So, define multilingual

For many people, their image of a multilingual person may be a glamorous, jet-setting diplomat, someone who feels comfortable in any number of settings and languages. Or a third culture kid whose childhood is spent on three different continents, for whom starting a new school in a new country is a familiar challenge and an opportunity to rack up another language.

If we turn to the Cambridge Dictionary of English, we find that a multilingual person is someone “able to use more than two languages for communication”. So anyone who is able to communicate in two other languages in addition to their first language is multilingual. Important: nowhere in the definition does it say that you need to be fluent in those languages.

That drastically changes the image of the multilingual person. Suddenly, it includes anyone who is in the process of learning more than one new language. I would argue that it doesn’t matter how far along you are in that process. Maybe you feel decidedly rusty in one of those languages. Maybe you can’t communicate more than to let someone know how you are and hopefully to ask them how they are. And understand their answer.

For me, the important point is that you have set off from point zero and are edging bit by bit along the road towards greater multilingual fluency. As the tagline says: “It’s a journey”.

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4 thoughts on “So, define multilingual

  1. I totally agree with you and I would like to add that languages spoken have a huge impact in how we perceive multilingualism. From my personal experience, I am an English learner; however, when an English speaker knows a second language, we call them bilingual. I have several discussions with peers and friends in the U.S about this, and we all agree that even the dictionary defines it like that, it is still a social construction. I enjoy having teachers like you that appreciate the beauty of speaking different languages. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you for your comment and I’m really interested to hear your perspective. It reminded me of a similar issue: why are some people immigrants and some people expats? The Linguistic Society of America has some interesting discussion of the definitions of multilingualism and bilingualism. You can find them at this URL: http://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/multilingualism. They talk of a continuum which begins with monolinguals and moves forward through differing degrees of bilingualism and multilingualism. Talking of different perspectives, studies suggest that there are more multilingual people in the world than monolinguals. For millions of people, speaking various languages is something completely natural that they don’t even think about.

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  2. I like this idea of multilingualism. I like the idea that one is trying- from novice, to rusty to fluent- to communicate in another language. So now I will say I am multilingual- fluent in two and so rusty in two more!!

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