Are YOU bilingual? – Definition of bilingualism

Most people would use the label ‘bilingual’ when speaking of a two-year-old of Polish-British origin, who at this stage of language acquisition governs about 200 words, while a Polish graduate in English philology, who may have spent a considerable amount of time in Great Britain and whose vocabulary consists of thousands of items, is not usually thought of as a bilingual.

What is the difference between them? Age and context of second language acquisition – yes; but also the level of competence and functions of both their languages. One of the most controversial issues in the study of bilingualism is to agree on a definition of bilingualism: How proficient a person needs to be in both languages to be considered bilingual? A supporter of a maximalist view would say that a true bilingual should know both languages equally well as native speakers. But is it at all possible, and moreover – is it really necessary? People learn for a reason, mostly because a new language has a certain role to play in their everyday life. If it were to serve the same purpose as the native tongue, who would need the extra fuss? So fluency in each language will differ depending on its function.

Functional definition of bilingualism

Many researchers adopt a functional definition of bilingualism, which puts emphasis on the fact that language is not an abstract entity, but a tool used for the purpose of communication. This view shifts focus from linguistic competence to language performance. It was stated most explicitly by William Mackey when he wrote: “Bilingualism is not a phenomenon of language; it is a characteristic of its use. It is not a feature of the code but of the message. It does not belong to the domain of langue but of parole” (from: Interference, integration and the synchronic fallacy, 1970).

Most bilinguals tend to have one language stronger than the other, at least in some uses of it, which is perfectly understandable, as language use depends on a number of psychosocial factors. The external factors will be duration, frequency, and pressure of contact with the language used at home, at school, at church, at work, in the community, in correspondence, and in the media. The internal functions include internal speech, that is counting, praying, cursing, dreaming; as well as the person’s aptitude for learning and using the language, which is determined by sex, age, intelligence, memory, language attitude and motivation. For instance, Joseph Conrad spoke English at the master level, but with a strong Polish accent.

Receptive bilingualism vs. productive bilingualism

Functionalist approach accounts for such labels as ‘receptive bilingualism’ and ‘productive bilingualism’. The receptive bilingual, i.e. a person who can understand a second language, but who is not able to speak it or write in it, is, for instance, a Turkish immigrant’s wife in Germany. The productive bilingual can speak as well as understand the languages, although there are many combinations possible across all four language skills. So our two-year old has developed similar skills in both languages in oral production and listening comprehension, but no skills in written production and reading comprehension. As far as receptive bilingualism is concerned, we might come across a person who has mastered listening comprehension in L1 and reading comprehension in L2 only. Such is a case of a Muslim who cannot read in his vernacular, but has learnt to read the Koran in Arabic.

Which case are you? And hey! Any monolinguals left in the room?

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