What is bilingualism?
- Bilingualism is complex and varies widely among individuals.
- In order to understand a bilingual speaker’s language ability, we need to know when they learned their languages, how proficient they are in the languages, and in what contexts (and with whom) they use the languages.
- Bilingual speakers learn their languages either simultaneously, as they grow up, or sequentially, learning the second language after the first (usually at school).
- The degree of proficiency bilingual people achieve in their languages often depends on the wider society’s attitudes to the languages concerned and the opportunities available to use them.
- Bilingual speakers may use their languages equally, but they often use particular languages in particular contexts, for particular purposes, and with particular people.
The majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, with monolingual speakers in the minority. New Zealand is unusual because so many people are monolingual. At the 2001 census, 83 per cent of New Zealanders claimed to speak only one language, and the vast majority of them (98 per cent) were English speakers (Starks, Harlow, and Bell, 2005). In view of how common bilingualism is worldwide, it is important for those of us who are not bilingual to understand bilingual speakers and bilingualism.
For a start, we need to recognise that bilingualism is a complex cognitive and linguistic phenomenon, which may vary widely among individuals, and even within individuals with respect to their competence in the languages concerned. A bilingual person may be able to:
- speak, read, and write fluently in two languages – that is, they are biliterate (see the inquiry Affirming biliteracy).
- speak, read, and write in one language, but only speak another
- speak, read, and write in one language, but understand to some extent what is said in another language – that is, they can understand what a speaker of their second language is saying, even though they may not be confident about speaking that language. (This is termed passive bilingualism.)
Introduction to Sociolinguistics (Holmes, 2001) and Bilingualism (Romaine, 1995) have a lot of interesting information about the different patterns of bilingual language use.
The Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education (Baker and Prys Jones, 1998) also discusses many interesting aspects of bilingualism.
Clearly, it is not enough to simply describe someone as bilingual; we need to find out about how the person is bilingual. In order to do this, we need to ask three key questions:
- When did the person learn their language(s)?
- Do they have opportunities to listen, speak, read, and/or write in their language(s)?
- In what contexts do they use their language(s)?
When did they learn their language(s)?
Many bilingual speakers have learned their two languages at the same time, usually in early childhood and as a result of family bilingualism. These people are called simultaneous bilinguals. Bilingual people who have learned one language later than the other – perhaps as the result of living in a new country or formally learning a second language at a school or university – are called sequential bilinguals or consecutive bilinguals. Usually, simultaneous bilinguals have a more ‘native-like’ accent in both languages, although older language learners may have greater knowledge about language, which can help them in the language-learning process.
Do they have opportunities to listen, speak, read, and/or write in their language(s)?
The degree of proficiency that bilingual speakers achieve in their two languages depends largely on the opportunities they have to use each of them. If they are able to speak both languages extensively, then they will become fluent in both. However, if they have less opportunity to speak one language, their level of fluency in that language may be less. As described above, bilingual people may also have different levels of proficiency in the key language modes of listening, speaking, reading, and writing for each language. It is common for Pasifika students in New Zealand to be able to speak a Pasifika language, but to read and write only in English because their education has been in that language (Starks, Taumoefolau, Bell, and Davis, 2004).
Here are some Pasifika examples of different kinds of bilingual skills and the language domains in which they are used:
- Malia speaks mainly English with her parents and friends, but speaks to her grandmother in Sāmoan. She has learned to read and write in English at school, but cannot read and write in Sāmoan to the same extent.
- Tavita speaks Tongan with his family, and at church and community functions. He reads in Tongan at church, and reads and writes in Tongan at home. At school, he speaks Tongan with his friends in the playground, but in class he speaks, reads, and writes only in English.
- Daniel plays with his cousins from Rarotonga using a mixture of Cook Islands Māori and English (see the inquiry Why do bilinguals ‘switch’ languages?), but generally speaks English. He cannot read or write in Cook Islands Māori.
- Mere grew up in New Zealand, so she tends to use English rather than Sāmoan for her university assignments. However, she and her whole family can read, write, and speak in both Sāmoan and English.
In what contexts do they use their language(s)?
Language use – that is, where, or in what contexts, bilingual people use their languages – is also often dependent on wider societal attitudes to the particular languages they speak. (See the inquiry Attitudes to bilingualism.) If both of the languages that bilingual people speak are valued in the wider society, then it is likely they will use both their languages in a wide variety of contexts (for example, in the home, church, community, and school). As a result, these people are more likely to become balanced bilinguals. They are able to use both of their languages easily and fully in any context.
Many bilingual people have different skills in their two languages and use them for different purposes. Even if they have comparable levels of fluency, they may use one language more than the other, or may use one language in certain contexts (or with certain people), and the other language in other contexts (or with other people). For example, a bilingual person may speak one language with their immediate family and another language with their friends or at school. The different contexts of language use are called language domains. (See the video clip Language domains.) Importantly, this variation in language use is often influenced by wider societal attitudes towards the particular languages. (See the inquiry Attitudes to bilingualism.)