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Review of  An Introduction to Multilingualism

Reviewer: Yi Wang
Book Title: An Introduction to Multilingualism
Book Author: Florian Coulmas
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 29.4856

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Multilingualism is not a newly emerging phenomenon. But it has been catapulted to a new world order in this 21st century due to accelerated globalization, technologization, and mobility (The Douglas Fir Group, 2016). In the book “An Introduction to Multilingualism: Language in a Changing World”, Florian Coulmas points out that “the number of people who live with two or more languages in their everyday lives is estimated at more than half the world’s population” (p. xii). While multilingualism and multilinguals are not new phenomena, there are lots of debates on the concepts, realities, theories, and methodologies in relation to multilingual studies. The book “An Introduction to Multilingualism: Language in a Changing World” written by Florian Coulmas is a valuable introduction to the research body of multilingualism, which covers the aforementioned topics from various points of view. The author views multilingualism as a dynamic process, which is subject to sociopolitical change and ideological construct. The book consists of four main parts, which aim to define the multiplicity of languages, describe multilingualism across space, problematize the phenomenon from linguistic and societal aspects, and provide methodology to research on multilingualism.

The first four chapters provide an overview of multilingualism in terms of the current situation and facts, the definitions and perspectives, the theoretically related concepts, and overarching standpoints. It sets the scene for further discussions in the following sections of the book.

Chapter 1, “The polyphonic world”, provides an overview of language related facts and discusses the multifaceted nature of the language system. The chapter first provides statistics from multiple sources on the number and distribution of languages in the world, discusses the concept of language family and the origin of language classification, and points out the connection between richness of languages and the wealth of nations. Based on these facts, the author suggests that “the languages of the world constitute a highly complex system” (p.16) and it is permeated by multiple dimensions of inequality, which results in difficulty in counting the exact number of languages. Described in more detail in Chapter 4, the author argues that “the study of polyphonic world in all its facets is above all about inequality” (p. 23).

Chapter 2 is entitled “Multilingualism is …: Twenty definitions and more”; it provides definitions of the core word “multilingualism”. By looking at the dictionary entries, the author discusses the lexicalization of multilingualism using many languages as examples. It then critically reviews the twenty different definitions discussed in the field, which focuses on multilingualism as a capacity, a practice, an attitude or ideology, or an object of theorizing respectively.

In Chapter 3, “Descriptive and theoretical concepts”, discusses and defines a series of concepts, which are crucial for the study of multilingualism. It is worthwhile to point out that the author addresses the importance of not viewing languages as fixed and separate systems when using terminologies related to linguistic diversity. Instead, multilingualism is fluid, dynamic, vague, and inconsistent in nature. A couple of technical terms such as Language, Variety, Diglossia and Heteroglossia, Patois, Pidgin, Code, Code-switching, Bilingual, Native Speaker, Mother tongue are discussed along a static and dynamic line to highlight the core characteristic of multilingualism.

Chapter 4 is named “Power, inequality, and language”. It further illustrates the relationship among power, inequality, and language using three specific cases (i.e., Chinese in Indonesia, the disputed status of Catalan in Europe, and frictions between Ukrainophones and Russophones). By answering the questions on restricted language choices (i.e., whose language choices are restricted, who decides the restrictions, how are the restrictions being justified, who enforces the restrictions, and how are they contested), the author argues that language choice and the phenomenon of multilingualism is by no means a socially situated and constructed practice, involving agents from multiple levels.

Chapters 5 to 9 examine the reality of multilingualism at different levels and spaces including polyglot individuals, international institutions, super-diverse cities, and multiethnic countries. The author also includes cyberspace, which is an important place for use of languages.

In Chapter 5, “The polyglot individual”, the author centers on the polyglot, referring to “the individual who has command, to various degrees, of two or more languages” (p.81) and how a polyglot views and uses multiple languages. By analyzing the autobiographical reports of four famous multilingual writers, the author seeks information on several controversial topics such as the critical stage of becoming multilingual, the cognitive process involved in using multiple languages, the importance of order of acquisition, the dominant language of bilinguals, and the pros and cons of being a multilingual.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Multilingual (international) institutions”; it moves the focus from the individual level to the institutional level. It first looks at the emergence and development of bilingual education in schools and its driving force behind language management. It then goes on to the use of languages in international institutes, using European institutes as detailed examples.Table 6.2 and 6.3 provides an overview of official and working languages in major international and regional organizations. These facts highlight the tensions between justice and practicality at both educational institutes and intergovernmental institutions.

In Chapter 7, “Talk of the town: Language in super-diverse cities”, examines the multilingual city and factors in city language profiles. More specifically, this chapter opens with a description of the historical development and current state in Brussels, as an example to illustrate the relationship between urbanization and language. Table 7.2 provides social variables and language variables that are considered in a city language profile. The interaction among these factors affords the researchers an opportunity to investigate urban multilingualism and social inequality in a metropolis.

Chapter 8, entitled “Multilingual (multiethnic) countries”, shifts the focus from multilingual cities to multiethnic countries. The chapter reviews several examples and investigates related factors that differentiate various types of multilingual countries. It also looks at notions including national, official, and minority languages and provides observations on how language conflicts between majorities and minorities arise and disappear in various states and countries.

Chapter 9, named “Diversity in cyberspace: The multilingual internet”, describes the linguistic diversity on the internet. It presents the relative prevalence of various languages on the internet, the saliency of literacy during online communication, and the role the internet may play in relation to minority languages. The author highlights some consequences of the era of digital communication in multilingual management and language choice.

After discussing the realities of multilingualism at various space and levels, Chapters 9 and 10 probe some theoretical issues focusing on the linguistic and social systems.

In Chapter 10, “Integration and separation: Language”, the author argues that languages of the world, as ever-changing and complex systems, may integrate with and separate from each other. The boundaries between languages are rather vague and the incorporation/segregation process may occur anywhere at any time.

Chapter 11, “Integration and separation: Society”, discusses how the changes of languages have mutual impact on the transformation of social systems and world orders. The chapter covers a wide range of issues that are relevant to the changing world. The author argues that “the conceptual parallel to society and language as ever-changing integrative systems, is always subject to the tension between structure and agency” (p. 244).

Chapter 12, as the final part, concludes the book as “Research Methods for investigating multilingualism”. It presents the common methods that could be adopted to investigate multilingualism, including collecting naturalistic data, conducting experiments, observing societal multilingualism, doing field work, gathering secondary data, and using written language data. It also discusses the possibility of incorporating digital technologies in data collection and analysis and provides future directions.


This book introduces the concepts, issues, and methodologies of multilingualism; it serves as a good introductory book for undergraduate students who are new to world language systems and novice graduate students who are interested in language use and the multilingual context. It is related to many fields, including language ideology, language policy and planning, internationalization, and language education. It provides various perspectives from the micro individual level to the macro international institute level, from regional phenomenon to international issues, from offline multilingualism to online communication. The book also covers examples from various ethnicities, races, regions, countries, and languages.

Language management starts with the individual (Spolsky, 2009, p.5) and it shapes and is shaped by the sociopolitical context. This book shows various relationships, including language and society, individual and community, city and country, and majority and minority. In addition, the content under each chapter is well-organized, leading with several overarching questions to be answered and covered in the chapter. Meanwhile, in each chapter, the author emphasizes the overarching argument that multilingualism is a dynamic, fluid, socially-situated process.

Highlighting the vagueness of language boundaries and the role of an ideological/sociopolitical construct fits well in the current scholarship in multilingualism. Named languages and languages may be viewed as two different concepts.

In summary, the book covers a wide range of topics that are important in the study of multilingualism and provides accounts for this complex process.


Atkinson, D., Byrnes, H., Doran, M., Duff, P., Ellis, N. C., Hall, J. K., ... & Norton, B. (2016). A
transdisciplinary framework for SLA in a multilingual world. Modern Language
Journal, 100, 19-47.

Spolsky, B. (2009). Language management. Cambridge University Press.
Yi Wang is a PhD Candidate majoring in Chinese Linguistics and minoring in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. Her major research interest focuses on the linkage of the macro ideological constructs with the micro-culture of language interaction in study abroad context. She is also interested in the process of additional language acquisition of multilingual individuals. Yi's research interests reflect her own experience as language educator and program director, whose students are mostly multilingual and transnational individuals. Her current research projects intersect with fields of study abroad, multilingualism, language ideology, sociolinguistics, and linguistic anthropology. She has publications and conference presentations in major avenues in the field of applied linguistics.