Bilingualism and Multilingualism – A Quick Guide

We, humans, use language every single day. Every person in this world, regardless of race and culture, speaks at least one language to communicate, express, and gain knowledge. Sometimes a person may even use two or more languages with equal or varying levels of proficiency. This is usually the result of overlapping cultures, cultural exchange, or simply an academic or professional need. Bilingualism or multilingualism is the ability to speak in multiple tongues.

Today, most bilinguals are immigrants or migrants around the world. They speak their heritage language as well as the language popularly spoken in their place of residence. Bilingualism and multilingualism are also very common among people from previously colonized countries. People in these cultures speak the language brought to their people by the colonies in addition to their native tongues. Around the world, neighboring cultures often experience organic cultural exchange. Especially when the two are not very different from each other. People from these cultures often learn languages spoken by their neighboring cultures. It is because of these natural human phenomena that much of the world today are bilingual, or even multilingual.

Early bilingualism is very common among not only immigrant children but also young children across the world who are slowly getting more and more exposed to the global languages of today.
Bilingualism is increasingly popular today as the world grows smaller and more people move away from their culture of origin and interact with another.

Without any further ado, let’s delve into the concepts of Bilingualism and Multilingualism and understand some terms associated with them.

Bilingualism and multilingualism

What qualifies as bilingual?

A bilingual person is someone who speaks two languages. Similarly, a person who speaks more than two languages is called ‘multilingual’. The term ‘bilingualism’, however, is often used in both contexts. It is possible for a person to learn and use three, four, or even more languages fluently. A multilingual who can speak many languages proficiently is also called a polyglot.

How many types of bilinguals are there?

There are THREE general types of bilingualism.

  • Compound bilingual: when a person develops two language systems simultaneously with a single context. This form of bilingualism is most common among children who grow up in a bilingual environment or with bilingual education. The speaker has a natural grasp of both or all of their languages as they have extensive exposure and practice. They generally are able to use both their language in day-to-day life. This allows them to naturally use both (or all) languages with much ease.
  • Coordinate bilingual: learn two languages in distinctively separate contexts. This type of bilingual can easily differentiate between their experience of the two languages. They may understand the comparison between their first and second language, but neither affects the understanding of the other.
  • Sub-coordinate bilingual: learn the secondary language by filtering through the mother tongue. Most people who acquire a second language as adults experience a strong effect of their mother tongue in the experience of the new language. They learn by comparison and correlation with their existing language. This often results in some difficulties in developing a full grasp of the more subtle details of the second language. For most sub-coordinate bilinguals, it is often diffult for them to understand native speakers quickly.

The different ways bilingualism is experienced

Early bilingualism is the acquisition of two or more languages during early childhood. Young children who grow up in an environment with frequent use of multiple languages naturally pick up the vocabulary they hear. With constant exposure to the languages, they begin to develop a strong linguistic sense in all the available languages. There are two ways a young child may experience bilingualism.

  • Simultaneous early bilingualism is the natural learning of multiple languages simultaneously in one’s regular social environment. Bilinguals who experience language this way have the strongest language skills in both languages, as compared to other bilinguals.
  • Consecutive (or successive) early bilingualism is when the child learns two languages in the early years of their life, but in succession. They may be exposed to one language at home, and another at school. These children also develop a very strong grasp of both languages, but they may also face certain difficulties academically due to some confusion.

Late bilingualism refers to the acquisition of a second language after the age of 6 or 7. It is most common for this acquisition to take place during adolescence or adulthood. Late bilinguals generally learn a new language motivated by an academic or professional need.

A balanced bilingual

A balanced bilingual is someone who speaks two languages with equal proficiency. Most balanced bilinguals are a result of Early bilingualism. Early exposure to multiple languages enables them to develop fluency in both languages equally.

Unbalanced bilingual speakers are not equally proficient in both languages. They usually have one dominant language and have one dominant language.

What is bilingual acquisition?

Bilingual acquisition refers to acquiring two languages together. Many people question the effectiveness of learning multiple languages together. It is a common misconception that overloading a young child with too many languages will hinder their overall linguistic skills. On the contrary, bilingual children acquire the same proficiency in the phonological and grammatical aspects of their two languages as monolingual children do in their one language. But this is only possible when they are given regular and substantial exposure to each. Preference to any language will result in a stronger development of that language.

Additive and subtractive bilingualism

Additive bilingualism is when a student’s first language continues to be developed while they’re learning their second language. They simultaneously practice the use of both, their first and second language.

Subtractive bilingualism, however, is when a student learns a second language at the expense of their first language. The student shifts their focus partially or entirely to the second language. This often also causes partial or complete loss of their proficiency in their first language.

What is first language attrition?

Language attrition is the process of losing one’s first language (L1), or their native tongue, after the acquisition of a second language (L2). Attrition is caused when the second language interferes with the correct production and comprehension of the first language. This process may also be caused by isolation from speakers of the first language. The lack of practice and exposure can cause the speaker to gradually lose their proficiency in a language.

Can you lose your first language?

Language is an integral part of our cognitive function. It is very rare for someone to completely forget the language. However, in very rare cases among bilinguals, there have been situations where, over time, with gradually reducing exposure and usage, the speaker loses a language. Studies on international adoptees have found that even nine-year-olds can almost completely forget their first language when they are removed from their country of birth. But in adults, the first language is unlikely to disappear even after the acquisition of a new one, except maybe, in very extreme cases of removal or isolation.

Bilingualism among children

How does bilingualism affect children and their development? What are its long-term effects on a child’s life?

Why is it easier for kids to learn another language?

Learning a second language is much easier for a child than it is for a grown adult. A young child’s brain is naturally designed to absorb as much information as it can. They also have more time to learn, less to learn about, fewer inhibitions, and a brain designed for language learning. Exposure to a language enables them to naturally learn to understand it.

The number of languages is never a concern to a young brain. Children simply perceive, comprehend, and retain what they have experienced. on the contrary, as an adult language learner, you have to often discard existing biases or separate yourself from your existing language to acquire a new and very different one. Thus learning a language takes far less effort for a young child than it might take for your fully developed adult brain. In short, teaching your child a second language at an early age saves them from having to learn a second language as an adult.

Can children understand the differences between languages?

Children with exposure to multiple languages can easily understand the differences between distinct languages. They may not articulate well or fluently in either, but they can easily comprehend the vocabularies and phonetics of each language. They can learn 2 or more languages at the same time without confusion. For example, a young child can understand very quickly that they need to speak Russian to Grandma and English to the teacher.

How do bilingualism and multilingualism affect the way children learn English?

Bilingual children generally use both their languages with ease. When a child has enough exposure and practice in both languages, it allows them to become more fluent and proficient. But do children with monolingual homes also develop languages with the same ease?

Children who grow up in a family where parents have only limited English do better at learning English in school if they keep speaking their heritage languages at home. A solid base in their first language makes it easier for them to learn a second one.

How do bilingualism and multilingualism affect literacy skills?

Bilingual and multilingual children who are exposed to more than one written language can read and write English at high levels. Children who know languages in more than one script show even better linguistic performance. Learning more than one language helps children understand language structures. Furthermore, the knowledge of multiple writing systems gives them a broader understanding of written languages and facilitates greater phonetic understanding as well. These children are more likely to become literate in all the languages they use.

How do bilingualism and multilingualism affect academic learning?

Bilingualism and multilingualism greatly enhance the development of a young child’s brain. With the increased use of their linguistic skills, they also train other cognitive skills. The more they learn, the more they use their brain. As a result, bilingual children often show superior academic performance in class and also tend to develop many more skills. Being multilingual or bilingual helps children learn at school. It helps them with problem-solving, multitasking, creativity, and flexible thinking. These children can also have good focus. 

How do bilingualism and multilingualism affect speech development?

Children develop speech at different rates. Learning more than one language at the same time does not affect how early or quickly your child learns to speak. The earlier their exposure to a language, the longer they spend using and practicing it. Children exposed to more than one language from birth become native speakers of all their languages.

Do parents need to worry if multilingual or bilingual children mix their languages?

Multilingual or bilingual children have no trouble comprehending two separate languages, but they may often mix the two in speech. They sometimes start a sentence with one language and finish with another language. Sometimes they may use words from the other language while speaking in one. This is a natural part of bilingual development. It happens because of the varying levels of their vocabularies in the two languages. For example, when they know a certain word in one language but not in the other. Children stop confusing their languages as they grow older and gain more experience in articulating themselves.

How do you encourage bilingualism?

  • Encourage the use of both or all languages every opportunity you get.
  • Give each language enough and equal priority. Focus on one at a time and fully immerse the child in it.
  • Talk a lot in the heritage language to ensure a deep connect with the first language (L1) and avoid its loss.
  • Play music and sing songs in various languages.
  • Add more books to your library and encourage reading.
  • Encourage creative expression in multiple languages. Have the child compose stories or poems.
  • Puppets who speak the different languages that the child is learning is a fun way to introduce exposure to the different languages in case organic exposure is not possible.
  • Play word games and encourage children to have fun with languages.

Read more: Raising a Bilingual Child

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