Bilingualism, multilingualism, plurilingualism

For the last twenty years or so, Europe has clearly proven its support for bilingual and plurilingual education and the teaching of non-linguistic subjects in a foreign language (EMILE programme).

What are bilingualism, multilingualism and plurilingualism?

We may use these words without much distinction between them in everyday language but they don’t have the same meaning for linguists.
Bilinguism means speaking two languages. For example, someone who speaks both French and English in their everyday life.

Multilingualism is when several languages coexist in a society. People speak one language and live among others who don’t speak it. For example, Armenians and Swedes living in France.

Plurilingualism covers people who speak different languages in different situations: e.g. a Greek who speaks French at work, Greek among family and Spanish in their social life as they live in Spain.

Home and away…

France is a monolingual country where French has been the official language since 1992 (Constitution of the Fifth Republic: article 2) and the main vehicle for French thought and culture around the world. Writers such as Rabelais and Molière chose French as a modern language and popularised it. What’s unique about it is that its growth was fuelled by intellectual groups and institutions including the Académie Française. It is a so-called “academic” language. An Academy is an assembly of intellectuals, scholars or artists: the place where they meet.

Spain is not a unitary state like France or Norway. The Spanish state delegates power to 17 local governments called autonomous communities in 17 regions (Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia, Andalucia, Asturias, Cantabria etc.) but it is not a federation. The Spanish Constitution recognises a unilingual Spanish State made up of officially unilingual territories for people who speak Castilian, and officially bilingual territories for Catalan, Basque, Galician, Aranese etc. Three languages are recognised as co-official languages: Catalan, Galician and Basque whilst the other dialects only have limited protection. Castilian is the only official language for use in the administrative, political and legal sectors.

Only 31 out of America’s 50 states have adopted English as their official language. The most common languages are Spanish, Chinese and French as well as Hawaiian, Hawaii’s second official language. No official language has been adopted at federal level and the de facto government language is English. A wide array of languages such as German, Japanese, Arabic and Russian as well as several Native American languages are spoken in the United States.

Canada is bilingual with two official languages, English and French. Over 200 languages are spoken or used as mother tongues. Canada has a fascinating history of bilingualism which merits publicity. It began when the explorer, Jacques Cartier, arrived in 1534 and has continued to the present day with each province choosing to be either unilingual (English or French) or bilingual (English and French). There are actually more unilingual provinces than bilingual ones.

People in China speak Chinese languages belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are at least 9 Chinese languages (Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Min, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Hui, Ping). They are usually written in Chinese Han characters (hanzi). These characters have evolved over the centuries and been simplified in China, Singapore and Japan (shinjitai Kanji). Chinese is the official language of China, Taiwan and Singapore and spoken in other countries. It is made up of seven major modern spoken languages: Mandarin, Standard Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Gan, Hakka, Min and Xiang. There are three other important languages: Jin, Hui and Ping. Written language (wen) is elevated above the different forms of speech.

There are endless examples we could give (Semitic, Slav, Germanic etc.)

The different aspects of bilingualism…

Individual bilingualism,
Practised from a very early age by listening to parents speaking two different languages or bilingualism achieved by learning one of more foreign languages at school, college or university helps distinguish

Psycholinguistic aspects of bilingualism,
Depending on if a language is learnt early during childhood or later as an adult, and in all cases after puberty, (establishment of language regions in the brain), the result is different and better if the language/s are learnt during childhood.
Depending on the social situation (formal language, slang), time spent learning a language, methods used, the teacher’s experience, aptitude and attitude as well as the learner’s personal motivation, all these features interact to varying degrees to determine an individual’s level of success in learning several languages.

Linguistic bilinguism,
Here are some of the main aspects that occur when two languages come into contact:
This is interference from the mother tongue in the foreign language and vice versa in terms of:
phonetics (French accent when speaking English);
syntax (a word in the wrong place in a sentence);
lexical (use of a word from one language in another);
borrowing (e.g. words like “weekend” and “maestro” have become part of our vocabulary because almost everyone uses them and has done for several years).
This form of linguistic bilingualism can be a hindrance for interpreters and translators.
It can cause translation issues: translating reporting can be too long in a sentence.
The source text may be written by someone who is bilingual but doesn’t write in their own language so will only achieve a certain amount of writing ability in the learned language.
It may be written by someone in their mother tongue who doesn’t realise the subtleties of their language or doesn’t know how to express their thoughts in writing.
All this can cause issues when it comes to translation.
When speaking,
The speaker’s accent may be hard for the interpreter to understand etc.


You expect the translator to provide or create the best translation possible.
Quality of the source text…
It may be a text filled with mistakes or containing turns of phrase that are convoluted, difficult to understand or even detrimental.
A text written by employees of all nationalities in a multinational business that uses English to communicate with the branches all over the world, for localisation in the language of the country where one of the branches is based.
… situations that the translator has to consider and handle to the best of their ability.


Usually texts for translation are very interesting, tend to be well-written and, thanks to IT, easy to understand.
Translators must be patient, explain their decisions and be clear about the client’s expectations, which can be tricky when they’re not dealing direct with the client… we can’t just translate the text, we have to be on hand, listen and do our utmost to satisfy our clients.
On the surface, it’s an easy job which most people sum up as: bilingual = translator.
So is there a difference between being bilingual and a translator?


La langue de la République est le français:
Article 3 of the Spanish Constitution:

United States of America:


Carole Chardeau
Before the self-employed profession there was simply the profession, thought, study, documentary research, and with going self-employed, meetings with translation agencies, personal clients and colleagues without forgetting personal development and the drive to delve deeper and push the profession forwards.

— One Comment —

  1. Summera Malik says:

    The article is quite an informative. The best way to translate is to use vocabulary and language structures common and popular in the languages of potential customers.

Comments are closed.