recent years that argues that language learning may lie somewhere between the language module and cognitive processes.

Comparing multilingual speakers

Even if someone is a highly proficient in two or more languages, her so-called competence or abiltity 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.
  • A sub-group of the latter is subordinate bilingual which is typical of beginning second language learners.

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 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.

Distinction between compound and coordinate bilingualism

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.

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.

Possible multilinguals

  • 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 ambassadors and 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.
  • 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 different L1s, multilingualism in the child may be achieved when both parents maintain a one-language (not the community language) household.

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/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.

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 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.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia