Exploring Bilingualism - Key Concepts and Basic Issues

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Individual Bilingualism
2.1 Defining Bilingualism
2.2 Key Concepts and Distinctions
2.3 Bilingual Ability vs. Bilingual Use
2.3.1 Bilingual Ability
2.3.2 Bilingual Use
2.4 Code-switching and Interference

3. Societal Bilingualism
3.1 Diglossia
3.2 Language Shift, Language Decline, Language Maintenance and Spread

4. Concluding and Summary Remarks

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. […] And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top [may reach] unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people [is] one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. (GEN 11:1; 11:4-7; KJV)

This extract from the Book of Genesis is perhaps the oldest recorded attempt to explain the thrilling diversity of languages in the western societies. Moreover, the tale of the Tower of Babel is probably the best-known story about language among ordinary citizens. Though virtually everyone has heard about Babel at some point, only few would link it to the concept of ‘multilingualism’ or be able to give an exact definition of the term. Scholars, on the other hand, have not come up with a universally accepted definition so far, either.

The term ‘multilingualism’ is used here synonymously with ‘bilingualism’ and therefore applied in its broadest sense. For the time being, we consider as multilingualism / bilingualism the competence in more than one language[1] or, in other words, we “encompass both the individuals who are fluent in two languages only and those whose linguistic repertoire consists of three or more languages”[2]. Admittedly, this definition is rather inaccurate and vague. In the course of this work we will therefore seek for a much more elaborate understanding of bilingualism / multilingualism.

But let us go back to the biblical story for a moment. Unfortunately, a negative attitude towards different languages, which is implicitly expressed in the curse of Babel, is nowadays still widely held when it comes to judging bilinguals and bilingualism. Even in this day and age many people see the simultaneous occurrence of several languages in one place not as a blessing but as an aberration. To them, monolingualism is the norm and hence the natural way of life.

However, if we direct our attention to facts rather than fiction, it becomes immediately clear that multilingualism is neither abnormal nor unnatural. Instead, as Bhatia / Ritchie veraciously state, “[b]ilingualism, – more generally, multilingualism – is a major fact of life in the world today.”[3] For a start, let us consider the domain of economics. The process of globalisation as well as improved travel opportunities have been causing increased mobility throughout the world. It is thus becoming a smaller place and interactions between people of different nations and cultures are getting much more frequent than in the past. As a result, ever more individuals are required to speak two or more languages.

Despite these recent developments, the need to communicate with people who do not speak the same language as oneself is probably as old as history itself. Throughout the last three millenia, there have been various lingua francas in use in Europe to overcome transnational language barriers: Greek, Latin, French and lately English. The widespread use of lingua francas over the course of time suggests that bilinguals have never been as rare and strange a species as some people might think.

Seen from a global perspective, there is a much more basic reason to acknowledge that indeed multilingualism and not monolingualism is the norm for vast numbers of people. Again, Bhatia / Ritchie supply the argument for this line of thought: “To begin with, the world’s estimated 5,000 languages are spoken in the world’s 200 sovereign states (or 25 languages per state), so that communication among citizens of many of the world’s countries clearly requires extensive bi- (if not multi-)lingualism.”[4]

Because of their common historic experiences, namely colonialism and the Commonwealth of Nations, bilingual matters of different kinds are of particular interest to the English-speaking countries. Due to reasons that are mainly connected with the British Empire, there are presently over 100 minority languages in use in Great Britain, even though virtually none of them are official languages.[5] In South Africa, on the contrary, many of the 25 living languages like Xhosa or Zulu have been assigned the status of an official language, though English and Africans are the dominating languages in commerce and at authorities and serve as lingua francas. In other countries like Gabon or India, English is an official language as well; but that does not necessarily mean that everyone in these places has a good command of English. According to Crystal[6], estimates of the amount of people who are fluent in the language in India have been as low as 3%!

What is fluency, anyway? How is it to be defined? Is fluency a necessary criterion to decide if a person is bilingual or not? If not, what other criteria are there to take into account? With these questions being asked, we have arrived at the core of the subject. Ultimately, it all boils down to this: What is bilingualism and what is a bilingual? The vital goal of this work is to provide a sufficient introductory overview about the study of bilinguals / bilingualism and to show how complex, multifaceted and yet at the same time how rich and fascinating this branch of linguistics is.

Usually research into bilingualism distinguishes between two different approaches. That is, to look at bilinguals either from an individual or from a societal point of view. Accordingly, we will be dealing with individual bilingualism and societal bilingualism in separate chapters.

After a detailed discussion of individual bilingualism, which will try to answer all the questions that were asked in the preceding paragraph plus introduce other related fascinating fields of research, we will move on to survey the main aspects of societal bilingualism. The symbiotic relationship between the individual and the societal approach is portrayed soundly by Colin Baker: “Bilingualism at the individual level is half of a story. The other essential half is to analyze how groups of language speakers exist and change.”[7] The overview on societal bilingualism thus comprises a synopsis of the main areas of interest in this domain. We will study diglossia, language contact, language shift, language decline and language spread.

At the beginning of our enquiries it is necessary to critically examine and review some definitions of bilingualism and to introduce certain key terms that are widely used by researchers. This is best exemplified with the help of some very different types of bilingual individuals.

2. Individual Bilingualism

2.1 Defining Bilingualism

One could be forgiven for thinking that studying bilingualism is an easy matter. Since ‘bi’ means ‘two’ and ‘lingua’ means ‘language’ in Latin, “it would seem that bilingualism is simply about the ownership of two languages.”[8] On second thoughts, however, a rather complicated and complex picture of the study of bilingualism emerges. Consider the following examples. In a way, all the people mentioned are bilinguals, though their individual conditions and language abilities vary extremely.

1) Florence Blackwood from London, a 25-year-old accountant who speaks English and French fluently. Her father is English, her mother is French. Florence was brought up bilingually and is literate in both languages. She went to school in England but has lived in France for some years after graduating from high-school.
2) Meltem Ayaz from Berlin, 12-year-old daughter of Turkish immigrants, who was born and is still living in Germany. She converses easily in both languages but is illiterate in Turkish, although it is her mother tongue. In school, she has trouble to follow classes because she does not know a lot of German words and syntactic structures. Also, her reading and writing abilities in German are insufficient.
3) Ameer Khan, a 36-year-old Pakistani who immigrated to Scotland at the age of 28. He is fluent in his native language and speaks English regularly at work, though his level of English is poor.
4) Ivan Sanchez, 18, a high-school graduate from Madrid, who is now living with his brothers in England. He studied English for eight years at school. Despite his reasonable command of English he rarely ever uses it because he is afraid to make mistakes.
5) Horst Krause, 68, a pensioner from Germany. He has just completed an English course (adult evening classes) where he learned the absolute basics of the language. He is only able to say things like ‘Hello, my name is Horst. I am from Germany.’

Are all of these people really bilinguals? That certainly depends on the definition of bilingualism. The kind of bilingual Leonard Bloomfield had in mind when he defined bilingualism in his 1933 seminal “Language” was clearly someone like Florence Blackwood. To him, bilingualism is the “native-like control of two languages”[9]. This classical definition is commonly referred to as the maximalist position. Despite its classical status, Baker[10] notes that Bloomfield‘s definition is a tad ambiguous. What is meant by ‘control’ and who exactly is the reference group? What is even more important for our purposes than Baker‘s criticisms is that the maximalist definition excludes a lot of people who might otherwise be termed bilinguals. From our examples, everyone else except the first case would be put aside.

Because he felt that Bloomfield‘s definition was too exclusive, the sociolinguist Uriel Weinreich was deliberately vaguer in his definition of bilingualism. He simply defined it as the alternate use of two languages[11]. As the term ‘maximalist’ implies, there must be minimalist definitions of bilingualism as well. They come from Diebold with his notion of incipient bilingualism[12] and from Haugen[13], who states that bilingualism begins when the speaker of one language can produce complete meaningful utterances in the second language. According to these views, someone with the abilities of Horst Krause in our example would be a bilingual, too.

However, for a meaningful discussion of bilingualism and the classification of the different kind of people who are, in their own way, all bilinguals, neither minimalist nor maximalist definitions are of any help. Baker explains the problem through a vivid analogy: “The danger of being too exclusive is not overcome by being too inclusive. Trawling with too wide a fishing net will catch too much variety and therefore makes discussion about bilinguals ambiguous and imprecise. Trawling with narrow criteria may be too insensitive and restrictive.”[14] The minimalist position nevertheless offers a worthwhile notion. By stating that bilingualism begins with complete meaningful utterances, Haugen acknowledges two important things. Firstly, that bilingualism is in fact a process, not a state, secondly, that bilingual proficiency is always a question of degree.

It seems that asking whether someone is a bilingual or not is more or less fruitless. There are no simple yes and no answers. We should therefore ask a different question: To what degree is a person bilingual? That is, to give consideration to all the different kinds of bilinguals we have encountered already. It also means to range them along a continuum, as Saunders[15] notes:

Bilinguals can be ranged along a continuum from the rare equilingual who is indistinguishable from a native speaker in both languages at one end to the person who has just begun to acquire a second language at the other end. They are all bilinguals, but in possessing different degrees of bilingualism.


[1] Edwards 1994: 55.

[2] Kamwangamalu 2004: 726.

[3] Bhatia / Ritchie 2004: 1

[4] Ibid.

[5] Crystal 1997: 362.

[6] Ibid: 361.

[7] Baker 1993: 35.

[8] Baker 1993: 4.

[9] Bloomfield 1933: 56.

[10] Baker 1993: 7.

[11] Cf. Weinreich 1953.

[12] Cf. Diebold 1963.

[13] Haugen 1953: 7.

[14] Baker 1993: 7.

[15] Saunders 1982: 9.

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Exploring Bilingualism - Key Concepts and Basic Issues
Free University of Berlin
First and Second Language Acquisition
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ISBN (eBook)
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Exploring, Bilingualism, Concepts, Basic, Issues, First, Second, Language, Acquisition
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Martin Lehmannn (Author), 2005, Exploring Bilingualism - Key Concepts and Basic Issues, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/39435


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