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Bilingualism and Multilingualism Essay

Language is the influential aspect which determines the peculiarities of the people’s interactions in society. It is possible to discuss the usage of language for communication from psychological, linguistic, and sociolinguistic perspectives because language plays an enormous role in the formation of human identity.

The peculiar features of the social development influence the progress of the situation when today many people are considered as bilingual or multilingual.

Economical, political, cultural and social shifts to the development of international economy and integration caused the fact that the notions of bilingualism and multilingualism which are closely connected with the phenomenon of globalization became important aspects of a modern society.

To understand the peculiarities of this tendency, it is necessary to examine the definitions of bilingualism and multilingualism and determine the features in which these notions are similar or different.

The issue of defining such notions as bilingualism and multilingualism is widely discussed by many researchers nowadays. The main difference of their approaches is in the consideration of these notions as similar or different in relation to their major characteristics.

In her work, Pavlenko accentuates the fact that traditionally bilingualism and multilingualism are discussed as the same notions that is why she uses use the term ‘bilingualism’ in order to study the aspects of bi- and multilingualism with paying attention only to the number of languages used by a speaker (Pavlenko, 2006).

According to this idea, bilingualism should be defined as the phenomenon when people use two languages to realize their social interactions, and multilingualism is the phenomenon when people use more than two languages to complete their social needs (Altarriba & Heredia, 2008).

However, to discuss the aspects of bilingualism and multilingualism, it is necessary to focus on the factor of the social motivation and psychological peculiarities of the ability to use two or more languages for interactions. To discuss the notions as the same, it is necessary to state that bi/multilingualism is a complex phenomenon which is influenced by social and psychological factors and also affects the structure of the languages used.

This phenomenon is connected with the notion of codes. Thus, bilingualism is a result of “psycholinguistic functioning of the mind when having two codes” (Ceroz & Gorter, 2011, p. 357).

Nevertheless, it is also possible to notice that multilingualism is a result of using more than two language codes. The usage of two or more codes results in developing code-mixing and code-switching during the communication process (Ceroz & Gorter, 2011).

The peculiar features of code-mixing and code-switching are widely discussed by those researchers who support the opinion that bilingualism and multilingualism cannot be considered as the same notions. The base for their arguments is two views known as the ‘fractional’ view and ‘holistic’ view (Perani & Abutalebi, 2005).

According to the first perspective, a bilingual is a person who interacts as two monolinguals depending on definite circumstances (Altarriba & Heredia, 2008). The ‘holistic’ view is more general and states that the languages used are interdependent and influence each other. Thus, the person who uses them should be considered as a unique personality following definite sociolinguistic peculiarities.

Focusing on these two views, sociolinguists and psychologists accentuate that code- switching as the selection of definite linguistic elements in languages to use is more typical for bilinguals and code-mixing is more typical for multilingual persons who combine the elements of many languages in one speech to complete the conversation goal (Myers-Scotton, 2006).

Moreover, it is significant to pay attention to such points as the types of bi/multilingualism and their differences. Researchers define circumstantial bilingualism as the person’s usage of two languages according to the situation of communication and other socio-environmental factors which influenced the necessity to learn the second language (De Bot, Lowie, & Verspoor, 2008).

Circumstantial multilingualism can develop on the base of previous bilingualism under the definite living circumstances. That is why it is almost impossible to determine any strict differences in these types.

Sequential bilingualism is based on the fact bilinguals develop some proficiency in their native language and then learn the second language. Thus, their knowledge about the native language can influence their acquiring the second language. The next stage after acquiring the second language can be multilingualism when a person studies languages sequentially.

Thus, there are no obvious differences in sequential bilingualism and sequential multilingualism. The only fact which can influence the peculiarities of multilingual persons’ interactions is the ability to learn languages more effectively with using the knowledge about the first two or more languages (Wei & Moyer, 2008).

Passive bi/multilingualism is characterized by a person’s knowing two or more languages, but active usage in communication of only one of them (Paradis & Navarro, 2003). Thus, the peculiarities of circumstantial, sequential, and passive bi/multilingualism cannot be considered as decisive for determining the differences in using the notions.

Those researchers who develop the idea that bilingualism and multilingualism are similar notions accentuate the fact of ‘soft boundaries’ between languages which are typical both for bilinguals and multilingual persons (Ceroz & Gorter, 2011).

Nevertheless, the other linguists argue that because of predominantly circumstantial character of bilingualism, ‘soft boundaries’ between languages are more typical for the multilingual practice (Myers-Scotton, 2006).

To determine the differences and similarities in the notions of bilingualism and multilingualism, it is possible to provide the general definition which is based on the opinion that a multilingual person differs from a bilingual only in the number of languages he knows. Moreover, multilingualism can also include the concept of bilingualism as the certain type of the phenomenon.

However, according to the ‘holistic’ view with focusing on such aspects as code-mixing and ‘soft boundaries’ between languages, it is possible to define a multilingual person as a man who uses more than two languages for realizing everyday social interactions.

The main peculiarities of multilingual persons is the effective usage of more than two languages as the combination of codes (code-mixing) in order to achieve the goal of communication in spite of environmental factors.

Multilingual persons differ from bilinguals in such aspects as the intensity of interdependence of the languages used, forming a unique personality from the psychological and sociolinguistic perspectives, and the usage of two or more languages and their combinations depending on their effectiveness according to the communicative goal.


Altarriba, J. & Heredia, R. R. (2008). An introduction to bilingualism: Principles and Processes. USA: Psychology Press.

Ceroz, J. & Gorter, D. (2011). Focus on multilingualism: A study of trilingual writing. The Modern Language Journal, 95(iii), 356-369.

De Bot, K., Lowie, W., & Verspoor, M. (2007). A dynamic systems theory approach to second language acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10, 7–21.

Myers-Scotton, C. (2006). Multiple voices. USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Paradis, M. & Navarro, S. (2003). Subject realization and crosslinguistic interference in the bilingual acquisition of Spanish and English: What is the role of the input? Journal of Child Language, 30, 371–393.

Pavlenko, A. (2006). Bilingual minds. USA: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Perani, D. & Abutalebi, J. (2005). Neural basis of first and second language processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 15, 202–206.

Wei, L. & Moyer, M. G. (2008). The Blackwell guide to research methods in bilingualism and multilingualism. USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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