These terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a big difference between plurilingualism and multilingualism. These words describe the simultaneous use of several languages by one speaker or a group of speakers, but let’s take a closer look at their specific meanings.
The definition of plurilingualism
Plurilingualism refers to the ability to communicate in several languages (one’s mother tongue, plus one or more additional languages). Plurilinguals can communicate in languages other than their mother tongue.
As such, the term is only used to describe people and can be used regardless of fluency. For example, if a native Italian speaker speaks excellent English and conversational German, he or she would still be defined as plurilingual.
Bilingualism and trilingualism
Suppose a person has mastered one language in addition to their mother tongue. In that case, they would be bilingual. In contrast, trilingualism is used to describe someone who has mastered two other languages in addition to their mother tongue.
The definition of multilingualism
A place with two or more official languages is described as multilingual. Therefore, multilingualism describes a place with more than one official language.
Canada is a typical example, where French and English are commonly used and recognised as the country’s official languages.
On a non-geographical level, the adjective is also used to describe schools where lessons are taught in more than one language, and TV stations that broadcast shows in more than one language.
Besides Canada, as mentioned above, people in most African countries speak their native language, plus one or more European languages imported by colonisers.
Hawaii is a multilingual state in the United States as both Hawaiian and English are recognised as its official languages. Meanwhile, English and Spanish are recognised as the official languages of Puerto Rico and New Mexico.
Technically speaking, Italy is not a multilingual country, as it only has one official language (Italian). Still, it is home to lots of multilingual people (think of all the immigrants living in Italy).
When to use one term over the other
To make sure you are using the terms plurilingualism and multilingualism correctly, you should bear in mind that the word ‘plurilingual’ is only used to describe people. Meanwhile, the term ‘multiilingual’ is only used to describe abstract entities such as a country, school, or TV show.
At Eurotrad, we entrust our language translations to mother tongue translators who have perfect command of at least one additional language. All of our translators are bilingual at the very least, but many of them also speak a third or fourth language.
This makes Eurotrad an extremely multilingual place to be. We accept requests for quotes in any language, and look forward to receiving yours!