1. Multilingualism - what is it?

Growing up with more than one language is very common in many parts of the world, and for millions of people it is simply a way of navigating the complexities of life. The wide range of languages holds significant potential for cultural diversity, economic opportunity, and enriched education. Nonetheless, in many countries in Europe multilingualism is still relatively unusual. As a consequence, it is often surrounded by prejudices and misconceptions, and this is largely due to lack of information. The phenomenon is sometimes regarded as ‘special’ and even ‘dangerous’ for a child's development.

As we will see in these eight virtual appointments, scientific research on bi- and multilingualism sends a completely different message. Indeed, in the past 100 years it has been acknowledged that speaking two or more languages has many benefits in many aspects of our life. Reporting the most important results in the field, this column could be seen as a bridge between the research and the community. We will understand how children learn languages, and the benefits of speaking more than one language. We will also discuss myths and misconceptions about bilingualism, and some practical tips to raise a child in a multilingual context.

First of all, let’s try to answer an apparently simple question: who is bilingual? According to François Grosjean, one of the major experts in the field and Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland), an answer should be: “Half of the world's population.” However, since the criterion of how fluent bilinguals are in their languages has long been dominant in how we characterize them, the ‘real’ bilingual has long been seen as the one who is equally, and fully, fluent in two (or more) languages, that is: the ‘ideal’, the ‘balanced’ and the ‘perfect’ bilingual. What about all the others?

The vast majority of bilinguals is considered ‘not really’ bilingual! According to Grosjean, if one were to count as bilingual only those people who pass as complete monolinguals in each of their languages (and they are a rarity), one would be left with no label for the vast majority of people who use two or more languages regularly, but who do not have native-like fluency in each. The reason they don't, is simply that bilinguals do not need to be equally competent in all of their languages. They usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people.

This other way of looking at bilinguals allows one to include people like the professional interpreter who is fluent in two languages; engineers coming from all over the world to work and settle down in another country and speaking English at work; as well as the child who interacts with her parents in one language and with her friends in another; or even the more complicated case where three languages are spoken in the same family, for example, where the men’s first language is Japanese, the mother’s first language is Russian and they communicate between them in English. And very interestingly, if this family is living in Austria, what language would they speak to the new born child?

Despite the great diversity of situations among these people, they all lead their lives with more than one language. Bilingualism can be found therefore in most countries, at all levels of society and in all age groups.

Other definitions have been proposed, depending on multiple factors, such as age of acquisition and proficiency. For example, early bilinguals acquire the languages from birth, while late bilinguals learn languages after the age of 6 or 7; balanced bilinguals have more or less equal proficiency in the languages, while dominant bilinguals feel more proficient in one language; and many more. However, it seems probably more useful to adopt Grosjean’s definition: ‘bilinguals are people, who use two (or more) languages (or dialects) ??in their everyday lives’. Specifically, bi- and multilingualism can be defined as the ability of a person to use two or more languages ??as a means of communication, and to be able to change from one language to the other when the situation requires it.

To conclude our first step into the world of bi- and multilingualism, let’s consider why this matters. The key finding from research on language and cognition in bilinguals and multilinguals is that knowing more than one language brings a wide range of advantages in childhood, in adulthood, and in old age. For example, it promotes the analytical thinking, it facilitates the acquisition of other languages, and it gives the child a more open view of the world. In the next article, we are going to understand how a child learn a language and why it is so easy for her in comparison to adults.


Find out more:

§  Kendall King and Alison Mackey (2007). The bilingual edge: why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

§  Elke Montanari (2002). Mit zwei Sprachen groß werden: Mehrsprachige Erziehung in Familie, Kindergarten und Schule. München: K?sel-Verlag.

§  Silvana Contento (2010). Crescere nel bilinguismo. Aspetti cognitivi, linguistici ed emotivi. Roma: Carocci Editore.

To: 2. Children are little genius!