Bilingualism: Definitions and Distinctions
It is valuable to make the distinction that bilingualism and multilingualism as an individual characteristic,
in a social group, community, region or country.
• Between Individual bilingualism or societal bilingualism
• Between language ability and language use.
o Some bilinguals actively speak and write both languages( productive competence).
Others are more passive bilinguals and may have receptive ability (understanding or
o Ability is on a dimension or continuum with dominance and development varied across
o The domains where each language is acquired and used are varied.
o Different purposes of languages.
• Balance of two languages
o Often one language is more dominant than the other(s).
o Simultaneous or infant bilingualism is when children two languages from birth
o Sequential or consecutive bilingualism is when children learn a second language after
about 3 years of age.
o Incipient: One language is developed and the other is at the early stages of development.
Ascendant bilingualism is when he second language is developing
Recessive bilingualism is when the second language is deteriorating resulting in
o Some bilinguals live in endogenous communities that use more than one language on a
o Exogenous communities is a monolingual community.
o When there is a preference of a language over another in a country, some context may be
subtractive. Particularly occurs in immigrants
o Other context that are additive is when a second language is acquired without any cost to
the first language as occurs in elite or prestigious bilinguals
• Elective Bilingualism vs Circumstantial bilingualism: l
o Elective bilingualism
Individuals who choose to learn a language.
They add a second language without losing their first language.
o Circumstantial bilingualism
bilinguals because of their circumstance i.e. immigrants
Have a risk of losing their first language to the second language (subtractive
context) An Individual’s Use of Bilingualism
• Language Choice
o In monolingual environments, bilinguals have only once choice of language to use.
o In communities where more than one language are spoken, bilinguals could use both
languages frequently thus language choice is not hazardous or arbitrary.
o In dealing with an unknown person, a bilingual could use dress, appearance, age, accent
and command of a language as clues to determine which language to use with that
o In Canada and US, last names could be used as a clue as well.
o Individuals’ attitude might influence their choice of language.
o Older people might speak the minority language while youngsters speak the majority
language because of its higher status and more fashionable image.
o In situations where the native language is perceived as threatened, some would avoid
using the majority language to assert and reinforce the status of the other language. I.e.,
some French Canadians refuse to speak English to emphasize the status of French.
o When a minority language has been disparaged and deprived of status, the language may
be confined to private and domestic role. i.e. Chinese language in northern England.
o Individuals may also switch languages ether deliberately or subconsciously accommodate
he perceived preference of the other participants in the conversation. Majority language
may be used to gain acceptance and minority language may be used o forma affiliation or
belonging to a group.
Bilingual and Multilingual Ability
• The four language abilities
o Listening, speaking, reading, writing
Receptive skills Listening Reading
Productive skills Speaking Writing
o The four basic abilities can be further refined into sub-scaled and dimensions. Skills
within skills, traditionally listed as pronunciation, extend of vocabulary, correctness of
grammar, the ability to convey exact meaning in different situations and variations in
o A person’s ability in two languages are multidimensional and ten to evade simple
• Minimal and maximal bilingualism
o A classic definition of bilingualism such as ‘native like control of 2 or more languages’
appear too extreme and maximalist
o On the other end is the minimalist definition, as in Diebold’s concept of incipient
o Incipient bilingualism allows people with minimal competence in a second language to
squeeze into the bilingual category. (Tourists and business people).
o Difference classification will continue to exist. An alternative is to move away from the
multi-colored canvas of proficient levels to a portrait of the everyday use of the two
languages by individuals.
• Balanced bilinguals
o A person how is competent in both languages could also be referred to as equilingual or
ambilinguals or more commonly, a balanced bilingual.
o Balanced bilingualism is sometimes used as an idealized concept. Fishman argued that rarely ANYONE be equally competent across all situations.
o This term can also be a problematic concept as the balance may exist at a low level of
competence in the two languages.
o Someone may have two relatively underdeveloped languages nevertheless approximately
equal in proficiency.
o Categorizing individuals into such groups raises issues of comparison. Who is judged
normal proficient, skillful, fluent or competent? The danger is using monolinguals as a