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The term bilingualism (from bi meaning 'two' and lingua meaning 'language') can refer to rather different phenomena. Sociolinguists distinguish:
- bilingualism at the personal level
- bilingualism at the societal level
- bilingualism at the interaction level
Bilingualism at the personal level
A bilingual person is, in the broadest definition of bilingualism, anyone with communicative skills in two languages, be it active or passive. In a narrow definition, the term bilingual is often reserved for those speakers with native or native-like proficiency in two languages. Similarly, the terms trilingual and multilingual are used to describe comparable situations in which three or several languages are involved.
Bilingual speakers, as is common in human societies, have acquired at least one language during childhood, the so-called L1. L1-type languages are acquired without formal education, by mechanisms heavily disputed. A rather broadly held, yet nearly as broadly criticised view, is taken by the American linguist Noam Chomsky, whose professional life has so far mainly been dedicated to the description of the human language module, the mechanism that enables us to recreate correctly the rules that speakers around us apply to the language they speak. This language module, according to Chomsky, wears out over time, and is not normally available by puberty, which explains the relatively poor results adolescents and adults have in language learning, as compared to young children.
Bilingual speakers have an extra language at their disposal. In the narrow definition of bilingualism, this is a second L1; in the broader definition, it can also be an L2 (a second language), a language that has been learnt at a later age. If language learning is a cognitive process, rather than a language module, as the school led by Stephen Krashen suggests, there would only be relative, not categorical, differences between the two types of language learning.
Even if someone is a highly proficient bilingual at the performance or output level, his so-called bilingual competence may not be so balanced. Linguists distinguish various types of bilingual competence, which can roughly be put into three categories:
- coordinate bilingualism: the linguistic elements (words, phrases) in the speaker's mind are all related to their own unique concepts. That means, a French-English bilingual speaker of this type (as can be found in large numbers in Quebec) has different associations for 'chien' and for 'dog'. This type of bilingual speaker usually belongs to different cultural communities that do not frequently interact. These speakers are known to use very different intonation and pronunciation features, and not seldom assert the feeling of having different personalities attached to each of their languages.
- compound bilingualism: speakers of this type attach most of their linguistic elements to the same concepts. For them, a 'chien' and a 'dog' are two words for the same concept. Those speakers are reported to have less extreme differences in their pronunciations. Such speakers are often found in minority language communities, or amongst fluent L2-speakers.
- subordinate bilingualism: the linguistic elements of one of the speaker's languages are only available through elements of the speaker's other language. This type is typical of, but not restricted to, beginning L2-learners.
Coordinate and compound bilinguals are reported to have a higher cognitive proficiency, and are found to be better L2-learners at a later age, than monolinguals. The early discovery that concepts of the world can be labelled in more than one fashion puts those bilinguals in the lead. There is, however, also a phenomenon known as distractive bilingualism. When acquisition of the first language is interrupted and insufficient, or unstructured language input follows from the second language, as often happens with immigrant children, the speaker can end up with two languages both mastered below the monolingual standards.
Bilingualism at the societal level
In bilingual societies, not all speakers need to be bilingual. When all speakers are bilingual, linguists classify the community according to the functional distribution of the languages involved:
- diglossia: if there is a structural functional distribution of the languages involved, the society is termed 'diglossic'. Typical diglossic areas are those areas in Britain and on the Continent, where a regional language is used in informal, usually oral, contexts, while the state language is used in more formal situations. Wales (with Welsh and English), Frisia (with Frisian and German/Dutch) and Lusatia (with Sorbian and German) are well-known examples.
- ambilingualism: a region is called ambilingual if this functional distribution is not observed. In a typical ambilingual area it is nearly impossible to tell which language is used when in a given setting. True ambilingualism is rare. Amibilingual tendencies can be found in Luxemburg, or in border regions with many cross-border contacts.
- bipart-lingualism: if more than one language can be heard in a small area, but if the large majority of speakers are monolinguals, who have little contact with speakers from neighbouring ethnic groups, an area is call 'bipart-lingual'. The typical example is the Balkan.
Bilingual at the interactional level
Whenever two people meet, negotiations take place. If they want to express solidarity and sympathy, they tend to seek common features in their behavior. If speakers wish to express distance towards or even dislike of the person they are speaking to, the reverse is true, and differences are sought. This mechanism also extends to language, as has been described by Howard Giles ' Accommodation Theory.
Various, but not nearly all, bilinguals tend to use code-switching, a term that describes the process of 'swapping' between languages. In many cases, code-switching is motivated by the wish to express loyalty to more than one cultural group, as holds for many immigrant communities in the New World. Code-switching may also function as a strategy where proficiency is lacking. Such strategies are common if one of the languages is not very elaborated, like Welsh, Frisian, Sorbian and other minority languages, or if the speakers have not developed proficiency in certain lexical domains, as in the case of immigrant languages.
This code-switching appears in many forms. If a speaker has a positive attitude towards both languages and towards code-switching, many switches can be found, even within the same sentence. If, however, the speaker is reluctant to use code-switching, as in the case of a lack of proficiency, he might knowingly or unknowingly try to camouflage his attempt by converting elements of one language into elements of the other language. This results in speakers using words like courrier noir in French, instead of the proper word for blackmail, chantage.
Bilingual interaction can even take place without the speakers switching. In certain areas, it is not uncommon for speakers to consistently each use a different language. This phenomenon is found, amongst others, in Scandinavia. Speakers of Swedish and Norwegian can easily communicate with each other speaking their respective language. It is usually called non-convergent discourse, a term introduced by the Dutch linguist Reitze Jonkman.
- Bilingualism in Canada
- English-only movement
- Languages in the United States
- Spanish in the United States
- Non-convergent discourse
- Indian Languages
- Heritage Languages in America: Tapping a ?Hidden? Resource, by James Crawford
- Why Bilingual Education?
- A Brief History of Bilingual Education in Spanish
- A Global Perspective on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education
- Ten Common Fallacies about Bilingual Education
- Bilingualism and ageing
A few examples of bilingual/multilingual regions/settings
- India: Twenty-two official languages. The largest, Hindi, is spoken natively by only 18% of the population
- most regions of China: usually a local regional dialect such as Cantonese Chinese or Shanghai dialect (native) and Mandarin Chinese (learned, official)
- ex-Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries: many people fluently speak Russian, especially in Slavic countries within the area of the former USSR (typically in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech republic people do not speak Russian at all, despite the huge expenditure involved in the past)
- certain cantons of Switzerland
- Brussels, the bilingual capital of Belgium (15% Dutch-speaking)
- Finland (6% Finland-Swedish, Åland unilingually Swedish)
- Sweden in Stockholm area and North Bothnia, Finnish speaking
- Canada is officially bilingual under the Official Languages Act and the Constitution of Canada that require the federal government to deliver services in both official languages. As well, minority language rights are guaranteed where numbers warrant. Approximately 25% of Canadians speak French. See Bilingualism in Canada
- the Canadian province of Quebec, (10% English-speaking) Note: Although there is a relatively sizable English-speaking population in Quebec, French is the only official language.
- the province of New Brunswick, Canada (35% French-speaking) New Brunswick is the only province in Canada with two official languages.
- there are also significant French language minorities in the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. Though those provinces are not officially bilingual they do provide a number of services in French.
- Nunavut is a Canadian territory with a population that is 85% Inuit. Its official languages are the Inuit dialects of Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun as well as English and French.
- Spain, where many regions have more than one official language (especially in Catalonia, where Spanish and Catalan both enjoy great social esteem and are both used in almost every social situation)
- a majority of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is bi- or trilingual
- Wales, and to a lesser extent other Celtic-speaking regions of the UK, and London
- immigrants and their descendants
- many Koreans living in Japan speak both Korean and Japanese
- among children of ambassadors and expatriates
- border areas between two countries of mixed languages
- among children whose parents each speak a different language
- in Mauritius, where children are taught Mauritian Creole, French, and English
- Ireland, where three languages have some form of official status. In the Republic of Ireland, Irish (one of the Gaelic languages) is the first official language while English is the second. Approximately 1.5 million Irish citizens are either fluent or semi-fluent in Irish, making it by far the most commonly spoken Gaelic language. However English is far more commonly used as less than 10% speak Irish as their 1st language and they are all located in the remote Gaeltacht regions. Ulster Scots, a variety of Lowland Scots, is spoken by some in northern regions, but again English is far more commonly used and Ulster Scots is less actively used in media. Irish and Ulster Scots now both have official status in the Northern Ireland as part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.
- In Hong Kong, both Chinese and English are official languages, and for Chinese both Mandarin and Cantonese are used. All the three spoken and two written languages are taught in schools, and are mandatory subjects.
In Macau, both Chinese and Portuguese are official languages, and for Chinese both Mandarin and Cantonese are used, but with predominance of Cantonese, as in Hong Kong.
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