What is multilingualism?



Multilingualism can take different forms. In this video, Marcella speaks about her language repertoire.

We understand multilingualism as the use of more than one language by an individual or in society. It is a social practice in interaction.
Most people in the world are multilingual, i.e. they use more than one language in their lives. This does not mean that they speak all languages “perfectly” as was assumed by many people in the past. Most multilinguals have different competencies in their languages and in different domains of their lives, as they might, e.g, use one language with their family and another language at work. Multilingualism and language competencies are dynamic and often change over time.
For multilinguals, languages do not exist separately but they are connected and always active. In order to support a child’s language development, all languages need to be considered and fostered.
There are numerous myths about multilingualism, which multilingual families might encounter. We try to debunk just some of them:

Myth 1: Learning two or more languages will confuse the child.
No, this is not the case. In many regions of the world, children grow up with three or more languages. Rather, multilingual children are more capable to switch perspectives and discriminate between different sounds. Confusion about languages is most likely to show in a child if the primary caregivers are insecure with their language use. Accordingly, a main aim is to empower parents of multilingual children and to support them in their choices.

Myth 2: Multilingual children show a delay in language acquisition.
No, this is not true. Extensive research in this area has shown that multilingual children acquire languages at the same rate as their monolingual peers. However, their language proficiency, e.g., vocabulary, might stretch across two or more languages in the first years of life, and one language might be further developed than another.

Myths 3: If children are not fully proficient in all languages, they are not multilingual.
This understanding stems from a monolingual mind-set. Being multilingual is seen as being a double or multiple monolingual. However, this is not how languages are organized in our mind. Rather, languages fulfill different roles and are developed to a different degree in different domains of our life. One language might be used to talk about the family and everyday life, another language might be more important in school. Accordingly, languages develop differently – and this is a very economical strategy of our mind.