Plurilingual or polyglot?

Imagine someone comes to you and asks: “Who is a polyglot?” You probably answer: “Someone who speaks several languages”. Well, good. Proud of yourself you forget this conversation and then another person comes to you and asks: “Who is a plurilingual then?” Hesitating slightly you would repeat “Someone who speaks several languages…”. That is where we seem to have a little problem. If the words mean the same what is the point to use both?

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First of all, let’s try to draw some parallels between these concepts. Many of the readers of this blog are plurilingual because to some extent they can speak Russian, Kazakh, English, and many other languages. However, not many of us would dare to call themselves polyglots. When I hear the word “polyglot” I recall a number of amazing stories about people who learned five, seven, ten and more languages in a very short period of time. Somebody like Timothy Doner or  Mabou Loiseau. However, thinking about plurilinguals, no exceptional stories come to my mind (apart from my fantastic groupmates). So does it mean that polyglots learn languages faster than plurilinguals? No. Does it mean that they know more languages? No. Does it mean that they are polyglots because it is just a fancy way to call them? It sounds a little fancier, but no.

The main difference between these terms is in the way people acquire the languages. Marta Krzeminska, a language coach on the Languages Around the World portal, writes that polyglot is someone who learns languages deliberately because finds joy in it.  The plurilingual person is competent in several languages too but uses them in different linguistic situations; there is no emphasis on whether the languages were acquired simultaneously in one’s childhood or just added to the repertoire later.

Again, if we refer to Quora, the website where people share knowledge from a variety of fields, linguists, language learners, and linguistic enthusiasts claim that polyglot and plurilingual individual have a different attitude toward language and its learning. Polyglots learn because of their interest, plurilinguals are competent due to some external factors (multilingual society, family languages). Consequently, the word combination “plurilingual polyglot” expresses how I perceive myself. Plurilingual due to the environmental influence and the number of languages spoken; polyglot because I still enjoy learning other languages a lot.

The question is getting clearer if we go into the details but I still think that it is the matter of someone’s own perception whether to be a polyglot or a plurilingual individual. What is important is that we learn languages. The more the better.



10 thoughts on “Plurilingual or polyglot?

  1. I never thought of the difference between the two. Indeed, a polyglot is someone who learns the language for own reasons or pleasure. Now, I am starting to regard myself as a plurilingual polyglot. You say that the difference is the way they acquire the language, not the purpose?

    Thank you for your great post, Mariya!


    1. I am glad you find this post useful, Fariza! By “the way they acquire languages” I meant whether they learned languages intentionally or not. The purpose means almost the same in this context, so you are also right.
      Before entering GSE I heard “polyglot” so often and then suddenly it was replaced by “plurilingual individual”. Isn’t it interesting that we unconsciously know which one to use and when but never think about it?


      1. You shall raise this question on the class of Profesor Denise. That would be a great topic to discuss.

        p.s. I appreciate that you included Tim Doner here. Since I always talk about him but no one actually knows who he is. I recommend you to watch his video on TEDx, maybe you will find an inspiration to learn another language.


  2. Dear Mariya,
    In fact, I was also thinking about the difference between these words and concluded that they are just synonyms. So I appreciate your effort raising this interesting post and determining the meaning of each term. I think as an expert of multilingualism, it is paramount for us to be able to define and explicate the jargons like these to other people.


  3. Dear Mariya, thank you for an amazing post! Sometimes it is crucial for us, as multilingual leaders, to set clear cut boundaries between two seemingly same concepts. Especially in the field of multilingualism, where one can find so many fuzzy concepts! I think all of us should work towards eliminating any vagueness adherent to the concepts in the linguistics field. For instance, tell the exact difference between Multilingual and pluringual, and why there are two words to describe almost the same thing. Where one is better applicable than the other and etc.
    By the way, love the formulation of “pluringual polyglot”! Perhaps, this concept can be coined by you in the literature:)


    1. Dear @bayanassylbek and @akalya77, I am so glad that my post defining these two terms was helpful for you as much as it was for me. I do agree that as multilingual education professionals we should be able to explain vague terms and distinguish subtle differences between them. However, there is always a space for discussion because some scholars might see it differently and emphasize other characteristics of these notions that were not mentioned here.


  4. Super post, Mariya! (5/5) Based on your distinction, I am definitely not plurilingual, and I’m not even sure I’m a polyglot (although I might have been at one point in my life). I have learned three languages to a proficient level, but not entirely because I had to, and not entirely because I just love learning languages. I don’t study or actively use either of my foreign languages. Environment, desire, fluency and interest all seem to play varying roles at different times throughout one’s linguistic journey. Perhaps I was an aspiring polyglot in my younger years, and now I’m a dwindling trilingual. Thanks for shedding some light on a vague topic!


    1. Thank you, davidphilip, for your frank comment! There is another very interesting point that I see from it: to what extent can we talk about plurilingualism and polyglotism as someone’s past experiences? “I was a polyglot” sounds more or less believable due to the functional orientation of this term (might be also arguably). But “I was plurilingual” sounds ridiculous, at least for me, because once you acquired a language and added it to your linguistic repertoire, you cannot lose it completely, right? And it does not depend on the current level of language. So how long does the “effect” of plurilingualism/polyglotism last in someone’s life? I believe that plurilingual individuals stay plurilingual for life! What do you think? And what are your stances on that @farihandro, @bayanassylbek, and @akalya77?


      1. Well, I will stay plurilingual for life for sure. It does not depend on my proficiency in any language, but rather how I identify myself. I feel like I am starting to differentiate these two as: plurilingual is when it concerns the identity, and polyglot is when have certain degree of proficiency?


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