Some thoughts on bilingualism

Posted by François Grosjean on April 3, 2011

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By François Grosjean, psycholinguist, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Photo : Daquella manera (cc)

Photo : Daquella manera (cc)

Defining bilingualism

Although some researchers might define bilinguals as those who have perfect fluency in two (or more) languages, most people believe this definition is not realistic.

Bilinguals have different levels of fluency in their languages, if only because they use them with different people and in different domains of life – at work, at home, with friends, and so on. In addition, their knowledge of a language may only be oral, and not both oral and written.

Researchers have therefore proposed more realistic definitions of bilingualism, such as the ability to produce meaningful utterances in two (or more) languages, the mastery of at least one linguistic competence in another language (reading, writing, speaking, listening), or the alternate use of different languages. In my own work, I have used the following definition: the use of two or more languages or dialects in everyday life.

To understand a bilingual’s language configuration, it is worth taking an analogy. No one in track and field would ever think of comparing a 110 m hurdler to a high jumper (for the height reached) or a sprinter (for the speed attained). And yet the former combines some of the skills of the latter two, in part at least, to produce a complete athlete in his or her own right. The three athletes can only be compared on such grounds as national or international rankings, records broken, and so on.

The analogy helps us understand the difference between bilinguals and monolinguals. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one person, but linguistic wholes, with language abilities of their own, and who must be studied as such. If we have to compare bilinguals and monolinguals, then we should do so at the level of communicative competence, once bilinguals have attained a stable configuration in their two or more languages. Examining the bilingual’s languages one by one is simply not adequate.

Bilingualism as a natural phenomenon

Bilingualism occurs in all the countries of the world, in all classes of society, in all age groups. It has been estimated that half of the world’s population, if not more, uses two or more languages on a regular basis.

Bilingualism is caused by a number of factors such as political, economic or religious migration, the political federation of linguistic regions, education, etc.

It is worth noting that there is no direct correlation between official bilingualism and the extent of individual bilingualism: some countries are officially bilingual or multilingual but have very few bilinguals (Canada, Belgium, for example) whereas other countries are officially monolingual (Tanzania, Kenya, etc.) but have large bi- or multilingual populations.

Those who view bi- or multingualism as an exception usually come from rather large countries in the Western Hemisphere where there is a majority of monolinguals. Bilingualism is in fact a common phenomenon that is due to the fact that languages are in contact and people need to communicate with those around them in different languages. One only needs to travel in Africa or Asia to realize how widespread bilingualism is in the world.

Advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism

In monolingual societies, bilingualism is seen as a paradox – for some it is perceived as having advantages while others see the disadvantages.

Reported advantages include the enriched cognitive development of children, greater creativity, more open-mindedness, greater tolerance, and so on. Among reported disadvantages, we hear that children are slowed down in their cognitive and academic development, that some are marginalized, that some even are “semilingual” (whatever that means!) and so on.

The reality is that these advantages and disadvantages often have little to do with bilingualism itself, that is the regular use of two or more languages. They are due to psychosocial factors such as social class, number of years of schooling, belonging to a linguistic or cultural minority and so on. These account for the so-called advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism, not the fact of being bi- or multilingual.

Reference: Grosjean, F. (2004). Le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme: quelques notions de base. In C.  Billard, M. Touzin and P. Gillet (Eds.). Troubles spécifiques des apprentissages: l’état des connaissances. Paris: Signes Editions.


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