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Nigeria, a multilingual society with over 500 recognized languages from 250 ethnic groups in the country. According to official data, there are more than 520 languages spoken in Nigeria. Where nine of these languages are extinct, the other major languages are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Urhobo,  Efik/Ibibio, Fulfulde, Edo, Pidgin English, Ijaw, Kanuri, and Tiv. In Nigeria bilingual education has become a topic for discussion among scholars and indigenes, as it involves deeper problems of discrimination, inequality and express linguistic, cultural, economic, and political demands including the right to decide how and in what language their children shall be educated (UNESCO, 2010).

The high rate of migration increases population, and different cultures inevitably come into more contact with each other resulting in growing numbers of multicultural societies (Hamers & Blanc, 2000). These mixed cultures and languages lead to multilingual families and children who identify themselves with more than one culture and in many instances use different languages for each parent; that is they become bilingual. Skutnabb-Kangas and McCarty (2008) maintain that a bilingual possesses “proficiency in and use of two or more languages by an individual; the term does not always imply an equally high level of proficiency in all the relevant languages”.

Nigeria, the most populated African country with a large numbers of people speaking more than one language but who do not exhibit native-like control in both languages, raises the subject of defining between bilingualism and multilingualism. Although, bilingualism means different meaning to different people, bilingualism in this context is having some ability to use two (or even more) languages. Bloomfield (1933) defined bilingualism as ‘native-like control of two languages’.

Haugen (1953) suggests that bilingualism begins ‘at the point where a speaker of one language can produce complete, meaningful utterances in the other language’. Diebold (1961) has even suggested that bilingualism has commenced when a person begins to understand utterances in a second language, but is unable to produce utterances.

However, Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism excludes many people who speak more than one language but do not have ‘native-like’ control of one or both of their languages. A large number of people who use two languages regularly may not have ‘native-like’ control of one of their languages. It is clear that Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism needs to be modified if it is to reflect accurately the reality of people’s ability to use languages.  At the other hand, multilingualism is a very common phenomenon that has received much scholarly attention in recent years. Li (2008), defined a multilingual individual as “anyone who can communicate in more than one language, be it active (through speaking and writing) or passive (through listening and reading”. A well-known definition of multilingualism is given by the European Commission (2007): “the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage, on a regular basis, with more than one language in their day-to-day lives”.

The Bilingualism versus Multilingualism Dimension

The term multilingualism has gained currency in recent years at the expense of bilingualism, but the difference between the two terms is not always clear, and different positions can be found:


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