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If you have parents of two different nationalities (or know someone who does), or if you've moved to a different country in your lifetime where the language was something other than your native language, you might already be very familiar with bilingualism. You might even be bilingual yourself or know people who are bilingual. 

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If you have parents of two different nationalities (or know someone who does), or if you've moved to a different country in your lifetime where the language was something other than your native language, you might already be very familiar with bilingualism. You might even be bilingual yourself or know people who are bilingual.

Bilingualism is like a superpower! After all, who wouldn't want the power to be able to communicate with loads more people than would be possible only speaking one language?

Bilingualism, A businessman with a superhero shadow, StudySmarterBeing bilingual can provide many advantages in the world of business - Pixabay

There are many facets and advantages to bilingualism, as well as several different types of bilingualism, but before we delve into these, let's first look at a definition of bilingualism:

Bilingualism: meaning

Bilingualism is an easy word to understand if you break it down into its constituent parts:

  • Bi - refers to two
  • Lingualism - refers to languages

Put them together and you end up with:

  • Bilingualism - the ability to use or speak two languages

Bilingualism refers to the coexistence of two language systems in a person or community's communication.

Monolingualism refers to the ability to speak only one language.

Is it that simple? Essentially yes, although there are a couple more things worth noting.

  • Bilingualism falls under the wider label of 'Multilingualism', which is the use of more than one language. For that reason, someone who is bilingual could also be referred to as being multilingual.

  • Bilingualism is a term that can also be used to refer to the use of more than two languages (for example 3, 4, or more languages), however, it primarily refers to two languages (as the name implies).

Fun Fact: It is estimated that over half the world's population is bilingual! How cool is that?

Types of bilingualism

Now that we know for sure what bilingualism is, let's dive into the different types! There are several criteria linguists use to define bilingualism, so we'll look at these in turn.

When looking at bilingualism in the context of 'who it is that's able to speak more than one language?' there are different definitions to refer to one bilingual person versus a bilingual community:

  • Individual Bilingualism - refers to one individual being able to use two languages proficiently.

  • Societal Bilingualism - refers to a whole community or country being able to use two languages proficiently.

In terms of how people develop bilingualism, there are three key types of bilingualism:

  • Compound Bilingualism - when an individual develops an understanding of and proficiency in two languages simultaneously in a single context. For example, a child that has been brought up learning and speaking two different languages from infancy will have acquired these two languages simultaneously. They would therefore use both languages for everyday interaction with their parents.

  • Coordinate Bilingualism - when an individual learns two different languages in distinctly different contexts, often by different means. For example, if an English speaking child begins learning French at a young age in school and goes on to become quite proficient in it, this child would be considered a coordinate bilingual, as they have learned English from their parents, and French through lessons at school (two distinctly different contexts).

  • Sub-coordinate Bilingualism - when an individual learns a second language by filtering information through their native language. For example, when a Spanish person hears the English word 'book', they will begin to associate it with the equivalent word in Spanish, 'libro'. This process of association requires the Spanish speaker to filter the English word through their knowledge of Spanish in order to understand the meaning of the word 'book'.

Bilingualism, Illustration of two women chatting over coffee, StudySmarterPeople may use different languages in different contexts - Pixabay

Causes of bilingualism

It might be strange to think of bilingualism as having a 'cause' exactly, but what we're referring to here is the reasons why bilingualism might occur in different individuals and communities.

A primary cause of bilingualism is extensive language contact.

Language contact refers to the interaction that takes place between speakers who speak different languages or language varieties. In the case of bilingualism, we're talking about speakers who speak different languages.

Within this wider umbrella, there are many circumstances that can lead to extensive language contact between speakers of different languages, such as:

  • having parents of different nationalities who speak two different languages (presumably speaking a shared language as well). This would mean that the child grows up exposed to both languages, therefore learning both as they develop.

  • moving to a country where the language is something other than a person's native tongue. This would immerse the person in the new language in many different modes including hearing it spoken by the native people of that country, seeing it written on signs and in public places, and possibly having it taught in school or language lessons.

  • requiring to learn a second language for business purposes. A person working for an international company might be required to learn a second language in order to communicate effectively with colleagues or clients from other countries.

  • having a personal desire to learn a second language. Learning a language is not just a linguistic endeavour; it is also a cognitive one. Many people enjoy learning languages as a means of not only broadening their communicative ability, but also a means of expanding their cognitive prowess.

Bilingualism: English as a Lingua Franca

Through your English Language studies so far, you might have come across the term 'Lingua Franca'.

A lingua franca is a language that is adopted as the common language used between speakers whose native languages are not the same. In other words, a lingua franca is a language learned by people speaking different native languages to enable them to communicate with one another.

On a global scale, English is the most significant lingua franca, and has become the language of business and the language of computer science among many other fields.

Bilingualism, Map showing connections across the world, StudySmarterEnglish is the most used Lingua Franca across the world - Pixabay

Fun Fact: English is an official language in 67 countries around the world, as well as 27 non-sovereign entities!

In many countries around the world, the ability to speak English is not only held in high esteem, it is also necessary to facilitate business and foster professional international relationships.

In Singapore, English is spoken by approximately 37% of the population as a primary language. This is more than the 35% Mandarin, 13% Chinese dialects, 10% Malay, 3% Tamil, and 2% spread across other minority languages.

English is an official language of Singapore (alongside Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil), and is also the language of business and government. This is an example of societal bilingualism.

Because English is so significant all over the world, many people in many countries speak English as well as their native language; many people are bilingual due to English's prevalence as a lingua franca.

Other reasons why someone might become bilingual

  • Religious studies: certain religious studies might require a fairly extensive understanding of a secondary language to a person's native language. For example, Catholicism uses Latin which, although technically a dead language, might still be necessary in order to understand ancient religious texts. The need to understand Latin for religious studies would be more significant than in scientific fields that use some Latin terms but do not rely on full Latin comprehension, such as botany (eg. plant names) or medicine (eg. bone names).

  • Geography: in some countries, different communities speak different languages (for example, Nigeria is home to many different languages including Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, and Kanuri). In order to facilitate everyday communication between different language speakers within a single country, it is necessary for the people to learn a common language. This could mean learning a second language, or even a third!

Benefits of being bilingual

As we said in the beginning of this article, being bilingual is like a superpower! There are so many benefits to being bilingual, so let's take a closer look:

  • wider communicative ability - the most obvious advantage to being bilingual is the increased ability to communicate with more people and in more countries. Speaking two or more languages opens up many opportunities for people, whether those opportunities be professional, educational, creative, or explorative.

  • privacy - people who are bilingual have the ability to code-switch. If two bilingual friends found themselves in a situation where they didn't want the people around them to understand what they were talking about, they could code-switch from one language to the other in order to keep their conversation private.

Code-switching is the ability to switch between different languages or language varieties within a single speech exchange.

  • increased cultural awareness - because culture and language are often so closely linked, being able to speak more than one language could give the speaker greater cultural insight and understanding. For example, if a child is born to Spanish parents, has grown up in England, but speaks both Spanish and English fluently, their understanding and awareness of their Spanish heritage may be a lot stronger than if they only spoke English. This child would likely have solid cultural awareness of both their Spanish roots and British culture, as a result of being bilingual.

  • competitiveness in the job market - as we've now seen, languages play an important role in business and professional settings. Being bilingual presents people with an advantage over their monolingual competitors and sets them apart as being able to reach more colleagues and clients.

  • ease of learning a third language - as with anything, practice makes perfect. If you already have a firm grasp of two languages, learning a third is made much easier.

  • creative expression - bilingual people have the unique ability to mix the best parts of the languages they speak. With a bit of creative code-switching, bilingual people are able to pack more punch into their discourse by adding impactful words in different languages. Sometimes idiomatic language and other kinds of phrases in one language do not translate well into others. Being bilingual enables the speaker to still use these evocative words and phrases without having to dilute their meaning by translating.

Bilingualism, Handshake over a cityscape, StudySmarterBilingualism is an advantage in employment - Pixabay

Common bilingualism features

  • Bilingual people most commonly belong to two different cultures or have roots in two different nationalities.

  • Bilingual people may use their different languages in different aspects of their lives (for example, an individual might speak English at school or work but Spanish at home).

  • Bilingualism does not always mean the speaker speaks both languages to the same proficiency. This is often assumed but is not always the case.

  • Being bilingual doesn't automatically mean the speaker will be able to translate between languages instantaneously; sometimes some extra thought will be required to translate things, especially if the speaker has varying proficiencies of each language.

  • Bilingual people who speak the same languages as each other will often mix languages and code-switch in conversation.

  • It is common for bilingual people to sometimes struggle to find a word in one language, so they might explain what they mean in another way.

Bilingualism - Key Takeaways

  • Bilingualism is the ability to speak two (or more) languages.
  • People become bilingual for many reasons including: being born to parents who speak different languages, learning a second language for education or business, moving to a new country, or wanting to integrate.
  • A lingua franca is a common language adopted by people who speak different languages to each other. English is a very prolific lingua franca and is an official language in many countries all over the world.
  • There are many benefits to being bilingual including: wider communicative ability, competitive edge in education and business, added privacy when conversing with someone, more creative expression, increased cultural awareness, and ease of learning a third language.
  • Common features of bilingualism include: belonging to two different cultures, code-switching, having differing levels of proficiency in each language, and using different languages in different aspects of life.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bilingualism

The main concept of bilingualism is the ability to speak two different languages fluently. 

Bilingualism refers to the ability to speak two languages. This could refer to someone who was brought up in two different languages (such as someone with parents from different countries), or someone who learns a second language later but achieves fluency in the second language as well as their native language. 

Compound Bilingual: refers to people who develop two languages within a single context.

Coordinate Bilingual: refers to people who learn two languages in different contexts.

Sub-coordinate Bilingual: refers to people who learn a second language using their native tongue.

  • When someone grows up with parents of two different nationalities who speak different languages, and subsequently learns both languages as they get older.
  • When someone moves to a different country or associates mostly with people who speak a different language and they subsequently learn this language on top of their existing native language. 

  • belonging to two different cultures or a single culture that uses two different languages.
  • the different languages are not necessarily spoken at the same level of fluency.
  • translating between the two languages or "thinking in different languages" might not be instantaneous.
  • code-switching is a common feature of bilingualism.
More about Bilingualism

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