Students sometimes ask me what the difference is between multilingualism and plurlingualism. Because these concepts are also linked to monolingualism and bilingualism, I’ll explain each one here.
Monolingualism – The ability to speak only one language proficiently.
Bilingualism – The ability to speak two languages proficiently (though not necessarily perfectly).
Multilingualism – The ability to speak many languages proficiently (though not necessarily perfectly).
Plurilingualism – The capacity and competence to learn more than one language, as well as the value of linguistic tolerance within individuals and countries. It is associated with intercultural competence and democratic citizenship. This term is often used to talk about language education and policy. (For more details, see Council of Europe source referenced below.)
When we talk about proficiency, we are usually talking about a person’s ability to communicate in a language. Sometimes people also call this fluency, though the two terms have different meaning to those with linguistic training.
Please note, linguists and those with training in second language acquisition may (rightfully) contend that these definitions are simplified. My objective here is to offer clear and straightforward explanations, without too much technical jargon. If you are interested in digging deeper into these concepts, I encourage you to explore some of the resources I have listed in the references.
Boeckmann, K. B., Aalto, E., Abel, A., Atanasoska, T., & Lamb, T. (2011). Promoting plurilingualism – Majority language in multilingual settings Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Andrea_Abel/publication/259507522_Promoting_plurilingualism_-_Majority_language_in_multilingual_settings/links/0deec52c5967de1a36000000.pdf
Council of Europe. (2007). From linguistic diveristy to plurilingual education: Guide for the development of language education policies in Europe. Retrieved from https://rm.coe.int/16802fc1c4
Psaltou-Joycey, A., & Kantaridou, Z. (2009). Plurilingualism, Language Learning Strategy Use and Learning Style Preferences. International Journal of Multilingualism, 6(4), 460-474.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.
Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the Werklund School of Education or the University of Calgary.