top of page

Bilingualism vs Trilingualism – What Are the Similarities and Differences?

Table of Contents






 

At the Multilingual Family Hub, we aim to provide information and inspiration to multilingual families of all flavours. Given that bilingualism and trilingualism are the most prevalent forms of multilingualism, let’s explore some of their key similarities and differences in this blog post to better understand these two important concepts.

 

Before we begin, let’s define the terms “bilingualism” and “trilingualism”.


 

What Do "Bilingualism" and "Trilingualism" Mean?


In its broadest sense, bilingualism refers to the ability to understand and/or speak TWO languages.

 

Similarly, trilingualism refers to the ability to understand and/or speak THREE languages.

 

Note that I have added the crucial word “/or” between “understand” and “speak”, as these are actually two interlinked but separate abilities, and an individual does not have to be able to do both to be classed as “bilingual”, at least according to some definitions.


I delve into this topic in more detail in my blog post titled Understanding Different Types of Bilingualism – give it a read if you’re interested!

 

So, on the most fundamental level, the difference between bilingualism and trilingualism is a numerical one (two vs three languages).

 

Now, let’s take a look at where these two concepts might overlap.

 

 

Bilingualism vs Trilingualism: Similarities

 


Similar Language Acquisition Processes


In both cases, proficiency in more than one language is developed through exposure, practice, and immersion.

 

Language acquisition involves similar processes regardless of the number of languages being learned, including vocabulary acquisition, grammar comprehension, and pronunciation refinement.



Significant Cognitive Benefits

 

Both bilingualism and trilingualism confer substantial and scientifically proven cognitive advantages.


Studies have shown that speaking multiple languages enhances cognitive functions such as problem-solving, multitasking, and decision-making. The constant need to switch between languages exercises the brain, leading to improved cognitive flexibility and executive functioning.

 

In a separate post, I explore some of these amazing cognitive and brain benefits in more detail. Alternatively, check out my YouTube video on the same topic.




 

So, whether you’re raising your child to be bilingual or trilingual, you can be certain of reaping significant cognitive benefits for your child!



Both Bilingualism and Trilingualism Promote Empathy and Cultural Understanding


Being able to speak more than one language gives people a deeper understanding of different cultures and a greater capacity for empathy and perspective taking, whether they speak two or three languages.


Furthermore, the ability to communicate in multiple languages allows for more meaningful interactions with people from diverse backgrounds, fostering empathy, tolerance, and cultural appreciation.



Being bilingual or trilingual has been shown to promote empathy and cultural understanding
Being bilingual or trilingual has been shown to promote empathy and cultural understanding

 

In a study titled "Bilingualism and Empathy: Tonality and Perspective Taking", published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, researchers found that bilingual children demonstrated greater empathy and perspective-taking abilities compared to monolingual peers. They attributed this finding to the cognitive demands of managing multiple languages, which may enhance perspective-taking skills.

 

Just to give you another example of relevant research in this field.


In a study titled "Bilingualism and Empathy: How Language and Culture Influence Emotional Understanding", published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, researchers conducted experiments comparing monolingual and bilingual participants' empathic responses to emotional stimuli. They found that bilingual individuals showed greater sensitivity to cultural nuances in emotional expression, leading to enhanced empathy across cultural boundaries.

 

By raising your child to be bilingual or trilingual, you are helping them develop empathy and cultural understanding, which are extremely valuable traits in our increasingly inter-connected, globalised world.

 

Potential Educational Advantages

 

Bilingualism from an early age has been shown to lead to better academic performance, literacy skills, and metalinguistic awareness.


And one surprising fact is that these academic advantages extend beyond the realm of languages, as some of the following studies demonstrate!


Although all of these studies refer to bilingualism specifically, their findings should apply to trilingualism as well.



A substantial body of research has shown a link between bilingualism and improved academic achievement
A substantial body of research has shown a link between bilingualism and improved academic achievement

 

In a study titled "Bilingualism and Academic Achievement", published in the journal Child Development, researchers found that bilingual children often outperformed their monolingual peers in tasks requiring cognitive control and problem-solving skills. The study suggested that the cognitive demands of managing two languages may contribute to enhanced executive functions, which, in turn, positively impact academic achievement.

 

Another study looks at the link between bilingualism and mathematical achievement, showing how linguistic proficiency has benefits that extend beyond languages and literacy. In this study, titled "Bilingualism and Mathematical Achievement: A Study With Primary School Children in Madrid", researchers compared the math performance of bilingual and monolingual students and found that bilingual children exhibited higher levels of mathematical proficiency, particularly in problem-solving tasks requiring cognitive flexibility and abstract reasoning.

 

Another study examines the link between bilingualism and increased working memory capacity. This study, titled "Bilingualism and Working Memory Capacity: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis", published in Psychological Bulletin, found that bilingual individuals tend to have larger working memory capacities compared to monolinguals, which can positively impact various aspects of academic performance, including learning, comprehension, and problem-solving.

 

In summary, by raising your child to be fluent in more than one language, whether it’s two or three, you are helping them lay the foundation for greater academic success.

 

Now that we’ve looked at the main similarities between being bilingual and trilingual, let’s delve into some of the key differences.



 

Bilingualism vs Trilingualism: Some Key Differences

 

Level of Complexity


Trilingualism introduces an additional layer of complexity compared to bilingualism. Managing three languages requires more cognitive effort and linguistic agility. Trilingual individuals must navigate between three linguistic systems, each with its own nuances, vocabulary, and grammatical rules.

 

To illustrate this with a visual metaphor – there is no doubt that juggling three balls as opposed to two balls requires greater effort, even though the basic mechanism of juggling remains unchanged.



Just as juggling three balls is more challenging than two, juggling three languages (trilingualism) can be more difficult than two (bilingualism), even if the mechanism is the same
Just as juggling three balls is more challenging than two, juggling three languages (trilingualism) can be more difficult than two (bilingualism), even if the mechanism is the same

 

As a mother actively raising two trilingual children, I can definitely attest to the challenges of raising our kids to be fluent in three languages!

 

Compared with our friends who are raising bilingual children, especially in cases where both parents speak the same language (e.g. two Chinese parents raising a bilingual child in the UK), it is evident that the success rate of raising trilingual children might be lower, due to the increased level of complexity involved.


Language Exposure and Immersion


Achieving fluency in multiple languages depends hugely on exposure and immersion.


Bilingual individuals may have easier access to immersion environments and resources compared to trilinguals. Finding opportunities to practice all three languages can be more challenging, potentially slowing down the language acquisition process for trilinguals.

 

Have you heard of the 30% rule?

 

This is something I refer to in my book, Bilingual and Trilingual 101.


In a nutshell, experts have suggested that a child needs to be exposed to a language roughly 30% of their waking time in order to become fluent in that language.


Let’s say a typical child is awake for 12 hours a day. Therefore, 30% of those 12 hours would translate into 3.6 hours a day, or 25.2 hours per week.

 

Basic arithmetic would dictate that this would be significantly harder to achieve when you’re raising a trilingual as opposed to a bilingual child!


This might, again, explain why the success rate for parents raising trilingual children might be lower than that for those raising bilingual children.

 

The Impact of Language Interference


In bilingualism, language interference—the influence of one language on another—can occur, but it's often more acute in trilingualism. With three languages at play, the likelihood of interferences, such as code-switching or lexical borrowing, increases.

 

I explore the subject of code-switching and code-mixing in greater depth in a separate blog post and video – definitely check it out if you’re hoping to raise a bilingual or trilingual child!

 



Given the higher chance of language interference when juggling three languages, trilingual individuals may need to be more consciously mindful of managing language interference to maintain clarity and accuracy in communication.

 

My advice to parents is that language mixing is a normal part of the language acquisition process for both bilingual and trilingual children.


It is not something to be feared, so please don’t let the fear of language mixing and potential “confusion” to deter you from pursuing your goal of helping your child become fluent in more than one language!

 

Nevertheless, I encourage parents to make efforts in helping children use the appropriate language depending on the specific situation and gradually decrease the mixing of languages.


Parents can do this by modelling the correct language.


So, for example, if your child says: “Mummy, I want to play with my amigos!” It might be helpful to repeat to the child, “I want to play with my friends.” (Assuming English is the appropriate choice of language in this situation)


 

Conclusion

 

I hope this blog post has been helpful in explaining these two concepts and outlining some of their key similarities and differences.


If you’re new to the world of multilingual parenting, please feel free to explore the resources on this website! You might find the following posts particularly helpful in helping you kick-start your multilingual parenting journey:


 

Comments


bottom of page