Are we multilingual enough?

Multilingualism is the ability to speak more than one language in any given situation. Some scholars opine that one is only considered multilingual when the languages were acquired during early childhood and if one’s command of these languages is perfect orally and in written form. These scholars are of the view that linguistically, one must be proficient in all language skills, namely, listening, speaking, reading and writing, similar to native speakers’ proficiency level to be considered multilingual.

However, others consider individuals with varying levels of proficiency in all languages as multilingual. This is because one’s level of proficiency in any language may be different depending on one’s reasons for using the language, as well as one’s experience of using it. For example, one may understand a spoken text by listening to it but may be unable to speak the language. This person can be considered having listening competency as opposed to verbal competency. The complexity of multilingualism can also be seen during code-switching, or language alternation. Code-switching happens when one is talking to other people in different settings and on varying subjects. For instance, a conversation with hawkers is more casual; one would not use English but one’s mother tongue. But at an academic conference, the same individual would use English and a different set of vocabulary.

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