A person is multilingual if he or she has communication skills in several languages. The reasons for this can be manifold. Language skills depend on linguistic role models, the learning environment and the function of language and changes throughout life. Multilingualism enhances a person’s cognitive abilities.
A multilingual is someone who comes into contact with several languages from birth but also someone who learns other languages as a young person or adult. Multilingualism does not necessarily mean mastering three or more languages; this also includes bilingualism. There are different definitions and views on what language means in the context of multilingualism and whether language varieties such as dialects are included.
Individual multilingualism is the ability of a person to communicate in several languages. If necessary, the speaker can switch from one language to another during a conversation.
Institutional multilingualism is when public institutions or organisations offer their services in different languages, such as multilingual schools or Deutsche Bahn.
Territorial multilingualism refers to the simultaneous presence of several languages on a territory. It is usually accompanied by individual multilingualism of the people living there.
Social multilingualism exists when several languages are spoken within a society. In Europe, this is particularly noticeable in border areas. There is a particular diversity of languages in India, Africa, the Caucasus or New Guinea.
Multilingualism in children
In many countries, children grow up multilingual. This is often due to the fact that their parents or caregivers speak different mother tongues. Up to the age of about seven, children can learn another language in addition to their first language at the level of their mother tongue; this is referred to as “bilingual first language acquisition”. When teaching a language, adults take on an important role model function for children. The quality and quantity of their input are of particular importance for the language acquisition of the next generation.
Characteristics of multilingual children
Asynchrony of the process: Children often learn languages at different rates. Mixed expressions: Children mix individual words from different languages or transfer grammatical rules from one language to another. Meta-linguistic skills: Children can often reflect at an early age that they are learning different languages.
The advantages of multilingualism
Children who grow up multilingual benefit from this in many ways. On the one hand, multilingualism promotes the cognitive development, empathy and creativity of the individual; on the other hand, it also enables intercultural dialogue with other people and groups. Also from a professional point of view, mastering two or more languages brings more and more advantages in a globalised world.
FAQ: More questions about multilingualism
What is multilingualism?
Multilingualism is the ability of a person to speak more than one language.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of multilingualism?
As a rule, multilingualism does not pose a problem but rather has a positive effect on children’s cognitive development. It is true that multilingualism is sometimes associated with greater effort, for example if the caregivers themselves do not have a perfect command of the language to be learned. Nevertheless, the acquisition of several languages is definitely worth supporting.
At what point are you considered multilingual?
Multilinguals are all people who either grow up with two or more languages from birth or learn languages that are not their mother tongue later in life, for example at school.
What does polyglot mean?
A person is called polyglot if he or she speaks an above-average number of languages. The term comes from ancient Greek and is composed of “poly” (much) and “glōtta” (tongue, language).
What is a polyglot?
Polyglots have an above-average command of many languages and can learn new foreign languages with relatively little effort.
Why is multilingualism important?
Multilingualism is first and foremost important for intercultural exchange. At the same time, it also promotes personal development as well as career opportunities in an international context.
How many children grow up multilingual in Germany?
It is assumed that about one third of all pupils in Germany grow up at least bilingual.
When and how does multilingualism arise?
Multilingualism can have many reasons, for example living in language border areas or parents with different mother tongues. Children who are confronted with two languages from birth are called simultaneously bilingual. Those who learn the foreign language later are called successively bilingual.
What is institutional multilingualism?
Institutional multilingualism exists when public institutions offer their services in different languages.
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