What Is Multilingualism?

Definition and Examples

Sign in multiple languages

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Multilingualism is the ability of an individual speaker or a community of speakers to communicate effectively in three or more languages. Contrast with monolingualism, the ability to use only one language.

A person who can speak multiple languages is known as a polyglot or a multilingual.

The original language a person grows up speaking is known as their first language or mother tongue. Someone who is raised speaking two first languages or mother tongues is called a simultaneous bilingual. If they learn a second language later, they are called a sequential bilingual.

Examples and Observations

"Majesty, the Herr Direttore, he has removed uno balletto that would have occurred at this place." —Italian Kapellmeister Bonno in "Amadeus"

Multilingualism as the Norm

"We estimate that most of the human language users in the world speak more than one language, i.e. they are at least bilingual. In quantitative terms, then, monolingualism may be the exception and multilingualism the norm..." —Peter Auer and Li Wei

Bilingualism and Multilingualism

"Current research...begins by emphasizing the quantitative distinction between multilingualism and bilingualism and the greater complexity and diversity of the factors involved in acquisition and use where more than two languages are involved (Cenoz 2000; Hoffmann 2001a; Herdina and Jessner 2002). Thus, it is pointed out that not only do multilinguals have larger overall linguistic repertoires, but the range of the language situations in which multilinguals can participate, making appropriate language choices, is more extensive. Herdina & Jessner (2000b:93) refer to this capacity as 'the multilingual art of balancing communicative requirements with language resources.' This wider ability associated with the acquisition of more than two languages has also been argued to distinguish multilinguals in qualitative terms. One . . . qualitative distinction seems to lie in the area of strategies. Kemp (2007), for example, reports that multilingual learners' learning strategies differ from those of monolingual students learning their first foreign language." — Larissa Aronin and David Singleton

Are Americans Lazily Monolingual?

"The celebrated multilingualism of not just Europe but also the rest of the world may be exaggerated. The hand-wringing about America’s supposed linguistic weakness is often accompanied by the claim that monolinguals make up a small worldwide minority. The Oxford linguist Suzanne Romaine has claimed that bilingualism and multilingualism 'are a normal and unremarkable necessity of everyday life for the majority of the world’s population.'" — Michael Erard

New Multilingualisms

"[I]n paying attention to the language practices of young people in urban settings, we see new multilingualisms emerging, as the young people create meanings with their diverse linguistic repertoires. We see the young people (and their parents and teachers) using their eclectic array of linguistic resources to create, parody, play, contest, endorse, evaluate, challenge, tease, disrupt, bargain and otherwise negotiate their social worlds." — Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese


  • Bleichenbacher, Lukas. "Multilingualism in the Movies." University of Zurich, 2007.
  • Auer, Peter and Wei, Li. "Introduction: Multilingualism as a Problem? Monolingualism as a Problem?" Handbook of Multilingualism and Multilingual Communication. Mouton de Gruyter, 2007, Berlin.
  • Aronin, Larissa and Singleton, David. "Multilingualism" John Benjamins, 2012, Amersterdam.
  • Erard, Michael. "Are We Really Monolingual?" The New York Times Sunday Review, January 14, 2012.
  • Blackledge, Adrian and Creese, Angela. "Multilingualism: A Critical Perspective." Continuum, 2010, London, New York.
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Multilingualism?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-multilingualism-1691331. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is Multilingualism? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-multilingualism-1691331 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Multilingualism?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-multilingualism-1691331 (accessed June 5, 2023).