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Summary Article: Bilingualism
From Encyclopedia of American Studies

The term bilingual means two languages that are spoken by an individual or a group or taught within a school. One of the myths of bilingualism is that a bilingual child has two equally well developed languages. This idealized notion of a balanced bilingual or ambilingual speaker is inapplicable to the majority of bilinguals throughout the world. Studies of the different social circumstances in which a child becomes bilingual suggest there are four broad types of bilingualism: elite bilingual (children who are purposefully instructed in and exposed to a desired language); children from linguistic majorities; children from bilingual families or communities; and children from linguistic minorities. Some scholars have distinguished between the term bilingualism, referring to the state of a linguistic community in which two languages are in contact resulting in both being available for use, and the term bilinguality, referring to the psychological status of an individual who has access to more than one language. Although individual bilingualism historically has been categorically defined, current research suggests that it is a relative process wherein a child attains degrees of competency in two languages. At one end of the scale is fluency in both languages and at the other is minimal communicative skill in a second or foreign language.

Bilingualism and Code Switching

A bilingual speaker has access to two languages, each capable of being used to encode meaning into a message and provide options to the speaker when conceptualizing, structuring, or expressing these meanings. Bilingual speakers have the competence to select from either code depending on their situational context or intent. This process is called code switching, which is a common, rule-governed feature of bilingual speech. The most common form of code switching occurs when a word from one language is substituted for a word in the other. Tag switching involves the insertion of a question from one language into an utterance that is otherwise completely in the other language, for example, This is the restaurant, n'est-ce pas (“is it not”)? A more advanced form, though commonly used by children, is intersentential switching, where a phrase or sentence from one language is inserted at the sentence boundary of the other. An English and French example: I want the book; Donnez-le moi s'il vous plaît (“give it to me if you please”). An even more advanced form, common among bilingual adults, is intrasentential switching, where insertion occurs within the sentence or phrase. A Sudanese Arabic and English example: Walahi yakhi (“by God my brother”), I'm very happy min ziarah bitak (“from your visit”). Bilinguals have been shown to engage in code switching in a purposeful manner as they utilize the entirety of the grammar and vocabulary at their disposal to express themselves.

Educational Issues

In the United States the major assumptions about bilingual programs have arisen out of two camps: the English-only and the English-plus movements. In the English-plus camp are advocates of bilingual programs in which students are encouraged to learn in their native language. The primary justification given for native language instruction is that for the development of a full range of proficiency skills in English, literacy is best developed in the native language, which also allows immigrant parents to participate in the acquisition of mutually beneficial language skills. In the English-only camp are advocates of immersion programs that reinforce learning in English, while avoiding the student's native language. Advocates of this approach view the United States as a monolingual society to which immigrants should pledge their full allegiance by substituting English for their original language. English-only supporters often cite measures that claim bilingualism has a negative effect on intelligence, while English-plus advocates argue that these same measures improperly compare the performance of dissimilar bilingual and monolingual speakers.

The comprehensive reviews comparing the effectiveness of bilingual to monolingual education conducted since the 1960s and 1970s largely concluded that bilingual programs were preferable if they led to language minority children becoming fluent in both the majority and minority language. The trend in the research seems to support early total immersion programs for children whose first language is a majority language. For example, an English and Italian speaker in the United States would do better if immersed in English rather than in Italian. And despite opposition from the advocates of English-only, there is a trend toward supporting programs that maintain the native language, citing advantages for minority children. For example, studies on intellectual and cognitive functioning show that bilinguals operate at higher synthesizing and multidimensional levels, and cultural and political studies have shown that bilinguals are more interested in and sensitive to other cultures.

Sociolinguists have argued that since language is used for communication, bilingual instruction should be in the parameters of communicative competence. The assumption is that by examining utterances in their situational contexts the educator can better assess the language-specific perceptions, skills, and deficits of a bilingual speaker. The situational context informs the appropriateness of a response, not just its grammatical correctness, and can provide nuances of words or expressions that are unavailable in the abstract. For example, the English word teacher translates to ustadh in Arabic, the latter term connoting not only an individual with certain technical skills and training, as it does in English, but also a lofty and select human being. In Arabic teacher is used as a title similar to the use of doctor in the English-speaking world. The Arabic speaker when using or interpreting the English word teacher might mean something different than would an English speaker. The latter case could lead to an inappropriate usage for an Arabic and English bilingual who might generate an English sentence such as: Teacher Wilson, how are you today? The contextual teaching and learning of words and phrases in the social context in which they are used by speakers of the language have been shown to be key to an effective bilingual program.

Language Policy and Bilingualism

In communities that have large numbers of bilinguals, governments often enact policies to maintain or change the relationship between the majority and minority languages. For example, the government selects which language (usually the majority language) would be the medium of instruction and which minority languages are to be taught in schools. If speakers of a minority language lack prestige within the society for racial or cultural reasons, their language will also lack prestige. Children attending school where their cultural background is not supported will encounter difficulties. This is true of children speaking the majority language, of those speaking a dialect significantly removed from the majority language standard, and especially true of children from a linguistic minority.

No other country has been host to more bilingual immigrants than the United States, but each new generation has seen a decline in their mother tongues since mastery of English is associated with success. Though most Americans descend from ancestors whose cultural heritage has included languages other than English, foreign language requirements have been persistently reduced at all educational levels. Sociolinguists have claimed that there has been a tendency to uphold the ideal of monolingualism in the midst of an increasingly multilingual population. Economists have asked whether this reluctance to develop language resources is not giving away competitive advantages to other countries where our trading partners are often multilingual and fluent in English. Sociologists hold that promoting “English plus other languages” will better prepare students for world citizenship while reducing cultural conflict. Some argue as well that the generational conflict within immigrant families would also be lessened if parents did not feel pressured to teach their children English at all costs. The controversies over policies concerning bilingualism and bilinguality are unlikely to mitigate as the United States continues to welcome new groups of immigrants speaking foreign languages.

Percent of Spanish-speaking people per state (blue = 50 percent; grey = 0 percent). Data source: American Community Survey 2004. Wikimedia Commons.

Entrance to Cherokee Central Schools in Cherokee, North Carolina, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

Bilingual street sign in Fredricksburg, Texas (founded by Germans). Pete Unseth, photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

  • Arias, M. Beatriz; Ursula Casanova, eds., Bilingual Education: Politics, Practice and Research (Univ. of Chicago Press 1993).
  • Castillo, Debra A., Redreaming America: Toward a Bilingual American Culture (SUNY Press 2005).
  • Dicker, Susan J., Languages in America: A Pluralist View (Multilingual Matters 2006).
  • Gonzalez, Virginia, ed., Language and Cognitive Development in Second Language Learning: Educational Implications for Children and Adults (Allyn 1999).
  • Grosjean, François, Bilingual: Life and Reality (Harvard Univ. Press 2010).
  • Hakuta, Kenji, Mirror of Language: The Debate of Bilingualism (Basic Bks. 1986).
  • Jarvis, Scott; Aneta Pavlenko, Crosslinguistic Influence in Language and Cognition (Routledge 2008).
  • Romaine, Suzanne, Bilingualism, 2d ed. (Blackwell 1995).
  • Sommer, Doris, Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education (Duke Univ. Press 2004).
  • Wei, Li, ed., The Bilingualism Reader, 2d ed. (Routledge 2007).
  • Williams, James D.; Grace C. Snipper, Literacy and Bilingualism (Longman 1990).
  • Ernest B. Johnson
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

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