Plurilingual and Multilingual



In addition to bilingual or bilingualism, which are terms extensively used in the past 50ish years, the terms multilingualism and plurilingualism are increasingly used  as (quasi-)synonyms, but they are not

The term of plurilingual is rather used to define a person, whereas the term of multilingual is used to define a country or nation, a society:


– Every person who has competence in more than two languages, can switch between using multiple languages depending on the situation for ease of communication is a plurilingual

Plurilingualism does not necessarily mean a person is fluent in multiple languages, it means that a person can interchange more than one language with each other when a situation calls for it.

A person is considered competent in plurilingualism when they can speak in one language while understanding another; and can switch between languages when appropriate and/or necessary.[6]

According to the Council of Europe, plurilingualism can also be used to mediate conflict between those with no common language.[6]

Researchers have even gone so far as to say that being able to understand different dialects and/or regional versions of one language opens the door for someone to be plurilingual.[2]

People who are plurilingual tend to have better communicative sensitivity, creativity, and metalinguistic awareness.[7]

The knowledge of multiple languages as well as the understanding of different cultures allows for the improved communicative skills. The advantages of plurilingualism seem to become greater the more languages someone learns.[7]

(Wikipedia Plurilingualism)

On the other hand:

– The term multilingual is used to describe situations wherein multiple languages exist side-by-side in a society but are utilized separately. For example, Switzerland is a multilingual country, with 4 national languages and many local dialects and regional variants.


Should we rather use the term plurilingual?


Plurilingualism is a life-long activity, a process of learning languages of home, society and other peoples; it acknowledges the partial nature of the knowledge anyone can have of one language, be it their mother tongue or not. 

Therefore, plurilingualism removes the ideal of the native speaker as the ultimate achievement and replaces it with the aim of an effective pluralistic communicator who draws on his/her varied repertoire of linguistic and cultural knowledge in a flexible, creative and individual way (as proposed by the Council of Europe).

As such, the concept of plurilingualism provides a true qualitative leap in terms of our understanding of language. (The Healthy Linguistic Diet)


I agree with all of the above, but as the term multilingual is used also with regards to individuals knowledge of multiple languages, and we all normally use languages for the purpose of communication with other individuals, which means, that our language use is always somehow related to a society – whether it is the micro society (our family/at home), the meso society (the community) or macro society (the nation): our language use has always the purpose to communicate and connect in some ways, either by speaking or writing.
It is therefore not “
wrong” to use the term multilingual when speaking about an individual and I personally don’t have a “native speaker” as ideal in mind when using it. Therefore, the aim is the same as described by the Council of Europe, i.e. “of a pluralistic communicator who draws on [their] varied repertoire of linguistic and cultural knowledge in a flexible, creative and individual way”. 

Here are the current terms used across some languages:

German:  Mehrsprachigkeitmehrsprachige Familien

Dutch: meertaligheid, meertalige persoon 

Italian: bilingue/imultilingue/iplurilingue/i defines individuals and families that speak two or more languages

French: multilingue, plurilingue defines individuals who speak multiple languages


What terms are used in your language and what do you think about this topic?

Please share in the comments here below.

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