One person, two languages – an insight into bilingualism
There are almost 8 billion people living in the world, and there is a consensus among linguists that most of these people know at least two different languages. The level of language proficiency varies from person to person, but bilingualism is a relatively common occurrence in many regions. But who can be considered bilingual?
Boundaries of bilingualism
There are two extremes when it comes to defining bilingualism. According to one, a bilingual person is someone who knows at least one word in a language other than their mother tongue – for example, they can greet in another language. However, this view is not largely accepted, because according to such a logic, everyone could be considered bilingual. According to the other extreme, however, a person is considered bilingual if they have equal command of both languages. The theory of equivalency was controversial for a long time, as the context and environment in which a language can be used vary greatly. For example, expats in the US tend to speak their mother tongue at home and with friends, while English is their main language at work or school.
As we know, we express ourselves differently depending on whether we are in a formal or informal setting. In general, however, linguists have come to the conclusion that when defining bilingualism, a bilingual individual can express oneself fluently in both languages – primarily orally, because in the process of acquiring a language, a person learns to speak first and write later. This aspect helps us to distinguish a bilingual speaker from a person who, in addition to their native language, also simply knows a foreign language, because in foreign language learning, oral language is acquired hand in hand with written language. Deriving from this, linguists have found another interesting topic of discussion: can English be considered a foreign language at all anymore?
Researchers of youth language have found that under the influence of mediatisation and globalisation, English is more of a second language (especially for young people). Thus, it is necessary to look beyond language skills. According to studies of bilingualism, identification of the speaker also plays an important role. When a person feels that they are bilingual, they also often feel, that they belong to two different cultural spaces. That is why it is often said that a bilingual person has a dual identity.
Detecting bilinguals: common facts and myths about bilingualism
Next, we will take a look at some of the facts and myths about bilingualism that you may have heard before, and explain why some of them are not based on truth.
MYTH: a bilingual person knows two languages on an equal level
For a long time it was believed that two separate language systems exist in the brain of a bilingual person, the ‘content’ of which is identical. The concept of a non-existent ideal, according to which a proper bilingual could repeat the same idea in both languages, circulated. However, several studies have shown that the vocabulary of a bilingual person in either language may vary, because the language input is different. For example, if a mother of a child living in Norway speaks Norwegian, and their father speaks Finnish, then the child hears more Norwegian in everyday life, and their vocabulary in Norwegian is also larger than in Finnish.
FACT: Languages carry different functions in a bilingual person
Studies of multilingual communication confirm that languages are used in different contexts, with different frequencies and with different people. Here it can be argued that each language performs a different function both in a person’s life and in communication activities. For example, if Poles living in the UK are used to speaking Polish to each other, then switching to English might feel awkward for them even though they can all also speak English. With such linguistic behaviour, the speakers indicate that Polish feels more natural to them and through this the speakers also feel closer to each other.
MYTH: Acquiring other languages is easy for bilinguals
A common claim states that the brain of a bilingual person is like a sponge, and if at a young age they were able to acquire two languages at once, then, consequently, learning other languages should also go smoothly. Such an assumption applies, for example, to polyglots, because the more trained a person’s learning ability is and the more systematically they approach language learning, the easier it will be for them to learn other languages. However, language inputs for a bilingual person are not language textbooks, so the success of learning other languages depends more on their individual characteristics, which have nothing to do with their bilingualism.
MYTH: Bilinguals can translate very well
As with language learning, research has not found conclusive evidence that every bilingual is a good translator. It’s true that, thanks to a dual identity, a bilingual may have a certain ability to understand different cultural spaces, which someone who has studied a foreign language may not be capable of. However, this is only a small part of translating. As bilinguals do not have an equal command of both languages, there is a lack of vocabulary. For example, if a Japanese person living in the U.S. speaks Japanese with their parents, then they may not know the written Japanese language. It could also mean that their Japanese vocabulary is limited to the topics they discuss within the family. A good translator/interpreter must therefore acquire additional knowledge of the language and culture.
FACT: A bilingual person mixes languages up
Code switching is a fairly natural linguistic behaviour among bilinguals. Today, numerous studies are available on what the grammar of bilingual self-expression is like and why languages are mixed even at a conversational level. For example, in the sentence
Я решила прогуляться до Виру кескуса
In this Russian sentence, the last phrase Viru keskus, referring to a shopping mall, is in Estonian. The code switch happens at the end of the sentence where the Estonian word for centre ‘keskus’ is declined using Russian grammar rules. For a long time, the attitude towards linguistic code switching was rather negative, because the belief was that this shows the linguistic incompetence of a person. By now, this point of view has evolved, and code switching is viewed as one way for a bilingual person to indicate that they are bilingual.
MYTH: A bilingual is smarter than a monolingual
This myth is based on an understanding as if knowing two languages increases the capacity of the speaker’s brain. However, it has not been confirmed that the intellectual capacity of a bilingual person is greater than that of a monolingual person. Rather, several studies have shown the various benefits learning a foreign language brings – whether a person grows up in the middle of two languages or acquires a foreign language later – it has a positive effect on a person’s development in any case. A parallel can be drawn here with the myth that learning languages is easy for bilinguals – just like the ability to learn, wisdom is also very much individual.
Bilingualism around us
To be (bilingual) or not to be? – That is the question! In today’s context, we can say that we live in a world without borders, and contact with other cultures and languages is closer than ever. To one degree or another, many of us are bilingual, both at the level of language skills and identity. Bilingualism is no longer either a privilege or a rarity, but rather a normal phenomenon. However, new winds are blowing in the linguistics landscape, and new research trends are trying to refrain from a polarising perspective. That is why, when we talk about bilingualism, we are better off talking about multilingualism – because daily contact involves more than two languages.