In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bilingualism and Multilingualism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Glossaries
  • Edited Collections
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • A Worldwide Phenomenon
  • Language Contact
  • Issues and Conceptualization
  • Effects
  • Education
  • Language Impairments
  • Language Maintenance, Endangerment, and Death

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Bilingualism and Multilingualism
Tej K. Bhatia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0056


Bilingualism and multilingualism is an interdisciplinary and complex field. As is self-evident from the prefixes (bi- and multi-), bilingualism and multilingualism phenomena are devoted to the study of production, processing, and comprehension of two (and more than two) languages, respectively. However, in colloquial usage the term bilingualism is used as a cover term to embody both bilingualism and multilingualism. Although this use of “bilingualism” has been objected to strictly on etymological grounds, it is a common practice since the inception of the field (see Weinreich 1953, cited under General Overviews) to apply to the term for multilingualism as well as to the dialects of the same language. For reasons of convention, concision, and convenience, the term bilingualism is used as a cover term to include both bilingualism and multilingualism in this article. Still in its primary stages of exploration, bilingualism is a rapidly growing area of linguistics, which is grounded in interdisciplinary approaches and a variety of conceptual frameworks. In linguistics, bilingualism owes its origin largely to diachronic and sociolinguistics, which deal with linguistic variation, language contact, and language change. However, on theoretical and methodological grounds, bilingualism was/is viewed as a problematic area of linguistics prior to and after the emergence of Chomskyan linguistic revolution (see Issues and Conceptualization). Outside linguistics, bilingualism is also intimately tied with immigrant and marginalized groups and their educational and economic problems. A case in point is the bilingualism and intelligence debate during the first half of the 20th century (see under Effects and Education). The pioneering phase of bilingualism research in linguistics began with the works of Weinreich 1953, Haugen 1953, Mackey 1967 (all cited under General Overviews) and Jakobson, et al. 1953 (cited under Issues and Conceptualization) in the latter half of the 20th century (see also Description and Typology). Since then, research in multiple fields of bilingualism has taken interdisciplinary dimensions. The key research areas represented by the field include: the representation and processing of languages in the bilingual mind/brain, childhood and adult language acquisition, bilingual speech disorders, bilingualism and mixed linguistic systems, effects of bilingualism on individuals and societies, bilingualism and educational challenges, language endangerment, and extinction, among others. The oldest accounts of bilingualism can be traced back to Panini’s grammar of Sanskrit, religious texts, such as the Bible, and the accounts of classical languages, such as Greek and Latin, in the context of linguistic prescriptivism, language contact, and spread.

General Overviews

As pointed out in the Introduction, although the topic of bilingualism always drew attention in a variety of contexts, it was not until the latter half of the 20th century that the topic began to attract serious attention from linguists. The three seminal works that set the stage for diverse and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of bilingualism are Weinreich 1953, Haugen 1953, and Mackey 1967. Although written during the era of structural linguistics, they continue to impact the field. Weinreich 1953 presents an in-depth analysis of the linguistic, sociolinguistic, and psycholinguistic aspects of the two grammars in contact. Haugen 1953 offers an exhaustive case study of the Norwegian language in America, which is grounded in the pre-generative grammatical framework. Haugen claimed to have pioneered the term codeswitching. The author of Mackey 1967 formulated the key fundamental theoretical and empirical questions involving bilingualism.

  • Haugen, Einar. 1953. The Norwegian language in America: A study in bilingual behavior. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    DOI: 10.9783/9781512820522

    In this work the main approach to and treatment of bilingualism is similar to that of Weinreich 1953. However, here it is more accessible to a general audience.

  • Mackey, William F. 1967. Bilingualism as a world problem. Montreal: Harvest House.

    Explores the rationale for the neglect and challenges of studying bilingualism in linguistics.

  • Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in contact: Findings and problems. The Hague: Mouton.

    A classic in bilingualism. It presents a comprehensive study of grammars in contact, underpinning the mechanism and structural factors in the language development of bilinguals. The role of nonlinguistic factors also receives substantive treatment.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.