The multilingual mindset

“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”

Noam Chomsky


We engage with the world through the vehicle of language, which is fundamental for connecting with others and for learning, whether it is oral, sign language, a series of gestures or sounds.

Our brains are wired to understand and use a variety of languages, which makes be(com)ing multilingual for everyone a natural consequence of living. I avoid adding "in today's world", because most of us understand or use multiple languages and variants of languages (dialects, sign language, etc.) on a regular basis.

Since people lived increasingly bigger groups and communities, moved as nomads and went places, they had to adjust to different ways of communicating, and speaking in different tongues.

We all know what a growth mindset is. In a nutshell, it is a mindset where we thrive on challenges and don't see failure as a problem, but rather as a springboard for growth and developing our abilities. A multilingual mindset, as I define it, is very similar. It is a mindset that benefits from the knowledge of multiple languages and communication styles that allow us to focussing on what the other person is saying, not how they are saying it.

People with a multilingual mindset have multilingual listening skills, and thus focus on what people say, not how they say it. They are curious and open for what seems different. Their curiosity leads them naturally to be inclusive, accepting and non-judgmental and less biased when it comes to different worldviews, languages, ways to do and express things. People with a multilingual mindset have a multi-faceted way to process situations in a way that taking sides becomes more difficult because one naturally considers and can emphasize with different perspectives.

People with a  multilingual mindset can be open and receptive to learning and understanding different languages and cultures. They are more aware of what  languages and cultures have in common and how they are interconnected.

The ability to adapt to different verbal and non-verbal communication styles, and cultural norms when interacting with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, is part of what, in my opinion, is part of a "multilingual mindset".

A multilingual mindset goes beyond the simple use of different languages. It has to do with accepting and welcoming other languages in a non-judgmental way. It requires social skills that foster inclusion and understanding on a variety of levels that don't focus only on language, but that use language to connect and to foster mutual understanding and effective communication. It involves connecting on a cultural level in interpersonal relations, and on cross-cultural levels.

It has to do with the "capacity of people to create opportunities to use languages or varieties of languages in very different forms and at different levels of mastery, and in a variety of settings".  As the "experience of our languages in their cultural context expands, we discover that we do not keep these languages and cultures in strictly separated mental compartments, but rather build up a communicative multilingual competence or ability to which all our knowledge and experience of language contribute, and in which languages interrelate and interact" (Ute Limacher-Riebold, Online Course ENJOY Raising children with multiple languages for parents of 4-10 year olds).


How to develop and keep a multilingual mindset 

It all starts with learning languages, immersing oneself in the respective cultures and being open about experiencing them in a way to challenge ones own boundaries and limiting beliefs to the extent to reach a broader understanding. The multilingual mindset allows us to recognize and appreciate the richness that diversity brings to the world.

The same way the cognitive advantage of being multilingual only applies to those who regularly use their languages (see the studies by Ellen Bialystok, Li Wei, Thomas H. Bak, Arthuro Hernandez, Jean-Marc Dewaele, etc.), the multilingual mindset can be compared with a training of our mind to focus beyond the appearance and biases. It removes blindfolds and facilitates connection and communication between and amongst all forms and varieties of language. The aim of developing a multilingual mindset is to recognize stereotypes, ideological platitudes and cultural conceptions, and consequently avoid them, in order to see others as unique persons (Holliday 2011). This intercultural awareness allows to celebrate linguistic diversity and variety, and shifts away from a monolingual viewpoint towards a multilingual mindset that views identities with a high level of intercultural translatability. In this context, language plays a fundamental role as language is the medium to understanding and for learning.

Here are some of the advantages of being multilingual or using multiple languages that allow to define the multilingual mindset that I described above.

The more languages we know, the more understanding we can be towards the world around us.

Cognitive research proves that knowing more languages makes us more tolerant (Jean-Marc Dewaele and Li Wei)*.


*DEWAELE, J., & WEI, L. (2013). Is multilingualism linked to a higher tolerance of ambiguity? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16(1), 231-240. doi:10.1017/S1366728912000570


The more languages we know, the better we are at problem solving.

Using multiple languages helps to enhance problem-solving skills. Why? We are used to switching between languages, which makes us more flexible and allows us not only to express us in multi-faceted ways, it implicitly makes us consider situations from different perspectives. The more we switch between our languages, the more we train our flexibility to adapting to different contexts sometimes in very short time. This ability allows us to quickly assess situations and problems, skim the unnecessary and focus on the essential, problem solving aspect (see studies by Fraser Lauchlan).


The more languages we know, the easier we learn new ones.

The more languages we know, the easier we access additional languages. When we focus on similarities between the languages we know and learn, we can pick up expressions easier, including the body-language. It does not even depend on how proficient we are in our different languages. When we master some of them to a degree that we recognize underlaying patterns in their grammar, on syntactic level (SVO, SOV etc.), morphological level (ex. adding an -s transforms a singular into a plural in English, car (sg.) car-s (pl.); by adding a  -t to the verb stems, the verb becomes in German: sag-en (inf.) sag-t (3 pers. sg. pres.) etc.), phonological level (we can find the same /a/ in different languages; the sound of [x] can be found in Dutch, German, Swiss German etc.), lexical level (ex. just think about the loanwords and cognates in each language) etc.. The more facets of each language we have access to, the easier we can connect our languages to each other and use them in a more efficient and multi-competent way.


The more languages we know, the less inhibited we are, i.e. the less we fear to fail.

When we are used to switch between languages, or mix them to make ourselves understood, whenever we learn a new language we feel less inhibited. We are quicker to start talking, trying out how to say things and formulate our thoughts in the language and connect with people who use it.

By making the effort to pick up expressions in another language we are demonstrating our commitment to hearing other perspectives and showing respect for diverse cultures. This can be achieved by constructing the ‘Multilingual Mindset’: a more inclusive approach towards languages and culture.



♦ This is an ongoing post. If you have any other ideas to continue the list "The more languages we know...", please let me know in the comments. I'll be happy to add your ideas to the list (and link back to you). 

♦ Please share your thoughts about what you think a "multilingual mindset" is, or how we can define it better. 



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