Bi- and Multilingualism: Defining the differences

by Harper Staples

What makes somebody multilingual? Although a very simple question, and one that is often asked as part of Strand 4’s work, it is, in fact, deceptively complicated. While definitions of bi- and multilingualism have transformed over the years; it’s no longer the case, for example, that a bilingual speaker is defined as such by equal fluency in both languages (see Abello-Contesse et al., 2013), work is still ongoing to reach an agreement as to what constitutes accurate and appropriate terminology. Particularly, impediments are found simply in the breadth of the field; although the use of more than one language is simple enough in an explanatory sense, this can be viewed from, for example, a sociolinguistic standpoint, via the lens of educational policy or in psycholinguistic terms. These are all domains which define bilingualism and multilingualism according to their own needs and standards. That’s not to mention the social, cultural and political colouring that will be afforded to any empirical work, and thus the terms employed within it, depending on the context in which the research is taking place.

While a redefinition of terminology is to be expected in any emerging discipline, certain characteristics common to approaches within bi- and multilingual research have begun to emerge. Particularly prominent is the increasing comprehension that compounding bilingualism and multilingualism in a “one-concept approach” (Aronin & Jessner, 2014), as is often the case in more traditional studies, is to underestimate the additional complexity that knowledge of more than two linguistic systems imparts. Moreover, this is a recognition reflected across the domains of research into multilingualism; in terms of the process of acquisition and use of multiple languages, the plurilingual speaker will face additional challenges, but, equally, is also equipped with additional resources.

Aronin & Jessner (2014), for example, are just two researchers to put forth convincing arguments as to the divergences to be found between the processes of bi- and multilingual competency development. Research, such as that in syntax acquisition (Strik, 2012), grammar learning strategies (Kemp, 2009) and cross-linguistic influence (De Angelis, 2005) converge in their adherence to this statement, with the essential difference being linked strongly to variations in complexity of acquisition; multi-language systems are “complex” in the manner that multiple, active interactions “lead to countless, often unpredictable, outcomes”. In contrast to bilingual studies, the range of findings, outcomes and interconnections in multilingualism increases “as the variation [in languages] does” (ibid., p.59).

So too, the necessity of differentiation is reflected in educational terms. Cenoz & Jessner (2009) demonstrate this particularly concisely in their assertion that “multilingual learning is not bilingual learning” (p.122); it is to be expected that the multilingual student will develop a different awareness of a new language to that of a monolingual learner acquiring a first foreign language; they will negotiate an evolved understanding of “how language works”, and may construct different systems for processing language which will interact in ways unique to each individual (De Angelis, 2005).

Certainly, then, plurilingual speakers may acquire language in a different manner to learners moving from a monolingual repertoire towards bilingualism, but do they feel differently about their languages to a dual-language speaker? While research addressing this question in expressly multilingual terms is fairly limited, it’s argued by Oliveira & Ançã (2009), among others, that the answer may be yes. They suggest that multilingualism results in “a linguistically plural identification, resulting from an individual’s experiences in different social, cultural, and linguistic arenas throughout a lifetime” (p.405).

The need to readjust the focus of research in student identity development during foreign language learning upon the plurilingual repertoire is never more relevant than today. A necessary outcome of what Aronin & Hufeisen (2009) have termed the “construction of the contemporary globalised reality” (p.2), current views of multilingualism hold that it no longer represents the exception, but rather the rule; indeed, Tokuhama-Espinosa (2003) estimates that a majority of the world’s population speak at least two languages. As such, it is to be expected that the progression from bilingualism towards a multilingual repertoire is a common experience for many students, and thus represents a key area of inquiry. Important, however, is to first separate the many from the two.


Abello-Contesse, C., Chandler, P.M., López-Jiménez, M.D. & Chacón-Beltrán, R. (Eds.) (2013). Bilingual and Multilingual Education in the 21st Century. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Aronin, L., & Hufeisen, B. (Eds.) (2009). The Exploration of Multilingualism. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Aronin, L., & Jessner, U. (2014). Methodology in Bi- and Multilingual Studies: From Simplification to Complexity. Research Methods and Approaches in Applied Linguistics: Looking Back and Moving Forward [AILA Review] (27) (pp.56-79). DOI: 10.1075/aila.27.03aro

Cenoz, J. & Jessner, U. (2009). The Study of Multilingualism in Educational Contexts. In L. Aronin & B. Hufeisen (Eds.), The Exploration of Multilingualism: Development of Research on L3, Multilingualism & Multiple Language Acquisition (pp. 121-138). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

De Angelis, G. (2005). Multilingualism and non-native lexical transfer: An Identification problem. International Journal of Multilingualism 2(1) (pp.1–25). DOI: 10.1080/17501220508668374

Oliveira, A.N. & Ançã, M.H. (2009). I speak five languages: Fostering plurilingual competence through language awareness. Language Awareness, 18 (3-4) (pp.403-421). DOI: 10.1080/09658410903197355

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (Ed.) (2003). The Multilingual Mind: Issues Discussed by, for and about People Living with Many Languages. Westport: Praeger.

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