What Does It Mean To Be Multilingual?

Learning Feb 22, 2021

When you hear the word multilingual, an image comes to mind of someone who can speak multiple languages interchangeably with absolute perfection. But is this really the case?

In reality, it is extremely difficult to learn one language to perfection, much less two or more, which means if we stick with the all or nothing definition, that not many people qualify as multilingual. So, what does it mean to be multilingual?

Bilingual vs. Multilingual

One of the biggest debates when it comes to defining multilingualism is that some people believe it should be defined differently than bilingualism, which is a word used to indicate that someone knows two languages fluently. But if you look at the word multilingual, the beginning part of the word is the word “multi” which means more than one. And since the Linguistic Society abides by this basic definition, anyone who speaks more than one language would be multilingual. So, someone who is bilingual could also be considered multilingual.

However, when you are discussing speaking different languages with your friends, it’s unlikely they will look deeply into the roots and meanings of words. This is why, on a societal level, bilingual generally refers to someone who speaks two languages, while multilingual refers to someone who speaks more than two languages.

Do Both Languages Need To Be Spoken At A Native Level?

Many people are hesitant to give themselves labels such as multilingual because they don’t believe they are at a native speaker level in all of the languages they speak. The Linguistic Society doesn’t see languages this way, however, because most people will only ever be a native speaker in one language. This is why they define multilingual as any individual who can read, write, and communicate proficiently in multiple languages.

For example, if someone’s native language is English, but they and read, write, and speak French sufficiently to have their needs met in that language, they would be considered multilingual.

If someone can communicate on a native level in more than one language, they have a special word for this, ambilingual. Someone who is ambilingual is multilingual, however people who are multilingual are not necessarily ambilingual.

How Many People Are Multilingual?

Because the definitions of multilingual and bilingual can differ depending on who you talk to, so too do the estimates of people who speak multiple languages worldwide. It can also be difficult to gauge exactly how many people speak multiple languages because of the difficulty of collecting data from some populations. But, despite all of the issues, according to psychologist Francois Grosjean, more than half the world uses more than one language to go about their everyday life, which means based on the Linguist Society definition, over half the world is multilingual.

Overall, what it means to be multilingual will change depending on who you are talking to. But most officials will agree that being multilingual generally refers to someone who is able to communicate proficiently in more than just their native language.

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