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FAQ: Bilingualism

How It Works


The subject of bilingualism, with its attendant pros and cons, has been surrounded by myths. This Card File is based on a series of lectures by Irina Dubinina, Associate Professor at Brandeis University, discussing the phenomenon of bilingualism, its impact on the human brain, and whether it is possible to raise a bilingual child in the Russian context.


What is bilingualism?

Bilingualism is one's ability to use two or more languages in one’s daily life – both with adequate proficiency for effective communication but not necessarily at the same level as an educated native speaker.

A common misconception is that bilinguals acquire both languages naturally during childhood. Instead, bilinguals are people who currently live in an environment where two languages are spoken and use both languages daily to maintain their livelihood.


What types of bilingualism are there?

Bilingualism is classified into types according to various parameters. Based on the time at which the second language is learned, bilinguals can be either natural or artificial. An artificial bilingual is someone who has acquired a second language, usually through deliberate learning, at some point after developing their first-language proficiency naturally. A natural bilingual is someone who has spoken both languages from an early age.

Natural bilinguals further fall into two types according to the time of the second language acquisition. Simultaneous bilingualism is when a child acquires two languages at the same time, e.g. when raised by parents speaking different languages. Sequential bilingualism is when a child first masters his or her first language and then adds another language, also at an early age. This may happen when a child born to a family speaking one language is sent to a kindergarten where another language is spoken.


How important is language proficiency?

In terms of language proficiency, bilingualism can be balanced, unbalanced or mixed.

Someone who is equally fluent in both languages is often described as a balanced – or coordinate – bilingual. Bilinguals of this type hold two languages separately in their mind, each with a corresponding set of semantic concepts expressed in lexical units and grammatical systems which do not mix. In real life, however, equal proficiency in both languages is an exception. No matter how fluent a person may be in both languages, they tend to use one language more than the other in certain spheres. Therefore, bilinguals come in a continuum, ranging from more to less balanced.


Got it. There can also be unbalanced and mixed bilingualism, right?

Yes. Unbalanced bilingualism means that one is not equally proficient in both languages. Most sequential late bilinguals are more fluent in their first language than in their second one. In unbalanced bilingualism, one language is usually subordinate to the other, i.e. the vocabulary and grammar of one's stronger language – most often their first language – can interfere with the way they speak the second language and may lead to calques, or loan translations, of which the bilingual speaker is unaware.

In mixed bilingualism, mutual interference of both language systems can occur, so that a person does not realise which of the languages has the lexical and grammatical constructions they are using and which does not.


What is heritage bilingualism?

In the case of heritage bilinguals, their second language acquired later in life is dominant in society and affects the way they use their first, or heritage, language, which has a minority status due to sociolinguistic reasons, e.g. by being used by a relatively small group of people in a limited informal context. As a result, the process of acquisition is different from that which would normally occur in a rich linguistic environment, where a language is used by society as the main medium of communication, livelihood, transactions, and education.

Heritage bilingualism is common among children raised in immigrant families. Normally, children learn basic linguistic structures by the age of five, and then fully master their native language at school by age 11 or so. This means that by five, most children have learned their first language before studying it formally. If another language is added at this age and becomes dominant in their education and exploration of the world, children stop making improvements in mastering their first language.


How do heritage bilinguals use their first language?

By the time they reach adulthood, most heritage bilinguals can understand their first language and speak it with good pronunciation and fluency. However, they tend to use words which they learned in early childhood even in situations which require a more sophisticated vocabulary. For example, when addressing adult peers or seniors, heritage speakers may employ diminutive terms commonly used in talking to young children or in very informal situations.

Also common among heritage bilinguals are unusual intonation patterns and erroneous grammatical constructions, such as 'I have 25 years' (instead of 'I am 25') or 'take a pill from your headache' (instead of 'for your headache'). But the most noticeable deviations from the norm of native speakers include problems with gender and case endings, often leading to further errors in subordinate constructions and word order. Usually, such bilinguals cannot read and write well in their native, i.e. first-acquired language.


What determines how common bilingualism is in a country?

There are two types of countries: those in which bilingualism or multilingualism is a historical phenomenon, such as India or Indonesia, and those in which it has emerged over time due to immigration, such as the U.S., Canada and many European countries. The Russian Federation has both the historical and acquired types of bilingualism, with the Tatar, Chuvash, Tuvan and other languages in the former and Tajik, Ukrainian, Belarusian and others in the latter category.

Some countries formally recognise multilingualism or bilingualism, e.g. Switzerland and Singapore. In contrast, some others refuse to formalise bilingualism as part of their culture, e.g. the United States, which does not recognise bilingualism in its Constitution while being a de facto bilingual country, with Spanish widely spoken alongside English, especially in the states bordering Mexico. (Admittedly, the U.S. Constitution does not stipulate any official language.) Some former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, also belong to the latter type of countries.


How does bilingualism affect the brain?

Studies reveal both positive and negative effects. One perceived advantage of bilingualism is its role in the continuous activation of the brain's executive control system to suppress a language which the person is not currently using. This is believed to reduce the risk of the function's premature degradation and the likelihood of cognitive impairment in old age.

Another perceived advantage is most bilinguals' better ability to suppress distracting noises while performing a cognitive task – their focus has been found to be generally superior to that of monolinguals.


But what are the negative aspects of bilingualism?

The fact that both languages get activated at the time of communication is believed to have a negative as well as positive impact, such as more frequent pauses, especially when switching between languages, and impaired access to lexical units. Bilinguals often have difficulty finding the right words to say and tend to experience 'tip-of-the-tongue' moments.

The linguistic development of bilingual children may be somewhat delayed compared to their monolingual peers, because bilinguals tend to take longer to sort out information and identify speech patterns between the two languages.


Should bilingualism be promoted in education?

According to multiple psycholinguistic studies, children tend to develop much faster when both languages ​​are supported. Israeli and Hong Kong researchers also confirm that bilingual kindergarten students find it easier to learn to count and write if both languages are used. A situation in which two languages are spoken in a community but only one is used in education may lead to asymmetric bilingualism, giving one language more power than the other.

Meanwhile, supporting bilingualism in education is expensive. The government is not always prepared to finance bilingual education, and many parents cannot afford to pay for it.

In the U.S., for example, whether a community has Russian-language kindergartens and schools depends on the number of Russian-speaking residents: if Russian speakers are few, finding a local school teaching in Russian or even hiring a private tutor can be difficult, if even possible. With their family's language confined to home use, children tend to become heritage bilinguals. For many heritage bilinguals in the U.S., the first opportunity for formal education in their first/ home/ family language – such as Russian – is an undergraduate course at a university where it is available.


What would it take to raise a bilingual child in Russia?

Just like in any other country, raising a bilingual child in Russia requires commitment and resources. How easy or challenging it can be depends on the popularity of certain languages in a society. For example, English is popular in Russia, and kindergartens where English is taught can be easily found, particularly in Moscow. Accessing pre-school or school education in other languages can be more difficult, particularly for languages spoken by immigrants from former Soviet Union countries. These languages do not have status in society and are not normally taught at school.

In addition to sending a child to a kindergarten or school teaching the desired second language, it also makes sense, if the parents can afford it, to hire a nanny or tutor who will use this language with the child. The general rule is the more people communicate with the child in the target language, the easier, faster and more sustainable their learning tends to be.


What about a family environment?

The easiest way for an intercultural family to raise a bilingual child is to use the 'one-parent-one-language' approach. Before the child is born, the family needs to agree on a language policy, e.g. Dad always speaks English, Mum always speaks Russian, and the child is raised with an understanding that they need to respond in the language they are spoken to. That said, the child's motivation and sensitivity to languages matters as much as the parents' commitment and efforts.

Watching cartoons in a foreign language is not enough: live oral communication is essential for learning the language structures used to convey meaning.

Author: Alena Tarasova, June 27, 2019