Multilingualism is a natural phenomenon which has existed for centuries in all parts of the world where people and languages came in contact with one another. In Europe, however, from the end of the eighteenth century, the construct of the nation state and the principle of ‘one language, one state, one people’ brought with it Europe’s struggle with multilingualism and the pursuit of linguistic (and cultural) homogeneity, which has been the European doctrine in the last two centuries and has impelled a view of multilingualism as undesirable, as abnormal. However, in the latter part of the twentieth century and most certainly in the 21st monlingual ideology, its complex relationship with ethnicity, territorial and social unity have been questioned in view of the “new multilingualisms” which are emerging among people, in the city landscape, across countries, in education and the workplace.
Multilingualism has ideological, political and economic dimensions, as well as several institutional and scientific aspects. No single scientific field has the privilege of being the most appropriate for the study of multilingualism since sociology, psychology, the neurosciences, education, pedagogy and other fields of study have been contributing significantly to our understanding of multilingualism and there is no single method of research which is especially suitable to the nature of the phenomenon.
Recent research into issues regarding multilingualism is quite rich because it touches on a wide variety of diverse phenomena, which are linked to one another but which are distinct because they occur on three different levels, i.e., the individual, the social and the institutional, as defined below:
- Individual multilingualism refers to the ability of a person to use more than two languages rather fluently—though most persons are not equally proficient in the languages they use in their private, academic and professional lives. Individual multilingualism involves people who are able to make themselves understood in more than two languages, whether they are young people or adults who have learnt two or more foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue (in which case they are referred to as polyglots); or, they may be children who live in bilingual homes or communities. Often this is the case of youngsters from immigrant families who speak one language at home or their community, use the official language at school, and are also learning an additional foreign language there.
- Societal (or social) multilingualism refers to the official or unofficial linguistic diversity in a country, a region or a particular community. Societal (or social) multilingualism refers to countries or communities where languages have different functions and often a different status. It also refers to the languages of civil society. The social and political relations between groups largely determine how individual bilingualism and/or multilingualism is perceived and treated within the society – if it is viewed as a resource, problem, or as a part of the civil and human rights of individuals or groups.
- Institutional multilingualism refers to countries which recognise their multilingual nature, such as South Africa, India or Belgium in the case of Europe. It also refers to supranational states, such as the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as organizations or educational institutions that operate in and with different languages. In the European Union the recognition of all member states‘ languages as official are a sine qua non for European integration. Therfore, the monolingualisms of the recent historical past are questioned for political, economic and instrumental reasons. As of 2002 especially, the EU has been promoting favourable attitudes to multilingualism and language learning “for a prosperous and stable Europe”, with an „internationally competitive economy, education and employment“.