Unit 1A – Describing Bilingualism



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Unit A1

Describing Bilingualism

What is bilingualism? What level of competence must you achieve in both languages to qualify as a bilingual? How do different experiences in acquiring bilingualism affect the degree of bilingualism? Can there be a single definition of bilingualism?
An often quoted answer to the question “What is bilingualism” is Baetens-Beardsmore’s comment that “bilingualism as a term has open-ended semantics” (1982: 1). In other words, the term bilingualism may mean different things to different people as there is no one definition for bilingualism. For the average speaker, bilingualism can be loosely defined as the use of two languages or the native-like control of two languages. The first definition highlights the use of two languages as a key criterion which may well include speakers who only have rudimentary formulaic expressions, e.g., greetings in the second language. In stark contrast, the second definition imposes a stringent requirement in terms of language proficiency. As is evident, each definition represents a position at different ends of the proficiency continuum even though, in reality, most bilinguals probably fall some where in the middle of this continuum. Moreover, often what we read in the literature about how bilinguals should be defined are views of experts which may not reflect the views of speakers themselves.

Though the discussion of how bilingualism should be defined has often centred on the issue of language competence, this focus overlooks other socio-cultural and cognitive factors which are just as relevant when discussing the performance of bilinguals. Hence, the aim of this first unit is to show that bilinguals are part of a wider socio-cultural milieu and any description of bilingualism needs to account for how bilinguals utilize and interact with the resources in the community. We will show that the impact of social, psychological and cultural variables on the bilingual individual is ultimately central to the experience of being bilingual, and that an understanding of these factors underpins all questions raised in this area of study.

This unit will not attempt to provide an exhaustive definition of bilingualism as this is widely covered elsewhere (see for example, Hornby 1979; Skutnabb-Kangas 1981; Baetens-Beardsmore 1982; Romaine 1989; Hoffmann 1991; Baker 2006). Instead, the aim is to equip readers with the necessary skills and insight to assess and interpret research drawn from bilingual populations. In order to achieve this, we will first examine how the bilingual experience has been chronicled and examined by various researchers. We will also look at how some factors may exert an influence over our perceptions of bilinguals and how they function. In the course of the discussion, key issues surrounding the description of bilingualism will be highlighted with a view to providing some guidelines which will be useful in engaging with debate and research into bilingualism.




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