This dialogue involves getting more closely acquainted with the phenomenon of bilingualism. Tim is the person who explains what bilingualism is about, and how both languages are learned. It is also clear from the dialogue that a different method of learning a language is involved. Just as Pavla can’t imagine having a “father tongue”, Tim can’t imagine not having one. The aim is to provide an introduction to at least some of the experiences of bilingual people.

  • What is...?

Bilingualism (Latin root): This refers to the ability to use two languages.

  • Topic

Just as it is clear that a bicycle has two wheels, it would seem that bilingualism is simply about using two languages. However, the question of the ownership of two languages is not quite as clear as the ownership of two wheels. Ask someone if they are bilingual, or better still if they know two languages. Is a bilingual person someone who speaks one language fluently and a second not quite fluently, or someone who uses one language at home and another at work, or someone who understands two languages but speaks only one?

The answers to the questions “Who is bilingual?” and “What is bilingualism?” are not simple. In order to understand them correctly, we have to distinguish between bilingualism as an individual property and bilingualism as the manifestation of a certain social group. There are many different viewpoints from which to approach the question; differing perspectives are offered by sociology, socio-linguistics, politics, geography, psychology and pedagogy.

The most frequent classification of bilingualism is by individual and social bilingualism:

Social bilingualism occurs amongst people living in specific regions who form different groups, be they majority or minority. The bilingual or multilingual populations of a specific country or region can be analysed as a distinct group. In this case, linguists will study the transformation of the group’s vocabulary over time, geographers will chart the density of the settlements of people speaking two languages, educationalists will research the methods and means of bilingual education, etc.

Individual bilingualism involves the ability of an individual to acquire and use a second language. For instance, a discussion on whether bilingualism influences thinking requires surveys to be conducted of individuals mastering various levels of two languages, in comparison with people who are monolingual. As is the case with every classification, this also allows for a certain mutual diffusion and influence. For instance, the attitude of individuals to a certain minority language group can impact on linguistic renewal, on the nature of the switching between languages, and on the overall development of the language of a group.

Therefore, when we ask a person if they speak two languages, our question is highly ambiguous. Perhaps they really are able to speak two languages, but in ordinary life they incline to one of them. Or perhaps they use each language as frequently as the other, but they have different, more restricted abilities in the second language. Or maybe they use one language for everyday communication, but another for reading and writing. There is a basic difference between the question of linguistic ability and the question of language utilisation. We can define bilingualism in more detail on the basis of these two points of view.

Methods of classifying bilingualism:

1) According to age
Simultaneous bilingualism: A child acquires both languages at the same time, having contact with both from birth or early childhood, with the second language being added by the time it is three years old at the latest. The most frequent environment for the creation of simultaneous bilingualism is the family.

Sequential (gradual) bilingualism: The child first learns one language, and then later acquires abilities in the second language. A person learns a language either by natural means, in their community, at nursery school, in the family, etc., or formally, i.e. at school, in adult education courses, etc.

2) According to skills
Incipient bilingualism: the second language is only evolving.
Receptive bilingualism: a person understands a language or is able to read it.
Productive bilingualism: a person is able both to understand and speak both languages, and, as the case may be, to read and write in both.

3) According to the level of mastery of a language There exist various definitions which delineate bilingualism by the completely different levels of ability of a person in the second language. However, there is great interest in the category known as balanced bilingualism. This presupposes the same level of ability in both languages. Even this term contains within it a certain level of idealisation. It is exceptional to find a person with the same abilities in reading, writing and speaking in various situations and environments in two languages. Nevertheless, most authors subscribe to an interpretation of bilingualism as “the ability of a person to use two languages appropriately in light of their age.” An example would be a student who can deal with a bilingual scholastic curriculum.

4) According to development Progressive bilingualism: the second language is developing.
Declining bilingualism: One of the languages is being lost, and abilities in it are decreasing. This takes place, for example in the case of the children of immigrants, where the child has contact mainly with the language of the majority – at school, in the street, in the media – and where the child’s native tongue is rarely spoken in the family.

5) According to circumstance Elective bilingualism: this is where the person elects to learn a second language themselves. This is the bilingualism of majority groups, where a person does not learn a second language to the detriment of their native tongue.

Occasional bilingualism: a group of individuals which must become bilingual in order to function in the majority linguistic group which surrounds them. In most cases, survival is involved and a person has a very limited scope for choice.

How we perceive a bilingual person – 2 in 1?

It is commonly thought that a bilingual person is actually something like two monolinguistic people in one. A lot of older research is based on this idea, which compared bilinguists with monolinguists. The linguistic abilities of bilinguists were then evaluated in accordance with monolinguistic standards and thus, for instance, bilingual children questioned in their weaker language logically achieved worse results in IQ tests. The new perspective on the issue proposes viewing bilinguists as an integrated whole, which does not comprise two complete or incomplete monolinguists. Francois Grosjean offers an analogy from the world of athletics. His question is of how we can correctly assess a sprinter, a high jumper and a hurdler. The sprinter and the jumper concentrate on one skill in which they give their best performance, whereas the hurdler has two skills which they attempt to combine so as to offer their best performance. However, it is exceptional for the hurdler to run as fast as a sprinter or to jump as high as a high jumper. But it is meaningless to try and decide who the better athlete is.

Some potential advantages of bilingualism:

1) Advantages during communication:
- a wider communication field (wider family, community, international contacts, employment)
- literacy in two languages

2) Cultural advantages:
- deeper multiculturalism, bilingual experience with the world
- greater tolerance towards minorities, less inclination towards racism

3) Development of cognitive abilities:
- the development of thought, creativity, sensitivity in communication

4) Personality development:
- reinforcement of self-esteem, self-confidence
- secure identity

5) Advantages in the sphere of education:
- increased possibilities of receiving a higher education
- easier to learn a third language

6) Economic advantages:
- a wider range of possibilities on the jobs market

Prejudices regarding bilingualism – children and bilingualism:

1) Bilingual children cannot speak either language properly Under advantageous conditions this cannot happen. When we are speaking of bilingualism arising from early childhood within the family, it is necessary to observe certain rules and to create favourable conditions. This includes a positive approach to bilingualism in the immediate surroundings, enough contact with both languages, and the creation of a sufficient need to use both languages. In the case of the one person - one language method, it is necessary that both parents abide by this rule and do not mix up languages when communicating with the child. If they fail to do so, the child could have a problem distinguishing the languages from one another.

2) The child will not be able to distinguish the languages from one another and will always mix them up
This opinion is perhaps based on the fact that small children genuinely go through a phase in which they mix up the languages. They often have one phrase in one language for indicating a specific item. Less frequently, though not unusual, are cases in which the child indicates members of the family or close items in both languages. At this early stage of mixing up words in both languages, the child brings to the second language the structure of the first language, e.g. sentence construction or grammar. Later on, the child begins to distinguish the languages from each other, until it is able to safely differentiate them. We can follow this process this in two-year old children, where we see how the child speaks with the mother, then turns to the father and in the space of a second switches to the second language. It is also shown that an adult bilingual person, when communicating with a monolingual person, does not mix up languages at all, even though they may know both languages equally well.

3) Bilingualism may be the cause of learning deficiencies or dyslexia, and poorer results at school
The most frequent cause of poorer results at school in the case of bilingual children is insufficient acquisition of one of the languages. If the child has to master a scholastic curriculum in its weaker language, there is the risk that this will have a negative impact on their success rate at school. In reality, the problem is not bilingualism in itself, and the situation can be resolved by providing support in the weaker language rather than by getting rid of it altogether.

Likewise, there has never been any research revealing a link between bilingualism and specific learning deficiencies such as dyslexia or mild mental dysfunction! Naturally, bilingual children belong to the group of children with such problems. However, the deficiencies referred to are unquestionably not caused by bilingualism itself. Above all, the one person - one language method as described in the dialogue with the children does not usually involve any more serious problems. It is regarded as one of the most natural methods by which to acquire two languages. Specialist literature makes no reference to the impact of bilingualism on the presence of dyslexia.

4) Bilingualists are excellent translators
Even though the rule applies that every interpreter and translator can be regarded as bilingual, this certainly does not mean that every bilingual person must be an excellent interpreter and translator. When translating, it is not only necessary to master two languages, but to possess other skills as well. These include a study of translation techniques, approaches to the recording of information and facts, and many other activities. Translating is a demanding activity which does not simply require mastery of two languages. Professional interpreters and translators frequently specialise in a certain sphere, e.g. law, computers, medicine, etc. Bilingual children who have mastered both languages begin to be able to translate simple expressions from one language to the other around the age of three to four. This gives the child a feeling of importance which supports the healthy development of their personality. However, translating can sometimes be frustrating and unpleasant for a child, especially if the child is obliged to translate in the company of adults upon request. The pressure of time and the feeling of everyone concentrating on their performance create a very unnatural atmosphere for the child. Adults must approach the child very sensitively and never be too insistent. In the case of a child who is only in the acquisition stage of a second language, i.e. does not know how to use it sufficiently in light of its age, translation is not a suitable method in the slightest, especially not in the case of finding out what the child knows!

  • Stories and examples

Veronika, 5 years old
Veronika lives in the Czech Republic. Her mother is Czech, her father Italian. Her mother speaks Czech with Veronika, and her father speaks Italian with her. The little girl speaks Czech like every other child of her age; she has a broad vocabulary, and she doesn’t garble in any way. The father works a lot and is in less contact with his daughter than the mother. The family meet up with the Italian grandmother about twice a year. Right from the start, Veronika understood her father, but began to speak Italian later, when she was aged two and a half. Though her Italian is not at the same level as her Czech, she can express herself and say what she needs. Neither of the parents has mastered the native tongue of the other to a level sufficient for them to communicate between themselves. And so the language of communication within the family is English. For this reason, they decided to introduce English to the little girl. When aged three, Veronika began going to English school, i.e. a school where the teachers speak only English, but the children speak Czech amongst themselves. For several months, Veronika refused to join in games in English and would not repeat words. However, she was always in close proximity to the other children and followed how they sang and played games. Gradually, she began to join in, at first tacitly, but then in songs and poems, and finally began to speak herself. After that, the development of her English was relatively quick. Aged five, she has an understanding reasonable to her age and can use simple sentences. Her speech is peppered with grammatical errors, though she can explain what she wants. It could be said that Veronika is trilingual (or multilingual), and if she continues to enjoy the same conditions and sufficient contact with all three languages, she will develop still further. All current conditions remaining the same (e.g. the family does not emigrate), her dominant language will be Czech.

Jane, 32 years old
Jane is an Australian who lived in her native country until she was twenty seven years old. Her only language was English. She moved to the Czech Republic to be with her boyfriend, now husband. She began working for a company which used English as the language of communication. However, there were Czechs amongst the employees and so she had indirect contact with Czech. At home, she speaks mainly English with her husband, but is slowly attempting to include Czech in communication. At the same time, Jane has begun to attend a course in Czech. Furthermore, contact with her husband’s family and everyday situations such as shopping, contact with friends and neighbours, etc., have helped her and forced her to develop her Czech. These days, after five years of living in the Czech Republic, she speaks, reads and writes Czech tolerably. There are still obvious and frequent errors in word order and grammar in her speech, but the language will continue to develop. Her one-year-old son will certainly be bilingual, since she speaks English with him while the father speaks Czech. This combination would appear to be the most suitable, since the boy’s dominant language will most likely be Czech, since the family intends to stay in the Czech Republic. At the same time, the close contact with his mother will allow him a relatively secure development of English under suitable conditions. In the future, this will be a suitable means of communication for all members of the family.

Updated 30.03.2007

  • Sources


Baker, C. (2000). The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An Introduction for Professionasl. Multilingual Matters. Clevedon.

Baker, C. (1993). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters. Clevedon.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of Languages: The Debate on Bilingualism. USA: Basic Books, Inc.

Štefánik, J. (2000). Jeden člověk, dva jazyky: Dvojjazyčnost u dětí – Predsudky a skutečnosti. Bratislava: Academic Electronic Press.

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