Language assessment: Testing bilinguals?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003
23 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction: Importance of the issue

2. Definitions
2.1. Circumstantial versus elected bilingualism
2.2. The concept of the native speaker: the general standard against which bilinguals are compared
2.3. Domains in bilingualism
2.4. Diglossia
2.5. Semilingualism
2.6. What does it mean to know a language?
2.7. Language proficiency vs. verbal ability as criteria in assessment of bilinguals

3. Methods of testing
3.1. An overview of tendencies how bilingualism has been measured
3.2 Historical stages of testing
3.3. Self-report data
3.2.1 Self-rating of language abilities
3.2.2 ociolinguistic background questionnaires
3.3 Measuring language “dominance” in bilinguals

4. Summary

5. Conclusion

6. A special case of testing in German elementary school: “Bärenstark”

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction: Importance of the issue

In the last decades, the number of bilingual children in German schools, most of them elective bilinguals, has continually increased. Numerous migrants and immigrants of all nationalities and of e.g. Russian and Turkish origin have raised their children in Germany while many of them never really learned to speak German as a second language (L2) additionally to their first language (L1). It is these kids of the second (or third) generation who are born as German citizens, receive German schooling and grow up bilingual. At home, often the native tongue of the parents is spoken. Due to being enclosed in a cultural community within their German community, they never learned to speak, read or write German properly. So the popular language at home remains the parents’ L1. The children are usually and according to law raised and educated in German institutions (kindergarten, school). They pick up German as a second language, if for example Turkish or Russian is mainly spoken at home. Or they even learn German as L1, when one or both parents have a sufficient command of the German language. “Bilingualism in migrant communities differs from the more stable and (to some extent) institutionally legitimized types of bilingualism […] Characteristically, it spans three generations, the oldest speaker sometimes being monolingual in the community language, the economically active generation being to varying degrees bilingual but with greatly differing levels of competence in the host language, while children born in the host community may sometimes be virtually monolingual in the host language” (Milroy and Muysken 1995, p. 2). These are two examples of possible bilingualism as they can be found with the children of migrant and immigrant families. So the reality in most of Berlin schools is that, depending on the district, a high to very high percentage of the pupils in school are ”Schüler-nicht-deutscher-Herkunftssprache”[1]. Recently a test has been designed to evaluate the skills of children who enter elementary school. This test, “Bärenstark”, will be critically discussed later in this paper. As a matter of fact, the importance of testing verbal skills seems to grow in Germany.

As for the situation in America, which Valdés and Figueroa have studied, ”[...] it is clear that testing is serious business. Schools are ranked according to test scores, programs are cancelled or continued on the basis of student test performance, and discussions of discrimination at the university level center around the weight given in admissions decisions to SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test, A.K.] scores. There are many disagreements about what tests measure, how they should be used and interpreted, and even about possible alternatives to standardized testing. Bilingual individuals have not done well on standardized tests” (Valdés and Figueroa 1994, p. 2).

Throughout the book by Valdés/Figueroa it becomes clear that measuring bilingualism is not an easy task at all. It is a highly complex task and there has not yet been an agreement how bilingualism can be measured or if it can be measured meaningfully at all. Each test – as they are currently conducted - runs the risk of promoting biases and resulting in rather erratic data, examining only a very shallow range of the bilingual speaker’s skills and not viewing his language abilities in L1 related to L2. Depending on the variables involved and on possible misinterpretation, the outcome can be quite capricious. Macnamara states that “obviously the complexity is such that it would take a team of psycholinguists and sociolinguists several years to study even a limited number of bilinguals” (Macnamara 1967 in: Valdés and Figueroa 1994, p. 66).

2. Definitions

2.1. Circumstantial versus elected bilingualism

Valdés and Figueroa argue that the bilingual minority groups in the U.S. are circumstantial bilinguals. This is the case, when a person is born into a situation where he or she is taught two languages by parents speaking these two languages or through force of circumstances has to learn another language to be able to “survive” in everyday- and “official” life. The latter condition applies to migrants and immigrants who suffer the loss of privileges as citizens if they do not understand or speak the native language of the country the move to. The other form, elected bilingualism, is a matter of choice. In this case, a free decision is made to study a language and reach a certain proficiency in this L2, depending on the effort involved and the purpose (if any) the language is to serve[2]. Students of foreign languages are one example of a bilingualism that is elective. Nevertheless, it is the pressure of circumstances and the need to communicate that determines an individual’s bilingualism to be circumstantial.

2.2. The concept of the native speaker: the general standard against which bilinguals are compared

In the popular concept of the native speaker, a native speaker is somebody who cannot be distinguished from other native speakers. He must function well in all domains of language use in which native speakers usually function, as if he had acquired this language as a first language.

With bilinguals, this definition may lead to difficulties. If they have acquired both languages in a bilingual community, they often speak a contact variety[3] of each of their languages. For monolingual speakers they may appear as learners of the language or as speakers of a nonstandard, non-prestige variety, thus implying a lower social status.

Bilinguals are, according to a definition of bilingual competence given by Cummins (1979) to have perfect knowledge of both their languages. This implies the view of some ideal bilingual speaker whose proficiency would be equal on a high level in both of his languages. The reality among bilinguals is rather that they use each of their languages in different social contexts “and would not be expected to use either of them in all contexts” (Milroy and Muysken 1995, p. 5).

2.3. Domains in bilingualism

Fishman proposed the concept of domain in 1964 (compare Fishman 1971) as a model in order to “specify the larger institutional role-contexts within which habitual language use occurs in multilingual settings […]” (Fishman 1971, p. 233f.).

He distinguishes between stable bilingual societies and unstable bilingual societies. In the stable bilingual societies, languages seem to have certain domains of community-life for which they are reserved; one language primarily in domains such as friendship, family representing the intimate side of life while the other stands for “values such as status differentiation and to be used primarily in domains such as religion, education and employment” (Fishman 1971, p. 235). Thus e.g. a Turkish child raised in Germany might switch in school between associating with his peer group of Turkish nationality in the school break in his L1 Turkish

to speaking German in the following lesson. Having lunch at home, the conversation might be held in Turkish again. In the unstable bilingual societies, “domain separation in language use vanishes and the ‘other’ tongue becomes used alternatively with the ‘mother’ tongue, particularly in the family and friendship domains. […] In general, unstable intragroup bilingualism has occurred in immigrant languages in the context of rapid industrialization, urbanization, or other rapid social change: for example, in Yiddish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and German use in the United States” (Fishman 1971, p. 234).

The question of social relation is important in the matter of domain. Thus, a bilingual speaking with someone of a supposed higher education in an official setting also fluent in both the bilingual’s languages will not speak the language associated with a less educational value but that language which implies a higher level of education in social and societal terms. On the other hand, each relationship that has become incongruous will struggle towards re-definition. Fishman gives an example: “[…] a professor and student who are engaged in mountain-climbing may no longer view themselves as professor-student, but as individuals interacting in some other role-relationship. Under such circumstances, the variety used would be appropriate to the perceived social relationship and to the re-defined total situation of which that relationship is a part” (Fishman 1971, p. 234).

Domains can again be subdivided in according to importance in the bilingual’s life. Generally, family, religion and community can be seen as domains of primary importance. School, media and representation in public can be seen as secondary domains of language use.

2.4. Diglossia

The term diglossia was defined by Ferguson in 1959.

“Diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which in addition to the primary dialect of the language, which may include a standard or regional standard, there is a very divergent highly codified, often grammatically more complex, super-posed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of literature, heir of an earlier period or another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written purposes, but is not used in any sector of the community for ordinary conversation” (Ferguson 1959, p. 336).

In its original meaning, diglossia refers to a different situation than bilingualism. In some countries or communities (e.g. the Arabic-speaking world, among Puerto Rican Americans) there are two forms of the same language (e.g. Arabic or Spanish) used in different situations and for different purposes. These are two forms of the same language as opposed to two languages in bilingualism. A “high” variety of e.g. Spanish is used in formal situations such as contact with authorities, education, in written context, in employment an usually in the media, while a “low” variety is used in more intimate situations such as within family, friendship, among peers as well as in oral conversations in general. This language situation can be seen as a continuum with the “high” variety at one end and the “low” variety at the other end. A speaker’s use of the range between the two extremes depends on many factors including speaker(s), conversation topic and setting.

The term diglossia has also become used in another way, referring to a state of bilingualism. As opposed to the concept of the ideal bilingual speaking both languages equally well and applying them in certain context with different interlocutors, there may be a ranking among a bilingual’s languages. In the American Southwest, for example, Spanish and English coexist in a situation of bilingualism, but there are important diglossic elements: in many cases, English is used for high-prestige, formal contexts of speech, while Spanish is used primarily at home, in conversation among friends etc. Thus Spanish becomes the “low” variety while English is the “high” variety.

2.5. Semilingualism

The theory of semilingualism was developed by educational psychologists in Canada and Sweden. “Semilingualism is a term used to describe a condition where bilingual children are said to know neither of their two languages well enough to sustain the advanced cognitive processes which enable them to benefit from mainstream education” (Milroy and Muysken 1995, p. 3). This view of bilingualism, implying that bilinguals will fail the standards of mainstream education and thus of gaining a valuable place in society as a whole has been proven wrong, “[…] such a deficit-based type of analysis cannot easily be sustained in the fact of sociolinguistic evidence” (Milroy and Muysken 1995, p. 3).


[1] Students of non-German first language. The term refers to the fact that not all children born in Germany as German citizens learn to speak German as their first language. At the same time the term tries to avoid any discrimination and to be formally correct by not refering to them as foreigners or migrant children openly.

[2] Of course, even a circumstantial bilingual can choose within certain limits, which may be very narrow, where he wants to go to live and thus determine a second language of his/her choice. But e.g. for children of migrants, this condition of “free choice” is not valid.

[3] A contact variety is a language variety exhibiting traces of e.g. vocabulary or syntax of the other language, e.g. English words in a contact variety of Spanish: “el breco” – derived from “the brake”.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Language assessment: Testing bilinguals?
Free University of Berlin  (John-F.-Kennedy-Institut / Abteilung Sprachwissenschaften)
HS Language Policy and Language Use in Multicultural Societies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Paper on the difficulties bilinguals are confronted with doing language assessment. Important definitions of bilingualism, diglossia, semilingualism. overview of different methods of testing. Special case study of "Bärenstark", a language test conducted with immigrant children in Berlin's primary schools.
Language, Testing, Policy, Multicultural, Societies, language assessment, assessment, linguistics, linguistik, bilingual, zweisprachigkeit, bilingualism
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Andreas Krumwiede (Author), 2003, Language assessment: Testing bilinguals?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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