Multilingualism and language contact

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Let’s Revise! – Chapter 7

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Chapter author: Michael Hornsby

Everyone has the potential for multilingualism

Multilingualism is a powerful fact of life around the world, a circumstance arising at the simplest level, from the need to communicate across speech communities’ (Edwards 1994:1).

Multilingualism may indeed be a fact of life, as Edwards maintains above, and people use the term freely, but what exactly is meant by it? The definition of multilingualism as used here centres on the practice of using more than one language, to varying degrees of proficiency, among individuals and societies. It includes individuals who use one language at home, and another (or others) outside the home; it means people who have equal ability in two or three languages; it includes people who can function much better in one language but who can still communicate in another (or other) language(s); it refers to societies and nation-states who use more than one language in a variety of situations to varying degrees. Basically, multilingualism is the co-existence of more than one language in any given situation, which, according to Guadelupe Valdés, writing on the Linguistic Society of America website, is actually the norm for most people and not the exception:

Contrary to what is often believed, most of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. Monolingualism is characteristic only of a minority of the world’s peoples. According to figures cited in Stavenhagen (1990) for example, five to eight thousand different ethnic groups reside in approximately 160 nation states. Moreover, scholars estimate that there are over 5000 distinct languages spoken in that same small number of nation states. What is evident from these figures is that few nations are either monolingual or mono-ethnic. Each of the world’s nations has groups of individuals living within its borders who use other languages in addition to the national language to function in their everyday lives.


How does multilingualism function? Exploring the term ‘multilingualism’

Referring to another definition of multilingualism, that of the European Commission, we come to the interesting notion of how exactly multilingualism works in practice. If multilingualism is ‘the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage, on a regular basis, with more than one language in their day-to-day lives’ (EC 2007:6, see also PDF), then what does this actually look like? The Council of Europe points out that the mere existence of more than one language in any given territory does not mean that multilingualism affects all individuals there:

Multilingualism refers here exclusively to the presence of several languages in a given space, independently of those who use them: for example, the fact that two languages are present in the same geographical area does not indicate whether inhabitants know both languages, or only one.

(Council of Europe: 2007:17).

For example, here is a sign in Glasgow, Scotland (UK) which reflects local multilingualism:


Photo: Nicole Nau, August 2011


As the Council of Europe points out, it is likely that such a poster reflects compartmentalized multilingualism – a Glaswegian would be unlikely to know all of the languages mentioned and certainly no more than one or two, if that. Conversely, it is interesting to note which languages are NOT included. Gaelic, for example, which has special status in Scotland and in Glasgow in particular, where thousands of Gaelic speakers live, does not appear. It could be argued that as all Gaelic speakers can also speak English, Gaelic is ‘redundant’. Such an example demonstrates that limits are often imposed, with good reason, on the number of languages to be employed in any situation of ‘official’ or public multilingualism.

Therefore, multilingualism can often be seen to refer more to societies and states rather than individuals. When it comes to individuals’ abilities in more than one language, the term plurilingualism might be more appropriate and this has been defined by the Council of Europe (2007:17) as the use of ‘languages for the purposes of communication … where a person … has proficiency, of varying degrees, in several languages and experience of several cultures’. Note that we can talk of different levels of ability in the same individual: a person may speak one of his or her languages more easily than another, but she/he remains ‘plurilingual’.

Prestige: Official multilingualism

Different languages can be granted a high status level if they are recognised by governments as official within a given territory. For example, in Equatorial Guinea, Spanish, Portuguese and French function as co-official languages within the state. This situation can also exist within smaller units of territory. For instance, the city of Brussels in Belgium is officially bilingual, and (in theory at least) people there can deal with public officials in either Dutch or French, according to their preference.

This may not always work out in practice though. Let us take the example of Brussels again. In theory, someone can access public services (for example, when paying your telephone bill or visiting a hospital) in either French or Dutch, but in practice, French tends to dominate, as the following passage shows:

So I went to the outpatient emergency department. A doctor came to see me, a woman who originally spoke a language other than French or Dutch, very nice, but who spoke to me in French. I spoke back in Dutch, but she didn’t understand. In the end, I explained to her what had happened in French. Finally, I was allowed to leave the hospital and I was given a letter for my GP (family doctor). And what happened? The letter was also written in French! … I am bilingual. I know how to express myself in French. But I just wonder: what if I had been a Dutch monolingual, what would have happened?

(De Keere et al. 2011: 30, translation M. Hornsby)

Thus we can see that even when a territory has official bilingualism or multilingualism, different languages can occupy different levels of what might be called a linguistic hierarchy, depending on the level of prestige, given to the language. Prestige here means the level of respect accorded to a language or dialect as compared to that of other languages or dialects in a speech community. The concept of prestige in sociolinguistics is closely related to that of prestige (or class) within a society. Generally, there is positive prestige associated with the language or dialect of the upper classes, and negative prestige with the language or dialect of the lower classes. For example, the language variety in the Ukraine known as ‘surzhyk’ (the original term means poor quality bread made of mixed rye and oats) is seen as the language of peasants, and is used on the street or at the bazaar by newly urbanized inhabitants and is widely regarded as ‘a pejorative … collective label for a wide range of mixed Ukrainian-Russian and Russian-Ukrainian language forms that dissolve and intertwine the structures of the two Eastern Slavonic languages’ (Bernsand 2001: 40 ). The following clip  is part of a TV campaign in Ukraine to encourage people not to use surzhyk, indicating just how low the variety’s prestige is in Ukrainian society. As the presenter explains, the fact that surzhyk doesn’t ‘officially’ exist doesn’t prevent it from being ‘everywhere’. He says it’s neither Russian nor Ukrainian, but the result of the speech of people who don’t know either Russian or Ukrainian well (note the value judgement in such a statement). He then gives many examples of how surzhyk is not considered prestigious but rather a ‘mixed’ language, one example being the tendency for surzhyk speakers to add the Ukrainian suffix -ти (indicating the infinitive of a verb) to Russian verbs.

ukrainian languages


A map showing the areas in Ukraine where surzhyk (су́ржик) is spoken (source The Guardian)


Lack of prestige: Situations of unbalanced multilingualism

The example above of Brussels shows that in official multilingual situations, even official languages can occupy different tiers on a hierarchy and that in the case of Brussels, French holds more prestige than does Dutch. What happens then in situations where unofficial multilingualism exists? Let us take the case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: this country has French as its official language, and Lingala, Kongo, Swahili and Tshiluba as national languages.

A lingua franca is a working, bridge or vehicular language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue.

Conceivably, a citizen of this country might expect to deal with a state official in one of these four languages (and indeed in practice might only be guaranteed service just in French) but what about the other 238 languages spoken in the country? There would be no systematic way of ensuring that a speaker of one of these other languages could communicate with a government official other than in one of the four lingua francas mentioned above. Indeed, the practicalities of making all the languages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ‘official’ are probably nigh on impossible, thus making full and equal multilingualism a dream, in this particular case at least.

Benefits of plurilingualism

For both individuals and  societies as a whole, there are considerable benefits to be gained from being plurilingual. These are listed below.

Individual plurilingualism:

  1. For the individual, plurilingualism is known to produce cognitive advantage (Bialystok, 2001)
  2. It improves performance on a range of tasks related to educational attainment (Ricciardelli, 1992)
  3. It facilitates the acquisition of literacy (Kenner, 2004)
  4. It makes the learning of additional languages easier (Cenoz & Valencia, 1994)
  5. It delays the effects of ageing on the brain (Bialystok et al., 2006).

Societal plurilingualism

  1. There are economic advantages for societies in which adults can use more than one language in commercial contexts (CILT/ InterAct International, 2007)
  2. Ensuring that public services are linguistically accessible to all produces a more informed and democratic society (Corsellis, 2005)
  3. People who grow up speaking more than one language in their daily lives have the potential to gain personally but also to constitute a valuable resource for wider society.

Some possible drawbacks:

It is generally agreed by linguists and educationalists nowadays that plurilingualism provides more benefits than drawbacks, and views such as those of Jespersen, who wrote in 1922 that bilingualism was bad for a child, are now discredited. The circumstances in which people become plurilingual may be problematic though: some may grow up in families where each parent speaks a different language; some may move from one country to another in the course of their childhood and learn a second language at a later stage than the first; while others may speak one language at home with their family and another at school, among other possibilities. Such experiences typically lead to uneven levels of competence in each of the languages in question (Baker, 2006). In such cases, formal instruction in the language(s) in question may lead to more balanced plurilingualism.

Language contact

Whereas multilingualism can exist in separate enclaves, with speakers of different languages living on the same territory not being able to communicate in each other’s language (for example, monolingual speakers of English and French in Canada), in situations of plurilingualism, where individuals are using more than one language in their lives, language contact is likely to occur. By language contact, we mean where groups, or individuals, are using different languages and their use of language is modified as a result. This can occur in several different ways. English, for example, has borrowed a great deal of vocabulary from French, Latin, Greek, and many other languages in the course of its history without speakers of the different languages having actual contact; book learning by teachers causes them to pass on the new vocabulary to other speakers via literature, religious texts, dictionaries, etc But many other contact situations have led to language transfer of various types, often so extensive that new contact languages are created.

Extensive plurilingualism in a given region can lead to diffusion of both vocabulary and grammar across their languages, examples today being areas of Papua New Guinea, the Amazon basin and the Australian desert.

In some communities, the ability to manipulate two or more languages can lead to very intricate patterns of linguistic swopping. Some communities have highly regular patterns of what is known as ‘diglossia’, where one language variety is used in informal contexts such as the home, neighbourhood, etc., and another is used in more formal situations, usually due to prestige. Sometimes, specific words or phrases alternate in the same sentence, and not whole languages, and we will look at this phenomenon below.

Results of language contact


A pidgin is a communicative code that allows people of different languages to talk to each other without having to go through the trouble of learning each other’s languages. Some English-pidgins are Liberian English (Africa) and Chinese Pidgin English. A French-based one is Tay Boi, spoken in Vietnam. It is characterized by reduced syntax and vocabulary, no fixed order of words and used purely as a language of communication. Here is an example of a what was originally a ‘pidgin’, currently used in Hawaii (though see note below) : NOTE: Although its name suggests otherwise, the language that is known among Hawaiʻi residents as “Pidgin” has been a creole for at least 80 years (see the next section on creole for more explanation).


A creole is a stable natural language developed from the mixing of parent languages; creoles differ from pidgins in that they have been adopted by children as their primary language, with the result that they have features of natural languages that are normally missing from pidgins. For example, whereas pidgins in their phonology might show cluster reduction (e.g. ‘dust’ becoming ‘dus’) and morphologically, pidgins do not mark different verbal forms (e.g. by dropping the s-agreement from verbs: ‘he goes’ becoming ‘he go’), creoles do show such features.

Some examples include Babalia Creole (based on Arabic and spoken in Chad), Negerhollands (Dutch-based and spoken in the U.S. Virgin Islands) and Krio (English-based and spoken in Sierra Leone).

Here is an example of Guadelope Creole, which derives its grammar and vocabulary from Carib, African languages and French. The sign means: ‘Slow down. Children are playing here.’


Sign in Guadeloupe creole on tree in a residential area (Lamarre, unincorporated) near Sainte Anne, Guadeloupe, France. Translation: “Slow down, children are playing here!”. Guadeloupéen/Guadeloupean Creole French: “Lévé pié aw – Ni ti moun ka joué la!”. Date: 30 March 2010, Photo: Kim Hansen

Code switching and loan words

Code-switching is the use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation. Multilinguals sometimes use elements of different languages in conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the use of more than one linguistic variety in a manner consistent with the syntax and phonology of each variety. Here is an example of code-switching using Indonesian, French and English:

A loanword (or loan word) is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language. Donor language terms generally enter a recipient language as a technical term (in connection with exposure to foreign culture. The specific reference point may be to the foreign culture itself or to a field of activity where the foreign culture has a dominant role.
Examples which have come in English include:

  • Australian aboriginal languages
    • Billabong (in Australian English meaning a water hole or small lake)
  • African languages
    • Jazz from Mandinka jasi, Temne yas (meaning ‘energy’, ‘drive’)
  • North America: from Algonquian languages
    • caribou
    • moose
    • chipmunk
    • raccoon
    • muskrat
    • opossum
    • woodchuck
    • terrapin
    • skunk
  • Arabic
    • Gazelle from غزال ghazāl
  • Dutch
    • Aloof probably from Dutch loef (=”the weather side of a ship”); originally a nautical order to keep the ship’s head to the wind, thus to stay clear of a lee-shore or some other quarter, hence the figurative sense of “at a distance, apart”.
  • French
    • Advertisement (from avertissement [warning])


Language users may generally think of several linguistic features as belonging together, such as “words” in a “vocabulary”. Typically the language users may also assign this group of features to a name, such as “German” – so that a vocabulary would be “the vocabulary of German.” Thereby the language users have constructed and agreed upon the idea of a “language” which they call “German”. “Speaking a language” therefore means using features which are associated with a given language – and only such features. However, in real life speakers may use the full range of linguistic features at their disposal, in many cases regardless of how they are associated with different “languages”. Languaging is therefore the use of language, not of “a language”. ‘Translanguaging’ or ‘polylanguaging’ is the phenomenon when speakers use all their communicative skills and some parts are associated with different “languages”, including the cases in which the speakers know only few features associated with a given “language” (Moller 2008, Jorgensen 2010).

In other words, the speaker in the following clip ( uses both English and Gaelic in telling his personal story. We could perceive it in terms of ‘switching’ between languages or we can view it as a speaker telling his story using both of the languages he knows well, namely Gaelic and English. Here is the transcript of the first few minutes:

Tormod MacGill-Eain: Tighinn Dhachaidh

I said, “Och, I’ll get a smoke at Cill-Amhlaigh.
“Oh, Dhia, you’re not going to Cill-Amhlaigh, a Thormoid.
“What? Where am I going?”
“You’re going to the hospital.”
So, sin far an do land mi mu uair sa mhadainn. Baile a’ Mhanaich, anns an ospadal.
“Well, you can stay tonight. You’re obviously…” Bha da bhata agam.
“…You can stay tonight, but we must get in touch with Social Services in the morning.”
Fine, fine. Leig leam chadal.”
Chaidil mi. Sa mhadainn, thainig an te mhor a bha seo, is ars ise:
Right, Thormoid, ’s e DP a th’ annad a-nist.”
“De tha sin a’ meanigeadh?”
“Displaced Person.”
“Displaced Person? Story of my life. Yeah, right, I am.”

Sociolinguistically speaking, we can see this as a fully coherent story. I have highlighted the English words in his speech, which form over half of his utterances. Does this mean he is therefore speaking ‘bad’ Gaelic? Not at all. What we have here is an example of translanguaging or polylanguaging, which people who can speak more than one language do all the time. Linguists’ obsessions with labels means that often people want to separate out the two languages, and have the narrative either in Gaelic or in English, but this would not reflect social reality. The speaker in the clip, Norman, is conflating three different short exchanges, at least two of them being with other Gaelic-English bilinguals who are also codeswitching in the same way he does in the clip itself. Translanguaging is a very important aspect of many minority language communities at the present time and focuses upon communicative contexts, rather than focusing on the minority language itself. This is a natural process, and does not necessarily mean that the language is ‘endangered’, since other, non-linguistic factors are involved in language endangerment.

Lemko is an eastern Slavic language, closely related to Ukrainian, spoken by a small minority in present-day Poland. Due to long-lasting language contacts with western Slavic languages (mainly Slovak and Polish dialects) it has naturally absorbed many features of those languages as well. In 2011, there were about 10,000 Lemkos (though this is probably a low figure, because many Lemkos are worried about identifying themselves because of discrimination they suffered after the Second World War, particularly as a result of massive resettlements in the 1940s – first to Soviet Ukraine, then to the newly “regained” Poland’s western and northern territories). Fewer and fewer people are speaking Lemko, and many of the younger generations are showing signs of contact with standard Polish in their speech. The following film is an extract of an interview with some Lemko teenagers, who are talking about their experiences of being a Lemko speaker nowadays. If you speak Polish, you will recognise many Polonised features in their language, which are characteristic of the polylingualism or translanguaging which is mentioned in this chapter.

Study questions:

  • Some people may see the hybrid nature of these young people’s language as detrimental to the survival of Lemko. Can you think of any ways in which such language shows creativity and signs of transformation?
  • Does anything these Lemkos are talking about resemble situations of language endangerment in other countries?


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Gordon Wells, project officer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, for his comments on the Gaelic example in this chapter. We would further like to thank Angela H. Haeusler, Senior Research Assistant Hawaiʻi Language Roadmap, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, for her comments on Pidgin (Hawaiʻi Creole).

Let’s Revise! – Chapter 7

Go to the Let’s Revise section to see what you can learn from this chapter or test how much you have already learnt!

References & further reading

  • Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Bernsand, Niklas. (2001). Surzhyk and national identity in Ukrainian nationalist language ideology. Berliner Osteuropa Info 17, 38-47.
  • Bialystok, Ellen. 2001. Bilingualism in development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., & Ryan, J. (2006). Executive control in a modified anti-saccade task: Effects of aging and bilingualism. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 32, 1341–1354.
  • Cenoz, J. & J. F. Valenica. (1994). Additive trilingualism: Evidence from the Basque Country. Applied Psycholinguistics 15, 195-207.
  • CILT/InterAct International (2007). Effects on the European Union economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in Enterprise (ELAN).
  • Cook, Vivian J. (2001). Requirements for a multilingual model of language production. Retrieved from
  • Cook, Vivian J. (ed.). (2002) Portraits of the L2 user. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  • Corsellis, A. (2005). Training interpreters to work in the public services. In M. Tennant (ed.). Training for the new millennium. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Council of Europe (2007). From linguistic diversity to plurilingual education: Guide for the development of language education policies in Europe. (accessed 17 June 2012).
  • Cummins, James P. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In Leyba, F. C. (ed.). Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework. Los Angeles, CA: Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center, California State University, 3-49.
  • De Keere, Kobe, Mark Elchardus & Olivier Servais. 2011. Un pays, deux langues. Lannoo : Tielt (Belgique).
  • Edwards, John. 1994. Multilingualism. London: Penguin Books.
  • Jespersen, Otto. 1922. Language: Its nature, development and origin. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
  • Jorgensen, J. N. 2010. Languaging. Nine years of poylingual development of Turkish-Danish grade school students, vol. 1-2. Copenhagen Studies in Bilingualism, the Koge Series, vol. K15-K16.
  • Kenner, Charmian. 2004. Becoming Biliterate: Young Children Learning Different Writing Systems. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.
  • Linguistic Society of America website: About linguistics (accessed 17 June 2012).
  • Moller, J. 2008. Polylingual performance among Turkish-Danes in Late-Modern Copenhagen. International Journal of Multilingualism, 5 (3), 217–236.
  • Ricciardelli, Lina A. 1992. Bilingualism and cognitive development in relation to threshold theory. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 21 (4), 301-316.

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