• Kielingua

Are you multilingual without knowing it?

Bilingualism and multilingualism are both opinion and belief provoking themes. They have been defined in multiple different ways both in everyday contexts and academia, and many of those definitions still live on despite sometimes even contradictory research results. Being able to speak multiple languages is often considered as a valuable skill, but what counts as “knowing multiple languages” varies a lot. In this blog post I am writing about different views and definitions of multilingualism and bilingualism.


In everyday context a bilingual person is most often a person who can fluently speak (and write) in two languages. There are many possible reasons behind these skills. For example, their parents might have different mother tongues. Or maybe they grew up in an environment in which two or more languages were spoken, or maybe they immigrated at some point of their life to a country with a different language.


The definition of a bilingual above has both downsides and upsides. In some situations it works, for instance when you need to define your research participants. On the other hand the definition is very narrow and often rather unrealistic. In most cases, the language skills of a bilingual person are not equal in both languages. One might be able to cope in another language in every situation but in another only at home. This is totally normal and does not diminish the value of either language skill. Nowadays being able to use another language even just a little is seen as a valuable resource.

In some contexts the definition of a bilingual is wider. Many researchers’ opinion is that also people who are learning another language are bilingual. Most people might draw the line perhaps on B1-level: once you can manage in another language in everyday situations, you are bilingual. However, even a wider understanding of bilingualism exists. (“What is a language” would require its own post though.) In short, in current research (of applied linguistics) the named languages (Finnish, Swedish, Somali) are not that interesting, but focus is more on the genres and registers of language. When a person masters more than one register (language style), they can be called multilingual. For example, the readers of this text are most likely all multilingual: they understand both written and spoken English and possibly even different varieties of it (formal/informal etc.). This type of world of multilingualism is sometimes referred to as heteroglossia.


So far I have spoken only about bilingualism. Who is multilingual then? The basic difference is the number of languages: a bilingual knows two, a multilingual person more than two. However, in the context of the European community (the EU, the Council of Europe) multilingual is not used for individuals but for communities: multilingual class, multilingual workplace and so forth. Instead, plurilingual is used for individual multilingualism. This separation is visible also in other European documents and policies due to the influence of the supranational level.


Why does this matter? According to estimations, most people on this planet can speak more than one language. Multilingualism or bilingualism is thus more the rule than an exception. However, in many cases multilingualism is not recognised: some languages are considered more valuable than others and therefore people will not mention their linguistic resources. Sometimes bureaucracy is the problem: for example in Finland it is possible to register only one mother tongue. Also the traditional, narrow understanding of bilingualism plays a part. It is important to acknowledge people’s linguistic resources and for instance stop talking about immigrants as they don't know any language (when not knowing the dominant language of a country). Even little language skills are skills and that should be recognised.

A heteroglossic view on multilingualism wouldn’t recognise this joke.


written by: Venla Rantanen

illustrations: screenshots from social media


Tässä postauksessa kirjoitetaan kaksi- ja monikielisyyden määritelmistä sekä niihin liittyvistä ongelmista. Useimmat meistä ovat monikielisiä (=osaavat useampaa kuin yhtä kieltä), mutta kapean määritelmän takia iso osa kielitaidosta jää tunnistamatta ja siten mainitsematta. Teksti on alunperin kirjoitettu suomeksi ja julkaistu Venlan vanhassa blogissa. Voit lukea alkuperäisen, suomenkielisen tekstin täältä.

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