Advantages and Factors of Bilingualism

With Particular Focus on Children

Essay, 2013

27 Pages



0. Introduction

1. What is Bilingualism: a Possible Definition

2. Advantages of Bilingualism

3. Wrong Theories about Bilingualism

4. Bilingualism and Age

5. Bilingualism and Biculturalism

6. Bilingualism and Family

7. Bilingualism and School

8. Conclusion

9. References

0. Introduction

In this brief article, I am going to describe the phenomenon of bilingualism and its advantages for children and their global development, in order to support the necessity of a bilingual and bicultural education of children at an early age. I hope that the general ideas expressed here will help ESL teachers to find an intercultural orientation in their own teaching practise in class and to develop a better understanding of foreign cultures. In order to connect theory and practical teaching, I will also try to give some general ideas concerning TESL and intercultural teaching.

In the first chapter, I will strive to define the general concept of bilingualism, which is unclear in many cases, as it has many contradictory definitions, which depend too much on the unilateral views of certain linguists and researchers. Without a clear definition of bilingualism on a theoretical level, it is impossible to produce scientific results to apply in every-day ESL teaching praxis in a multicultural classroom.

I would like to stress that bilingualism should have a broad definition in order to extend the concept of language itself, which does not simply include the idea of communication from a practical point of view, but is almost a synonym for culture.

During the last two decades, many linguists, psychologists, pedagogues and sociologists all over the world have concentrated on the advantages of children’s bilingual and bicultural education starting from an early age. Many empirical researches confirm the importance of knowing a second language for the child’s social, psychological, emotional, and cognitive development.

In the third chapter, I am going to describe some wrong ideas - the so called myths- about the “danger(s)” of bilingual education in children who, according to these pseudo-scientific opinions, would lose their identity and complicate their normal cognitive development if they acquire a second language when very young.

These theories, developed in the first part of the 20th century, are still believed by many families and, consequently negatively influencing the positive results achieved by bilingual education in a pre-school setting and confirmed by researchers all over the world.

Another matter always cited regarding bilingualism concerns the relationship between bilingualism and age. All investigations in this field start from the fundamental question of the age at which children’s bilingual education should start. This should clarify whether the age factor determines children’s bilingualism; and if true, what importance should be attributed to the age factor in second language acquisition in general.

To give a general critical overview of the matter, I will present two contributions I believe are very important in this field: the first is a research entitled Age in Second Language Acquisition by Birgit Harley (1986)1 and the second the critical review of Harley’s theory by David Singleton (1989) in Language Acquisition2.

Birgit Harley starts from the assumption that age is not everything in language learning: there are many other factors determining bilingualism, which does not depend just on the learner’s age. The same result is also reported by David Singleton, who uses many more references than the Canadian researcher who bases her research on the empiric observation of the full-immersion method used in Canada to teach a second language to children at an early age.

My conclusion is that the age factor is only important if the social milieu produces a motivating inclination of children towards the acquisition of a second language. Therefore, it is a necessary but no-determining factor of natural bilingualism.

From my point of view, bilingual education is impossible without a deep understanding of biculturalism, which should pervade the entire linguistic programme. For very young ESL learners the English language should always represent the expression of a socio-cultural reality, as the German pedagogue Kurt Egger (1994) confirms: “In a conscious and unconscious way, a child comprehends not only the importance of a linguistic message, but also the way it is expressed”3.

This means that even if teachers tried to teach language without culture - with a voluntary withdrawal of culture in the classroom4 -, this would be an educational non-sense because the child would understand their personal cultural dimension and automatically comprehend the cultural value of their linguistic acts in any case, on a conscious and/or unconscious level.

As the Russian author Alexej Alesejewitsch Leont’ev suggests that “only if a child learns a foreign language, he/she is able to understand that the world is structured and understood in a different way within different cultures and community of languages”5. At this point, my rhetorical question is: Why should we voluntarily exclude this opening of new cultural horizons in very young ESL learners?6

In my sixth chapter, on the basis of Elizabeth Deshays’ research paper How to favourite children’s bilingualism, and how to open their minds towards a second language7, I am going to summarise and comment on the most important things to consider if teachers and parents would like and/or have to educate children bilingually, above all if the surrounding society is monolingual and the family is the only educator and through bilingualism/biculturalism the child is able to maintain abroad the link to the cultural roots of his/her family.

In the following chapter, I explain why and how family and school should collaborate in children’s bilingual education in both a monolingual and a bilingual context. The family is the most important reference for the child at an early age and should not produce an education that is in conflict with the child’s social milieu at school. At the same time, teachers should respect the psychological and cultural environment of their pupils at home. However, teachers also have the duty to give professional advice to families and to smoothly “correct” their educational style if it is disturbing the child’s bilingual and bicultural development.

Finally, in my conclusion, I try to sum up the most important matters concerning bilingualism in children from my standpoint and experience as a second language teacher in monolingual and bilingual areas. My analysis will show the importance of biculturalism, of the distinction between bilingual education in monolingual and bilingual areas sometimes ignored by families and teachers and of teacher vocational training to develop intercultural acting.

1. What is Bilingualism: a Possible Definition

In this first chapter, I would like to try to present different definitions of bilingualism and to comment on them, showing their constructive and negative aspects. Of course, I have no pretensions to exhaustibility, but I am convinced that the definitions cited and commented here are representative of various important views on bilingualism.

First of all, I would like to start with the linguist Philip Riley (1990)8 who distinguishes between a form of bilingualism that could be experienced by a child as positive and enriching, called additive bilingualism, and the conflicting, though still necessary, subtractive bilingualism.

I would like to stress that bilingualism is never positive or negative. I am firmly convinced that it is the social milieu, i.e. the community-environment that is experienced by the child as negative or positive and not bilingualism itself. In natural bilingualism, the familiar environment could be perceived as negative or positive; in the case of artificial bilingualism, the school assumes a positive or negative connotation for the child.

A second definition of bilingualism is that of the British pedagogue Deshays Elizabeth9 who says that bilingualism means the possession of two languages, the collocation of someone within two linguistic worlds. The same definition is also adopted by Kurt Egger, when he writes that bilingualism means the knowledge of two languages.

From my standpoint, this concept of bilingualism is true, but too restrictive. I think that being bilingual does not only mean using two languages in a natural way, but, as Van Overbeke confirms, it is the capacity of moving in an effective way within two worlds by speaking two different languages. The real bilingual child can move within two different cultural universes via language and not only speak following two different linguistic codes.

In addition, if we consider other definitions of bilingualism, such as those of André Martinet, Renzo Titone10 or William Francis Mackey11 we always notice the limitation of their visions, which remain on a purely linguistic level without extending to culture. They build up a dialectic unity between biculturalism and bilingualism, which are two terms more difficult to separate than the authors think.

Lewis Balkan distinguishes a compounded bilingualism from a coordinated bilingualism: the first form of bilingualism means that the learner has acquired the second language through the mediation of the mother tongue, and the second form has been developed in a natural way and independently from the context of the mother tongue.

I am convinced that this distinction is impossible to make, because a child always has a mother tongue and it is incredible to believe that he/she can learn a second language without the universals existing in its brain and common in all languages and transmitted through the acquisition of the mother tongue in the family.

Therefore, the mother tongue is always involved in the process of second language acquisition. From my point of view, isolating the second language from the mother tongue would be theoretically and practically impossible.

The same definition found in Lewis Balkan has been exposed by the Italian linguist Spini Sergio, who terms the first form of bilingualism “natural bilingualism” and the second one “artificial”12. Undoubtedly, this distinction is very useful on a practical and methodological level, even if it cannot be identified with Balkan’s distinction between compounded and coordinated bilingualism.

The two definitions move on a different level of analysis: Spini simply distinguishes between two different social situations in which the second language is learnt: the first is a bilingual environment, the second monolingual. Nevertheless, Balkan sees a difference of relation to the mother tongue in the two forms of bilingualism he describes.

However, to build up a wider definition of the term bilingualism and to abandon the pars destruens of my discussion, I would like to start from a non-purely linguistic definition of bilingualism which could be that bilingualism is the situation in which an individual is able to understand two languages very easily and to use both of them like a native speaker of the same social and cultural origin in all the communicative situations of his/her social milieu, because he/she knows the second culture which has become like his/her second nature.

The linguistic definition of bilingualism has to be enriched by an intercultural approach, according to which the bilingual individual is also able to live and to communicate in a pragmatic Therefore, the intercultural point of view should not be external but internal, i.e. part of the definition of bilingualism itself.

Consequently, the bilingual child becomes at the same time receiver, elaborator and transmitter of cultural values via language. Without considering these social aspects of language and biculturalism, there is a risk of reducing bilingualism to a simple use of translatable codes of language.

I believe it is fundamental for the concept of culture to become part of the definition of bilingualism, which is essentially a way to produce and maintain cultural awareness that is no less important than cultural competence. Teachers should know that at the beginning, in the ESL teaching process, transmitting cultural awareness is much more important than transmitting cultural competence. Cultural awareness is a deep and existential transformation, while cultural competence is its surface appears during pragmatic communication.

However, I share what the German pedagogue Angelika Kubanek-German expresses by saying that “language awareness always means at the same time cultural awareness, if language not only means - like according to the universalistic tradition- interchangeable signs, but expression of culture”13, even I perceive a slight philosophical distinction between the two terms.

I also support that, in the end, a broad definition of bilingualism depends on a new and culturally oriented conception of language itself, which should also be affirmed on a political level.

2. Advantages of Bilingualism

Many recent researches concerning bilingualism and bilingual education show its great importance and numerous advantages. I will now try to categorise these advantages and to comment on their real and practical value in ESL learning and teaching.

From my point of view, the advantages of bilingualism can be divided into five categories: psychological and emotional, social, political, cultural, and purely practical and pragmatic advantages.

Of course, I see no reason for isolating these categories and, consequently, I would like to support considering them as a system of inter-dependent elements. It may be that one element is more important in an individual case than another, because bilingualism is not a fixed category of cultural and linguistic existence in human beings, but differs from person to person.

Especially in children, bilingualism is a very varied reality, characterised by deep individual differentiation. Every child explores reality in different ways and has a different psychological and familiar background influencing his/her second language acquisition within his/her linguistic community. Language is always part of the child’s Lebensform14, and there are many different forms of living that produce various linguistic uses.

Above all, these differences are socially and geographically determined. As a consequence, a good ESL teacher should study the psychological, social and cultural dimension of the children in the classroom without thinking that they are all the same only because they are in the same country studying the same “universal English” language.

In my opinion, the five above categories of advantages of bilingualism are not only dependent on each other, but also on the five dimensions of linguistic interaction theorised by the Canadian linguist William Francis Mackey15: socialisation, conceptual acculturation, semanticfunctional comprehension, global behaviour, and interpersonal communication.

Psychologically speaking, the bilingual child has the following advantages: flexibility, creativity, a second identity formed in a second culture, intellectual curiosity to learn new things,development of an original way of thinking, deeper self-knowledge, quicker formation of linguistic automatism, positive development of the personality and identity.

However, empirical studies do not always show all these advantages of bilingual education, mainly in children. Therefore, it is fundamental to make a distinction and to investigate the reasons why theory and reality are often so different and which external factors negatively influence second language acquisition.

First of all, we should note that additive bilingualism and its positive psychological effects are only possible if the social environment is balanced enough to promote them. It is very important to create a playing environment to develop the children’s motivation to study a second language.

If the second language learning is cooperative, child-oriented, creative, and promotes an independent way of learning by playing, without using contrastive strategies, the child is able to develop a positive idea of the second language and this promotes its psychological development as a whole.

However, learning has an essential social value, as language itself is the principal mechanism of the process of social learning. Therefore, on a social level, bilingual children develop many capacities like negotiation of meaning, interaction with different people, assimilation of a second social identity, social categorisation in a second social milieu, i.e. community of speakers, a pluralistic and a social-oriented way of living, a diplomatic competence in communication, a window towards interpersonal dialogue in general.

All these advantages are fundamental for children’s socialisation, but - I believe - two are sometimes neglected in second language teaching: the negotiation of meaning and the diplomatic capacity to develop in interpersonal communication.

The negotiation of meaning has a strong connection to the acquisition of missing knowledge on a pragmatic-social level and from the other community of speakers on a theoretical level. What children know and which meaning they attribute to words and notions, is closely related to their collocation in society and to the social groups they develop relations with.

Therefore, bilingual children are able to develop a double system of social classification because, as Philip Riley (1990) says, “language is the principal channel of socio- cultural knowledge”16. Their social identity determines their knowledge and interpretation of words, i.e. their semantic competence, and, by having a double social identity, they are able to extend their capacity of semantic negotiation with the people living in their social environment. As a Turkish proverb says, knowing two languages is like being two persons.

The second aspect, diplomatic capacity, is very important in a multicultural society as found nowadays all over the world. A bilingual child develops this from a very young age, by becoming able to get in touch with people who are part of different linguistic communities, even if he/she has a limited knowledge of the second language.

As Wolfgang Nieke17 shows, inter-social and inter-cultural learning is possible through diplomatic competence without a good knowledge of the foreign language. Teachers transmit culture and social competence in other linguistic worlds and not a formal system of language to their young learners.

Concerning the third category of advantages of bilingualism, it is true that some political bodies, like the European Community18 recognise the importance of the knowledge of a second language, but sometimes this is without many practical consequences for teaching and learning methodologies. As the Austrian pedagogue Peter Gstettner says, there is a danger of destabilisation in Europe caused by the dominant politics of ethnical discrimination19.

Some of the advantages belonging to this third category are: a culture of peace guaranteed by the reciprocal understanding between peoples all over the world20, real cooperation between nations, bilingualism as a factor of political humanitarianism in the world.

All these ideals are difficult to realise in a world governed by the law of force, weapons and ethnic and national superiority, but the bilingual education of young learners can contribute to promote politics of tolerance, peace and mutual understanding between nations, according to the model of integration. Language teaching should in this sense be political in favouring pluralism, absence of ethno-centric thoughts and real human development, because without the political acceptance of diversity there can be no peaceful future for our world21.


1 Harley, Birgit (1986). Age in Second Language Acquisition, Multilingual Matters: Clevedon.

2 Singleton, David (1989). Language Acquisition. The Age Factor, Mutlilingual Matters: Clevedon.

3 Egger, Kurt (1994). Die Sprachen unserer Kinder. Spracherwerb in einem mehrsprachigen Gebiet, Alpha & Beta: Bolzano, pp. 28-29. Original version: „Bewusst oder unbewusst erfasst ein Kind nicht nur, dass es wichtig ist, was man sagt, sondern auch, wie man etwas sagt”.

4 This is to criticise the so-called “Null-Option” concerning culture in bilingual education. This option is a voluntary withdrawal of culture, which, from our standpoint, is an empirical impossibility. Mainly in the ESL teaching process it is impossible to teach language without including the own cultural perspective. A teacher cannot be culturally neutral and should also avoid trying to achieve this cold neutrality which is felt by children in a negative way.

5 Leont’ev Alexejewitsch, Alexej (1991). “Ethno- und psycholinguistische Dimensionen des frühen Fremdsprachenlernens“, in: Loccumer Protokolle 63/90, Frühes Fremdsprachenlernen-Schulreform für Europa, ed. Evangelische Akademie Loccum: Rehburg-Loccum, p. 19. Original version: „Nur wenn das Kind sich eine fremde Sprache aneignet, beginnt es zu verstehen, dass die Welt in verschiedenen Kulturen und verschiedenen Sprachgemeinschaften unterschiedlich strukturiert und unterschiedlich begriffen wird“.

6 In this case, there is an annihilation of the foreign cultural element. The Austrian linguist Dietmar Larcher calls this model the “Cain and Abel-model”, see Baur Siegfried, Carli Augusto, Larcher Dietmar (1995). Interkulturelles Handeln, Neue Perspektiven des Zweitsprachlernens, Ed. Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano: Bolzano.

7 Deshays, Elizabeth (2002). Come favorire il bilinguismo dei bambini, l’apertura mentale di una seconda lingua, red Edizioni: Como.

8 Riley, Philip (1991). “What’s your background? The culture and identity of the bilingual child”, in Teaching English to Children: From Practice to Principle, ed. Christopher Brumfit, Jayne Moon and Ray K. Tongue, Colin Education: Glasgow, pp. 275-288.

9 See Deshays, Elizabeth (2002). Come favorire il bilinguismo dei bambini, l’apertura mentale di una seconda lingua, red Edizioni: Como, p. 10.

10 Renzo Titone is a famous expert of bilingual education in Italy. Some of his important works about bilingualism and young learners are: Titone, Renzo (1972). Bilinguismo precoce ed educazione bilingue (Pre-scholar bilingualism and bilingual education), Armando: Roma. Titone, Renzo (1979). Bilingui a tre anni (Being bilingual at the age of three), Armando: Roma. Titone, Renzo (1997). Per una educazione plurilingue e multiculturale: nuovi orizzonti della psicopedagogia del linguaggio (How to achieve a multilingual and multicultural education: new horizons of the linguistic psycho- pedagogy), ELI: Recanati.

visions, which remain on a purely linguistic level without extending to culture. They build up a

11 See Mackey, William Francis (1965). Language Teaching Analysis, Longman: London.

12 Spini, Sergio (1982). L’educazione linguistica del bambino (The linguistic education of the child), Editrice La Scuola: Brescia. p. 103.

way within two different cultural worlds by the languages that are the mean of two cultures.

13 Kubanek-German, Angelika (2003). Kindgemässer Frendsprachenunterricht, Didaktik der Gegenwart. Waxmann: Münster, p. 137. Original version: „Language awareness ist immer zugleich cultural awareness, wenn Sprache nicht gemäss der universalistischen Tradition, die eine Austauschbarkeit der Zeichen annahm, sondern als Ausdruck einer Kultur verstanden wird“.

14 This term was first used by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who says that language is a form of existence in human beings. See Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953). Philosophische Untersuchungen, Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

15 Mackey, William Francis (1982). “L’apprendimento precoce scolastico ed extrascolastico della seconda lingua: rapporti fra bilinguismo e didattica delle lingue (The pre-scholar and extra-scholar acquisition of the second language: relations between bilingualism and methods of language teaching)”, in: L’apprendimento precoce della seconda lingua, Ed. Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano: Bolzano, pp. 43-47.

16 Riley, Philip (1997). “What’s your background? The culture and identity of the bilingual child”, in: Teaching English to Children, From Practice to Principle, ed. Christopher Brumfit, Jayne Moon and Ray K. Tongue, Nelson: London, p. 279.

17 In order to examine the matter closely, see: Nieke, Wolfgang (1995). Die Vorbereitung des Lebens in Europa als Aufgabe der Schule (The Preparation to a European life is the Duty of the School), Berliner Institut: Berlin, pp. 31-50.

18 See for example: European Parliament (1993): Resolution about the cultural variety and the problems of scholar instruction of children of immigrant families in the European Community, Resolution A3-0399/92: Brussels.

19 Gstettner, Peter (1995). “Was ist und wem nützt interkulturelle Bildung in einem mehrsprachigen Gebiet?“, in: Baur Siegfried, Carli Augusto, Larcher Dietmar (1995). Interkulturelles Handeln, Neue Perspektiven des Zweitsprachlernens, Ed. Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano: Bolzano, p. 80.

20 This idea has been expressed for example by the Senegalese poet Léopold Senghor who says that it is practically impossible communicating without language and through translation by others or by using a common second language. To obtain a real and effective international cooperation bilingualism is a universal need.

21 Freddi, Giovanni (1999). “Bilinguismo e biculturalismo”, in: Educazione bilingue, ed. da Balboni Paolo, Edizioni Guerra-Soleil: Perugia, p. 2.

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Advantages and Factors of Bilingualism
With Particular Focus on Children
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