Multilingualism: Definition & Role in Education

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  • 0:04 Multilingualism
  • 0:38 Multilingualism Origin
  • 1:49 Multilingual Education
  • 3:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Frank Clint

Frank has been an educator for over 10 years. He has a doctorate degree in education with a concentration in curriculum and instruction.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

What is multilingualism, and why should you care about it? This lesson defines multilingualism and describes how this type of language learning works in a classroom.


If you are like Claudia, chances are you may have heard the word bilingual or bilingual education. But have you heard of multilingualism? Claudia was recently stumped when she told someone that she was bilingual and he responded that she was actually multilingual. She wondered if there was really a difference. Bilingual means the ability to use two languages fluently, while multilingual means using or having the ability to use several languages with the same amount of fluency. It seems silly to Claudia now that she was calling herself the wrong term.

Multilingualism Origin

Claudia, who was born in Brazil, speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese. In many countries around the world, multilingualism is the norm. When people migrate from one place to another, they take their languages with them. This is how multilingualism occurs.

There are different forms of multilingualism. One form focuses on how languages function in society, such as playing a specific role. Some nations have more than one official language, while other languages are used in social contexts. Another form is individual multilingualism, or a person's ability to communicate in different languages in different settings. Some nations value language learning and often require students to learn two or more languages.

Language learning happens in two ways. People aren't born multilingual. Children begin acquiring one or more languages as they go about living their lives. As they grow, one language may become the dominant language. This type of language learning is not really optional but a result of an individual's circumstances. Another way individuals acquire language is by deciding to learn it on their own. An example of this is when when someone takes a foreign language in high school or college.

Multilingual Education

A multilingual classroom in India looks like any other classroom. If you look and listen closely, however, you might notice two students speaking in their native tongues. Their teacher explains that one student is explaining the previous lesson, which was taught in the Hindi language.

Nations with large migration patterns, such as Germany, use multilingual education models. Students learn the official language and two other languages with the intent of becoming multilingual.

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Additional Activities

Multilingual Education Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 1:

Multilingualism refers to being fluent in multiple (more than two) languages. It is normative in many countries for children to be raised multilingual. Being multilingual has the obvious benefit of being able to communicate with more people from different cultures. It also has the benefit of protecting the brain from dementia, with research showing that bilingual and multilingual individuals succumb to dementia later in life than those who are monolingual. Given what you know about multilingualism, do you think it would be beneficial for education to place a greater emphasis on teaching multiple languages to children? Why or why not? Write two to three paragraphs, beginning with a thesis statement indicating whether you believe multilingualism to be important and explaining the reasons why. For example, you may opine that multilingualism is not important for schools to teach, and state that the schools already have more material than they can currently teach children effectively.

Writing Prompt 2:

For this activity, you need to design an education plan to teach multilingualism in a school of your choosing. For example, since the brains of young people are more plastic and open to new information, you may believe that a multilingual program should begin in early elementary school. You may then discuss how many languages you would have the children learn, how many days per week they would be in language classes, whether the classes would be immersion classes or not, and for how many years your program would ideally run. In three to four paragraphs, write a detailed plan of how you conceptualize an effective multilingual program being implemented.

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