Polyglot vs Multilingual vs Bilingual – Which One Are You?


Polyglot vs Multilingual vs Bilingual

When you look into language learning, the terms polyglot, multilingual and bilingual often comes out a lot. The terms are also somehow used interchangeably, and can be confusing. How are polyglot, multilingual, and bilingual people different?

A polyglot, multilingual, and bilingual can be explained as:

  • Polyglot: Fluent in four or more languages, using it with ease.
  • Bilingual: Fluent in two languages, may have better fluency than polyglots
  • Multilingual: The ability to be fluent in two or more languages, can be a polyglot or a bilingual.

This post explores the difference between polyglot, multilingual, and bilingual people, and which one are you.

Polyglot vs Multilingual vs Bilingual

TermMeaning
Polyglot– Speaks, reads, or writes in several languages proficiently.
– Navigates through four or more languages with ease.
– Often starts as monolingual, gradually adding new languages.
– Not just learning languages, but ‘living’ them.
Bilingual– Speaks two languages fluently.
– Switches between both languages with ease.
– Usually achieves high fluency in both languages.
Multilingual– Speaks more than one language, including bilinguals and trilinguals.
– Does not necessarily imply proficiency in several languages.
– May have varying fluency levels, with one language often dominating.
– All polyglots are multilinguals, but not all multilinguals are polyglots.

Polyglot

The term ‘polyglot’ shines as a beacon of linguistic achievement. A polyglot is a person who can speak, read, or write in several languages with proficiency.

Unlike bilingual or trilingual people, who are proficient in two or three languages respectively, polyglots navigate through four, five, or even more languages with ease.

Imagine you’re trying to learn a new language. Now, picture doing that with multiple languages concurrently. That’s the daily routine of a polyglot.

For them, a dictionary in one language usually dominates, but they fluently switch between their respective languages, whether it’s for work, travel, or hobby.

Multilingualism isn’t just about speaking English as a second language; it’s about embracing many tongues. Polyglots often start as monolinguals and gradually add new languages to their repertoire. They don’t just learn languages; they live them.

Steve Kaufmann for instance, became a polyglot sensation for his proficiency in over 20 languages, including:

The journey of a polyglot may begin with learning a second language and evolve into a passion for acquiring additional languages. They might speak Spanish, use English words, or converse in Moroccan Arabic, all in one conversation.

Their language learning transcends the monolingual norm, making them linguistic bridges between speakers of different languages.

The insider scoop? For many polyglots, one language usually dominates – often their mother tongue or first language. Yet, they can switch to their second, third, or even fourth languages with remarkable fluency.

This ability is not just about talent; it involves dedication, practice, and a deep understanding of not just the languages but the cultures behind them.

Polyglots, by definition, are not just language learners; they are cultural ambassadors. They navigate through dialects, understand the nuances of pronunciation, and appreciate the linguistic diversity of our world.

They are the epitome of what it means to speak more than one language, showcasing the beauty of multilingualism in its truest form.

Bilingual

Bilingualism, a facet of multilingualism, is a linguistic duality that enriches lives. Being bilingual isn’t just a mark of identity; it’s a tool for bridging worlds.

As a bilingual, you speak two languages fluently, often switching between them with ease.

Whether it’s a mother tongue and an official language or two entirely different languages, bilinguals navigate these linguistic waters daily.

In the world of language learning, a bilingual might start with their native language and then learn a second language. This could possibly be English as a second language or Spanish, depending on their geographical or cultural background.

This journey often involves immersing oneself in a new language through dictionaries, language classes, and real-life practice.

What’s remarkable is that, unlike polyglots who may juggle many languages, bilinguals often achieve a higher level of fluency and proficiency in both languages.

The life of a bilingual person can be fascinating. For example, you might use your first language at home and your second language at work. This ability to speak two languages fluently opens up opportunities in both personal and professional realms.

It’s not just about speaking; it’s about thinking, feeling, and experiencing the world in two different linguistic frameworks.

In bilingualism, one language usually dominates. This dominant language is often the one used most frequently or the one learned first.

Yet, bilinguals maintain a high level of fluency in both languages, often using them for different purposes and in different contexts.

Moreover, bilinguals contribute significantly to the cultural and linguistic diversity of a society. They act as bridges between communities, bringing perspectives from both their languages into their interactions.

In many cases, bilinguals also play a crucial role in the transmission of culture and traditions, preserving them for future generations.

Are Polyglots Similar With Multilingual People?

The terms ‘polyglot’ and ‘multilingual’ often appear interchangeably. But are they truly synonymous? A deeper look reveals nuances that distinguish these linguistic identities.

A polyglot is a person who has mastered multiple languages. The key here is the number – typically, a polyglot speaks four or more languages fluently.

They might have started learning languages as a hobby or for professional reasons, gradually adding new languages to their repertoire.

Polyglots often have a deep interest in not just the languages but also the cultures and nuances associated with each. They are proficient in switching between languages, sometimes using different languages for different contexts.

On the other hand, ‘multilingual’ is a broader term. It refers to someone who speaks more than one language, which includes bilinguals (two languages) and trilinguals (three languages).

Multilingualism doesn’t necessarily imply the high level of proficiency in several languages that polyglots possess.

A multilingual person might speak their native language and English as a second language, or they might be proficient in Spanish and French, for example.

The distinction becomes clearer when you consider their language use. A polyglot, like Timothy Doner, may speak Moroccan Arabic, Romansh, and several other languages with equal proficiency, seamlessly switching between them.

In contrast, a multilingual person might use two languages daily but may have varying degrees of fluency in each, often with one language dominating.

It’s fascinating to note that many polyglots start as bilingual or trilingual and gradually become polyglots. Their journey of language learning often involves immersive methods, using dictionaries, language teachers, and real-life practice.

They might learn languages for travel, work, or as a way to connect with different cultures. Their proficiency in multiple languages is a testament to their dedication and love for linguistic diversity.

In essence, while all polyglots are multilinguals, not all multilinguals are polyglots. The depth of proficiency and the number of languages spoken are key differentiators.

Whether it’s speaking two languages or many, each person’s linguistic journey is unique and contributes to the rich tapestry of global communication.

Dr. Nigel Ong

Dr. Nigel Ong has a Ph.D in Applied Linguistics. He started this website to share his interest and passion in languages, and language learning. He speaks four languages.

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