multilingual grafitti


What does it mean to be multilingual?

There are so many different terms used to describe people who speak more than one language that it can be difficult to understand what it actually means when we say someone is bilingual, multilingual, plurilingual, a polyglot, or a hyperglot.

The term ‘bilingual’ might be the most familiar, describing people who have competence of two languages, but at what point can someone claim this status? Is it an exclusive club that you are born into, growing up speaking two languages fluently, or does anyone who speaks any amount of another language count? 

‘Multilingual’ tends to be reserved for those who are born in environments in which more than one language is spoken. In these environments, people may be using 3 or 4 or more languages day-to-day without giving it much thought or considering themselves as a linguist. Whereas perhaps ‘plurilingual’ can be seen as something someone becomes over time through purposeful learning of multiple languages. 

multilingual grafitti
Multilingual is normal!
And beautiful.

Who classifies as a polyglot is also under debate, but is generally considered as someone who chooses to learn languages without having a particular need for them. The minimum number to claim this title is around 5, with hyperglots being around 7, although neither have been formally defined.

The other question is how good you need to be to collect one of these badges, whichever one you’re going for. Some will argue that only fluent speakers qualify, but this mentality often excludes anyone who isn’t multilingual by chance through family or environment. While it is possible to achieve high fluency in a language in different ways, few people can claim to be truly fluent in a second language if they don’t live in that country or use it for work or family. 

This begs the question: what is the end goal of speaking a language?

If it only counts if you speak like a native, what does that even mean? Can a native speaker only be someone who was born into that language? The issue of ownership of a language becomes part of the problem too; the Spanish spoken in Peru is different to that spoken in Mexico and that of Spain… so which one is right? How can we hold English learners to ‘native’ standards when they are more likely to use it to communicate with other non-natives and may never set foot in England?

You may feel like you are not good enough, not fluent enough, to add a particular language to your bilingual or multilingual status. But, at the end of the day, how you identify yourself as a speaker of a language is all that really matters. People might try to impose their own definitions of these terms on you, but ultimately languages are personal and the concepts of ‘fluency’ or ‘native-like proficiency’ are arbitrary. 

Guest blogger Rosanna Lloyd multilingualMonday co-host
Rosanna on her travels!

Language is about sharing not just words and grammar, but cultures, ideas and experiences. In an environment such as England, which is already struggling from a lack of motivated and successful language learners, we should be encouraging people to embrace languages in any way they can, rather than imposing rules and regulations on them. We should be inviting them to join the conversation, not excluding them from an elite club which is out of their reach. 

So, allez-y and express yourself in all the languages you have and call yourself bilingual, multilingual, plurilingual, polyglot, or anything you like!

Guest blog by Rosanna Lloyd, applied linguistics postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, tutor in French and Spanish, and keen language-learner.

Join co-hosts Cate, Rosanna and Kai on Clubhouse here for #MultilingualMonday discussions at 5.30pm GMT. Topics include ‘what is multilingualism?’ and ‘is the UK really monolingual?’

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It's time for a little language revolution, n'est-ce pas?

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