Multilingualism is the ability to speak more than one language.

In some definitions this means speaking a language as a native speaker or to native speaker standard, however some definitions are more flexible allowing multilingual to mean being able to communicate in more than one language (though not necessarily to native speaker standard).


type – explanation

monolingual – speaking 1 language only
bilingual – speaking 2 languages
trilingual – speaking 3 languages
multilingual – speaking more than 3 languages

Note, the term polyglot also refers to someone who can speak many languages.


The circumstances which give birth to multilingualism are many and varied.

  • children of parents who have different mother tongues; the child may often speak one language with one parent and another language with the other parent
  • children with monolingual parents but growing up in a country using a different language, often this means speaking one language at home and another at school
  • migrants who need to learn another language to live and work in a different country

Whilst many English classes will be monolingual (i.e. the students share the same mother tongue) there are often classes where the students are multilingual, that is students from different countries who will speak many different languages. In this latter case the lingua franca will be English.


Scientists report that children who use two languages to communicate requires a lot more mental work than using just one language. This leads to circumstances where bilingual children have slightly smaller vocabularies and are slightly slower at performing certain verbal tasks than monolingual children.

However, to quote just one advantage, recent research has shown that the symptoms of dementia can be delayed by up to four years in bilingual people where the ability to speak two languages appears to allow people to develop skills to cope with the onset of dementia and memory debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

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Posted in Linguistics, Teaching Around The World.

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