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What is multilingualism?

Article defining 'multilingual' and explaining how its expression is affected by a wide range of experiences in children.
Poster which states many of us can speak at least wo languages. This means we are bi-lingual and some of is are multi-lingual. Then hello in different languages. .
© University of Reading

Among the many terms used to describe multilingualism, you may have heard ‘EAL’ (English as an additional language) and ‘ESL’ (English as a second language). We won’t use these terms in the course as they place English at the centre of their definition and therefore aren’t inclusive of multilinguals across the globe. Instead, we’ll use ‘bilingual’ which refers to individuals who speak two languages and ‘multilingual’ which refers to individuals who speak two or more languages. ‘Bilingual’ is therefore a subset and the most common form of multilingualism. (If you speak just one language, you’re ‘monolingual’.)


Bilingualism is often thought of as the ability to speak two languages proficiently. However, it is more complex than that, as language proficiency is not the only important factor and it can vary according to context and use. There is debate amongst researchers on the exact definitions of bilingualism and multilingualism. For this course, we will define multilingualism as the ability to speak and/or write in more than two languages, regardless of proficiency.

Multilingualism adds extra layers to the already complex picture of language development, and it’s essential to factor in these differences when evaluating claims about what is and is not possible in multilingual and monolingual language acquisition. This means that research findings may well differ, depending on the different contexts and experiences of the children included in the studies. It’s therefore important to treat multilingualism as a spectrum rather than a tightly defined category 1.

Different experiences of multilingualism

One of the main issues faced by researchers studying multilingual children’s language development is that the category ‘multilingual’ is extremely broad. Children’s experiences of multilingualism vary according to societal context and family environment, educational opportunities, and the extent to which the languages they speak differ from each other2.

The various contexts in which languages develop give rise to diverse forms of multilingualism.

Examples of different societal contexts

  • Two languages have official status and there is educational support for them both (eg, Welsh and English in Wales, Basque and Spanish in the Basque Country, Catalan and Spanish in Catalonia, French and English in Canada).
  • Unofficial multilingual status with access to bilingual education to some extent although only one of the languages is officially recognised (eg, Spanish-English bilingual programmes in the US).
  • Pockets of bilingual communities or individual bilingual families with no formal support from the main education system for the non-official language. In situations where children speak a language at home that is not the dominant language of the wider (national) society, that language is considered a heritage language3 (eg, Punjabi speakers in Australia; Polish, Brazilian Portuguese and Arabic speakers in the UK).

This third context is the one most commonly experienced by multilingual children in countries like the UK.

Examples of different family contexts

The composition of the household and each parent’s own multilingual status can vary dramatically, giving rise to a range of different family constellations, all of which have consequences for bilingual language development. For example, if two parents speak the heritage language, it is more likely that the child will learn it than if only one does. In addition, if a child hears a language from several different speakers their input will be more diverse and provide a wider range of learning opportunities than if they only hear that language from one or two different people.

The age of first exposure to different languages also adds to the diversity among multilingual children4:

  • simultaneous bilinguals are exposed to two languages from birth or soon after, whereas
  • sequential bilinguals are exposed first to one language and then the other.

You’ll explore these differences further in Week 2 which looks at the mechanisms of language development in multilingual children.

These are just some examples of how multilingualism can vary to demonstrate that children’s different experiences will have a significant impact on their language development.

red dividing line with human figure and speech bubble saying 'UoR tip'

We’ve created a glossary of terms which you might find useful to keep open in another tab as you progress through the course. You can also download it if you’d like to be able to refer to it after the course has finished.


Has this article changed the way you think about multilingualism? Is there a difference in who you would define as bilingual or multilingual now?


  1. Surrain, S., & Luk, G. (2019). Describing bilinguals: A systematic review of labels and descriptions used in the literature between 2005–2015. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 22(2), 401-415.
  2. Dixon, L. Q., Wu, S., & Daraghmeh, A. (2012). Profiles in bilingualism: Factors influencing kindergartners’ language proficiency. Early Childhood Education Journal, 40(1), 25-34.
  3. Rothman 2009. [NEED FULL REFERENCE]
  4. Serratrice, L. (2018). Becoming bilingual in early childhood. In A. De Houwer & L. Ortega (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Bilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Understanding Multilingual Children's Language Development

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