- Bilingualism is an open-ended semantics (Beardsmore, 1982: 1).
- For the average speaker, it is loosely defined as the use of two languages or the native-like control of two languages.
- Through the discussion of how bilingualism should be defined has often centered on the issue of language competence, this focus overlooks other socio-cultural and cognitive factors.
- Bilinguals are part of a wider socio-cultural milieu, and any description of bilingualism need to account for how bilinguals utilize and interact with the resources in their community.
- An understanding of bilingualism in its social, psychological, and cultural contexts is an essential step before research in this area can be interpreted.
The Five Descriptors of Bilingualism
1. Descriptors which refer to the degree of bilingualism
- Degree of bilingualism refers to the levels of linguistic proficiency a bilingual must achieve in both languages to be considered a bilingual.
- Bloomfield (1933: 55) defined bilingualism as “native-like control of two languages.”
- Mackey (1962: 52) defined bilingualism as “the ability to use more than one language.”
- Haugen (1953: 7) proposed ‘the point where a speaker can first produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language’.
- Baetens Beardsmore (1982) described these two ends of a spectrum as minimalist and maximalist in approach to bilingualism.
- Bilinguals’ degree of competence in both languages is greatly influenced by the way each language is used, and this differs greatly from individual to individual.
- Macnamara (1969) emphasized the need to discuss the degree of bilingualism not as a unitary component but as a degree of competence in sub-components. The sub-components are the four macro skills (speaking, writing, reading, and listening). In this schema, competence is a continuum with individuals showing varying degrees of competence in each macro skills.
Bilingual Categories Based on Proficiency
- The term balanced bilingual was first used by Lambert et al. (1959) in Canada to describe individuals who are fully competent in both languages. In most instances when the term balanced bilingual is used, it describes those who are thought to have perfect control of both languages in all settings.
- Baetans Beardsmore (1982) argued that a balanced bilingual is close to impossible to achieve, and is therefore very rare. Even in high-level conference interpreters tend to have a preference for one of their languages, and will often specialize in interpreting into their dominant language despite the fact that they are highly fluent in both languages.
- Fishman (1972) argued that sociolinguistic forces demand that bilinguals organize their language in functionally complementary spheres.
- Fishman emphasized that it is this complementary nature of language functions that assures the continued existence of bilingualism, because any society that produces bilinguals which produces bilinguals who use both languages with equal competence in all contexts will stop being bilingual as no society needs two languages to perform the same set of functions.
- The term dominant bilingual refers to bilinguals who are dominant in one language. In the context of discussing dominant bilinguals, researchers will refer to their less dominant language as the subordinate language. However, one important criterion to note is that the term ‘dominance’ may not apply to all domains.
- The term passive or recessive bilingual refers to bilinguals who are gradually losing competence in one language, usually because of disuse. As the term ‘recessive’ seems to have a negative connotations, ‘passive’ is preferred.
- The term semilingualism was first used by Hansegard in 1968 (cited in Baker 2006:9) to refer to Finnish-minority students in Sweden who lack the proficiency in both their languages. Hansegard described semilangualism in terms of deficiency in the six language competences:
- Size of vocabulary
- Correctness of language
- Unconsciousness processing of language (automatism)
- Language creation (neologization)
- Mastery of the functions of language (e.g. emotive, cognitive)
- Meaning and imagery
- According to these parameters, a semilingual is both quantitatively and qualitatively deficient in comparison to monolinguals, and similingualism has been blamed for the low academic achievement of minority children.
- Semilingualism is rooted in the environment which is not conducive to ongoing bilingualism, where the speakers were socially, politically, and economically disadvantaged. Therefore, semilingualism is a situation engineered by the environment and not a consequence of bilingualism since a monolingual in the same environment would have faced the same degree of struggle in their academic endeavor.
- Cummins (1994) acknowledges that labeling someone as semilingual is highly negative and may be detrimental to children’s learning and proposes an alternative label, limited bilingual.
- MacSwan (2000) questioned Cummin’s position on defining school-based literacy and academic skills as a component of general language proficiency. MacSwan examined all the evidence put forth for the case of semilingualism and concluded that semilingualism is more a function of socio-economic status (SES) than a language background.
2. Descriptors which refer to the context of bilingual language acquisition
- Although bilinguals share the common experience of using more than one language in their lives, the way in which they acquire their language vary.
- In discussing or studying bilinguals, we need to assume that no bilinguals have the same experience even though their profiles may be similar.
- Primary context refer to situations where a child acquires both languages in a naturalistic setting. The linguistic input is usually provided by caregivers, often the parents and/or siblings, when the child is an infant, but as the child enters early childhood, the input can come from other sources, such as the extended family and the wider community.
- Within the primary context, a further distinction is made between naturalistic fused and naturalistic separate. In naturalistic fused setting, there is no separation of context for both languages, and the child is exposed to both languages from each parent, sibling, or peers. A bilingual in naturalistic separate context may hear and use Mandarin only with one parent and English with the other parent.
- Secondary contexts refer to the situation when a child acquires one of the languages in a structured setting, usually a school. This distinction is sometimes referred to as natural bilingualism vs. school bilingualism (Kangas, 1981).
- The issue of primary and secondary contexts is important especially in the study of the language development in bilinguals as there is some debate about whether one context is more beneficial in promoting the desired outcome in the language development of a bilingual.
- Another distinction made is the difference between elective bilinguals and circumstantial bilinguals (Valdes and Figueroa, 1994). Elective bilinguals are bilinguals who have some element of choice about learning a second language. Circumstantial bilinguals are groups who have no choice when it comes to learning a second language.
3. Descriptors which refer to age of acquisition
- More researches point toward the advantage for early acquisition for ultimate language attainment, especially for phonology, where data suggests the children who acquired the second language before six years of age were able to achieve native-like competence. On the other hand, mature learners were able to acquire the language at a much faster rate (Long, 1990).
- Critical to any discussion of bilingualism is the issue of age as there appears to be what we might call a sensitive age for language, which ceases around puberty. The sensitive age is a reformulation of Lennenberg’s (1967) critical period hypothesis, which argues that we have a superior language learning capacity early in life which will disappear or decline with maturation.
- However, the evidence is not totally conclusive as other researcher (e.g. Birdsong, 1992) have shown that native-like acquisition is possible in speakers who were exposed to French after fifteen years of age. In a later study, Birdsong and Molis (2001) found that four of their participants who arrived in the United States after the age of seventeen were indistinguishable in their performance when compared to native speakers.
- Birdsong (2005) argues there is no clear cut-off point in terms of age at which native-like proficiency cannot be attained.
- Some researchers (e.g. Bialystok, 1997a; Clark, 2003) have cautioned that we should not look only at neurological factors when analyzing language learning outcomes. In adult learners, other factors such as aptitude, attitude, identity, and motivation can significantly affect the learning outcome.
- Another factor to bear in mind is that many of the findings in support of the sensitive period hinge on the fact that we have a stable notion of what is a native speaker. In studies about the age of acquisition, participants were often asked to assess the nativeness of a learner’s speech or a sample of a learner’s writing. With many languages, the issue of what constitutes native-speakerness has become more complex with increasing globalization.
- Davis (1991a) pointed that issue of native-speakerness is entwined with identification and social affiliation.
- Age is a consideration when discussing or assessing bilinguals and the usual distinction made is between early bilinguals and late bilinguals. Early bilinguals are those who are exposed to both languages before adolescence and late bilinguals are those who acquire the second language after adolescence.
4. Descriptors which refer to domain use
- The demarcation of functions, more commonly known as domains, is central to any discussion of bilingualism. The term ‘domain’ was first used by Fishman (1972) to describe how speakers compartmentalize their language use.
- Fishman identified family, friendship, religion, education, and employment as the main domains. However, topic is another factor which can often override the influence of domain. Hoffman (1991) summarized the most critical domains, as the person, place, and topic.
- Interlocutors or the person we are speaking to or communicating with will affect not only our stylistic choice of language but also our language options.
- Place or location can also have a strong impact on language choice. For example, in Singapore, the language used in Orchard Road, the ritzy side of town frequented by tourists, is often English while the default language of the residential areas is often Mandarin.
5. Descriptors which refer to social orientation
- The attitudes of bilinguals to their bilingual status, as well as the attitudes of the wider community, are also factors which contribute to our understanding of bilingualism.
- To understand this fully, we first have to make a distinction between bilingual in a bilingual or monolingual context and bilinguals in a multilingual context. We also need to recognize the difference between bilingual contexts which receive high levels of infrastructure and administrative support in terms of funding and recognition, and bilingual contexts which receive minimal support of this kind.
- Subtractive bilingualism refers to the learning of a new language resulting in the loss of competence in the first language (Lambert, 1974). In other cases, subtractive bilingualism is has been narrowly defined as the replacement if the first language by the second language (Cummins 1976: 20). Cummins further argued that many bilinguals in subtractive bilingual learning situations may not develop native-like competence in either of their two languages. However, many bilinguals are able to successfully replace their first language and become highly proficient in the newly adopted language. The success of these bilinguals is evidence that subtractive bilingualism does not necessarily result in limited bilingualism (see Krashen, 1996; Thomas and Collier, 1997).
- In view of the negative connotations attached to subtractive bilingualism, a more neutral term like differential bilingualism may be appropriate for this phenomenon.
- Some multilingual societies are so diversified that often certain languages, usually the vernaculars (language used in informal settings), are sacrificed as bilingual policies promote languages which are not the mother tongue of the speakers.
Ng Bee Chin and Gillian Wigglesworth. Bilingualism: An Advanced Resource Book. Great Britain: Cromwell Press, 2007. Print.