October 5, 2021

When I buy clothes, I mistakenly think that the way I saw them in the store is the only way to wear them. My partner is the opposite, he buys something and can come up with 15 different ways to use it, which gives the item new life. Historically, we have used the terms bilingual and multilingual in certain ways. I want to challenge how we have used the term and offer a few different communities that could be included in the label to give the term new life


In the academic world, as much as the Twitter world, there is a growing conversation around the term, multilingual. Since I often (and for the foreseeable future will continue to) use this term, it is important that I define what it is that I mean, who I believe should be included within this identity, how I use this term, and why I use the term.

Who “gets” to be identified as multilingual?

Historically the term bilingual has been used for speakers of two “official” languages. Individuals who speak more than two “official” languages have been identified as multilingual or polyglot. 

Recategorizing Bilingual

Let’s start with an easy one. This simplification of languages has led to misunderstandings around languages, language varieties, assumptions around language “accuracy”, etc. The term “bilingual” is insufficient in acknowledging what researchers have demonstrated with the concept of translanguaging and the integrated manner in which individuals process languages in any given moment. A “bilingual” speaker can choose to speak two languages separately but the processing is all under one linguistic repertoire, so… the speaker also has the potential to mix the languages (see Ofelia Garcia). 

To be clear, I am not stating that there are then three languages that are being produced by speakers of two “official” languages. Rather that the linguistic system that a person has is far more complicated than a two-language separation. Therefore, a speaker of two distinct languages can engage in a third method of communication which is a combination of languages (intentionally or unintentionally) allowing for the additive label of “multilingual”, which historically has been reserved for those individuals who abide by language separation and formal language instruction guidelines. 

Language Varieties

Now, let’s get a little more complicated. For individuals who speak a language variety and can adjust their linguistic repertoire to meet the objective of a given task or environment; how are we acknowledging their language ability? Anyone who has been to New York, Miami and Los Angeles, has recognized that there is a difference in the way you speak and the words you use. The variety of English spoken in any country is far more diverse than we are led to believe. The same goes for any language that is spoken in various geographical locations. Due to many influences, (political, geographic, community, financial, etc) languages have the potential to shift and vary while still exhibiting many features that would categorize the overall expression as one particular official language. For practical purposes, this simplification can be useful, but for the purposes of promoting languages and valuing languages, this oversimplification erases the diversity that provides richness to societies. Individuals who can manipulate language varieties could also be included in the identification of multilingual.  

“Social” and “Academic” Language

Even trickier. The school system has traditionally prioritized a specific linguistic skill set. Conversations around “social” language versus “academic” language have demonstrated different teaching needs and different language acquisition results. Further, historically, as shifts in the language occur, the dominant language that is considered “academic” language usually aligns with dominant power groups, (i.e. white, male, heteronormative). And yet, there are individuals who acquire this language despite it not being their dominant linguistic pattern. They use their personal linguistic repertoire to acquire the language that is required of certain settings (ex. school/work) and adjust their way of communicating as necessary. Why shouldn’t they also be included in the identification of multilinguals? (see Nelson Flores

Space for Change

I can already see it coming, the problem. If everyone is a multilingual, then how do we differentiate the individuals/students who have explicit needs and abilities, that the system has historically disenfranchised? How do we avoid the exploitation of the term to exclude linguistic minorities? To that I say: The term is getting exploited right now. The term is being used to elevate status for individuals who have decided that they are entitled to claim their advanced linguistic ability because they are “proficient” in languages that society has deemed “valuable”. Starting to reveal the myths of language diversity in its less obvious forms allows for a more critical conversation of how we are working to value all languages and varieties. It also allows for individuals to engage in a conversation of how and where they fallin the spectrum of multilingualism, rather than pitting multilingual team versus monolingual team. As a language teacher for over a decade I would hear students say, I only speak “English” as though their brains weren’t constantly making metalinguistic connections in a variety of settings

All of this to say that the continued understanding of language research, coupled with the historical devaluation of certain linguistic communities does encourage us to rethink who “gets” to use this label and how we use it. We need to offer individuals the space to be included in this “multilingual” identity, especially those with linguistic resources that have been historically undervalued. Then maybe, we can distance this term from its elitist positioning and create alliances to further the critical conversation of language planning and policy. 


Dra. Rivera Pagán

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