04 JANUARY 2016

Multilingualism – the norm in a 21st Century global society

Multilingualism – the norm in a 21st Century global society

It is very difficult to estimate the true number of multilingual people in the world. Some commentators such as Grosjean and Crystal have suggested, respectively, that more than half of the world's population uses two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life[1] or that three-quarters of the world’s population use at least two languages in their everyday lives, and perhaps half use at least three[2]. This phenomenon is increasing rapidly due to two major factors: increases in migration and social/workforce mobility and the importance of mastery of a lingua franca for political and economic reasons.

One such lingua franca is of course English. The implications of English being mastered the world over, not for purposes of engagement with Anglophone cultures, but to communicate with native speakers of a range of other languages, are often misunderstood by native Anglophones. There is increasing evidence, not least from global businesses that, in multinational environments using English as a lingua franca, it is the native Anglophones who communicate least successfully: as far as intercultural competences and strategies are concerned, native speakers are frequently disadvantaged due to their lack of practice in these processes and over-reliance on English as their L1[3](first language).Thus it is by becoming increasingly multilingual themselves that Anglophones will be more effective cross-cultural communicators, even through the medium of English! Furthermore, there is evidence of language learning enhancing the mastery of literacy and communication skills in one’s Mother Tongue.


In the UK we often cling to the myth that we are bad at learning languages. It is risible to think that this is because of any inherent lack of ability. However, this myth is underpinned by ignorance about why multilingualism is important and what it actually means, and is dismissive of the ever increasing numbers of British residents and citizens who are functionally multilingual. It also reflects an interesting phenomenon which Crystal  describes as egotistical monolingualism – in other words misplaced pride in not speaking other languages, because we speak English. The terms ‘bilingualism’ and ‘multilingualism’ are often mistakenly understood to mean that an individual has perfect and equal mastery in more than one language and it is easy to feel inhibited about achieving ‘native standard’ levels of perfection. On the contrary, studies in multilingualism point to what Grosjean calls the complementarity principle of functioning in different domains in different languages and to different levels of proficiency. Meanwhile, in increasingly multicultural societies, pressure on immigrant populations is, understandably, on acquisition of the official national language, in a way which can dismiss or disregard the additional linguistic asset which the mother tongue or heritage language represents, while they also demonstrate on a daily basis that they are excellent language learners. There is therefore no inherent elitism in bilingualism.

Multilingualism is achievable when we dispel some of these myths, including the one that language courses and qualifications should only be taken by the most academically gifted children. If promoted better and accompanied by good teaching, multilingualism should not discriminate on the grounds of ability or background. On the contrary, language learning is in itself beneficial to the development of a range of cognitive functions. We have long believed that multilinguals are more creative and better problem solvers than their monolingual peers. Advances in neuroscientific observations using functional MRI scanning techniques have found evidence of increased grey matter and enhanced brain plasticity[4], not only in bilinguals from childhood but as a direct result of engaging in language learning in adulthood too[5].

As societies, we need to embrace multilingualism as the new ‘normal’. That would therefore suggest that monolingualism is ‘abnormal’ or even an aberration. Carlos Fuentes[6] and others have embraced the slogan: multilingualism is curable. Let’s cure it!

[1] Grosjean, F (2010) Bilingual: life and reality. Harvard University Press

[2] Crystal, D (2011) From the world to the word – and back again (CILT Primary Languages Show plenary talk)

[3] Hülmbauer, C, Böhringer, H & Seidlhofer, B (2008) Introducing English as a lingua franca (ELF): Precursor and partner in intercultural communication. Synergies Europe no 3 – 2008 pp. 25-36

[4] Olulade, O, Jamal, N, Koo, D, Perfetti, C, LaSasso, C, and Eden, G. Neuroanatomical Evidence in Support of the Bilingual Advantage Theory. Cereb. Cortex, July 16, 2015

[5] Bak, T, Nissan, J, Allerhand, M & Deary, I (2014) Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging? Annals of Neurology 2014;75:959–963

[6] Fuentes, C (1999) The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin. NY


Jocelyn Wyburd is Director of the Language Centre at the University of Cambridge. Read Jocelyn's full career profile.