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date: 23 February 2024

Bilingualism and Multilingualism from a Socio-Psychological Perspectivefree

Bilingualism and Multilingualism from a Socio-Psychological Perspectivefree

  • Tej K. BhatiaTej K. BhatiaDepartment of Linguistics, Syracuse University


Bilingualism/multilingualism is a natural phenomenon worldwide. Unwittingly, however, monolingualism has been used as a standard to characterize and define bilingualism/multilingualism in linguistic research. Such a conception led to a “fractional,” “irregular,” and “distorted” view of bilingualism, which is becoming rapidly outmoded in the light of multipronged, rapidly growing interdisciplinary research. This article presents a complex and holistic view of bilinguals and multilinguals on conceptual, theoretical, and pragmatic/applied grounds. In that process, it attempts to explain why bilinguals are not a mere composite of two monolinguals. If bilinguals were a clone of two monolinguals, the study of bilingualism would not merit any substantive consideration in order to come to grips with bilingualism; all one would have to do is focus on the study of a monolingual person. Interestingly, even the two bilinguals are not clones of each other, let alone bilinguals as a set of two monolinguals. This paper examines the multiple worlds of bilinguals in terms of their social life and social interaction. The intricate problem of defining and describing bilinguals is addressed; their process and end result of becoming bilinguals is explored alongside their verbal interactions and language organization in the brain. The role of social and political bilingualism is also explored as it interacts with individual bilingualism and global bilingualism (e.g., the issue of language endangerment and language death).

Other central concepts such as individuals’ bilingual language attitudes, language choices, and consequences are addressed, which set bilinguals apart from monolinguals. Language acquisition is as much an innate, biological, as social phenomenon; these two complementary dimensions receive consideration in this article along with the educational issues of school performance by bilinguals. Is bilingualism a blessing or a curse? The linguistic and cognitive consequences of individual, societal, and political bilingualism are examined.


  • Applied Linguistics

1. Understanding Multilingualism in Context

In a world in which people are increasingly mobile and ethnically self-aware, living with not just a single but multiple identities, questions concerning bilingualism and multilingualism take on increasing importance from both scholarly and pragmatic points of view. Over the last two decades in which linguistic/ethnic communities that had previously been politically submerged, persecuted, and geographically isolated, have asserted themselves and provided scholars with new opportunities to study the phenomena of individual and societal bilingualism and multilingualism that had previously been practically closed to them. Advances in social media and technology (e.g., iPhones and Big Data Capabilities) have rendered new tools to study bilingualism in a more naturalistic setting. At the same time, these developments have posed new practical challenges in such areas as language acquisition, language identities, language attitudes, language education, language endangerment and loss, and language rights.

The investigation of bi- and multilingualism is a broad and complex field. Unless otherwise relevant on substantive grounds, the term “bilingualism” in this article is used as an all-inclusive term to embody both bilingualism and multilingualism.

2. Bilingualism as a Natural Global Phenomenon: Becoming Bilingual

Bilingualism is not entirely a recent development; for instance, it constituted a grassroots phenomenon in India and Africa since the pre-Christian era. Contrary to a widespread perception, particularly in some primarily monolingual countries—for instance, Japan or China—or native English-speaking countries, such as the United States, bilingualism or even multilingualism is not a rare or exceptional phenomenon in the modern world; it was and it is, in fact, more widespread and natural than monolingualism. The Ethnologue in the 16th edition (2009, estimates more than seven thousand languages (7,358) while the U.S. Department of States recognizes only 194 bilingual countries in the world. There are approximately 239 and 2,269 languages identified in Europe and Asia, respectively. According to Ethnologue, 94% of the world’s population employs approximately 5% of its language resources. Furthermore, many languages such as Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, Punjabi, Spanish, and Portuguese are spoken in many countries around the globe. Such a linguistic situation necessitates people to live with bilingualism and/or multilingualism. For an in-depth analysis of global bilingualism, see Bhatia and Ritchie (2013).

3. Describing Bilingualism

Unlike monolingualism, childhood bilingualism is not the only source and stage of acquiring two or more languages. Bilingualism is a lifelong process involving a host of factors (e.g., marriage, immigration, and education), different processes (e.g., input conditions, input types, input modalities and age), and yielding differential end results in terms of differential stages of fossilization and learning curve (U-shape or nonlinear curve during their grammar and interactional development). For this reason, it does not come as a surprise that defining, describing, and categorizing a bilingual is not as simplistic as defining a monolingual person. In addition to individual bilingualism, social and political bilingualism adds yet other dimensions to understanding bilingualism. Naturally then, there is no universally agreed upon definition of a bilingual person.

Bilingual individuals are subjected to a wide variety of labels, scales, and dichotomies, which constitute a basis of debates over what is bilingualism and who is a bilingual. Before shedding light on the complexity of “individual” bilingualism, one should bear in mind that the notion of individual bilingualism is not devoid of social bilingualism, or an absence of a shared social or group grammar. The term “individual” bilingualism by no means refers to idiosyncratic aspects of bilinguals, which is outside the scope of this work.

Relying on a Chomskyan research paradigm, bilingualism is approached from the theoretical distinction of competence vs. performance (actual use). Equal competency and fluency in both languages—an absolute clone of two monolinguals without a trace of accent from either language—is one view of a bilingual person. This view can be characterized as the “maximal” view. Bloomfield’s definition of a bilingual with “a native-like control of two languages” attempts to embody the “maximal” viewpoint (Bloomfield, 1933). Other terms used to describe such individuals are “ambilinguals” or “true bilinguals.” Such bilinguals are rare, or what Valdes terms, “mythical bilingual” (Valdes, 2001). In contrast to maximal view, a “minimal” view contends that practically every one is a bilingual. “That is no one in the world (no adult, anyway) which does not know at least a few words in languages other than the maternal variety” (Edwards, 2004/2006). Diebold’s notion of “Incipient bilingualism”—that is, exposure to two languages—belongs to the minimal view of bilingualism (Diebold, 1964). While central to the minimalist viewpoint is the onset point of the process of becoming a bilingual, the main focus of the maximalist view is the end result, or termination point, of language acquisition. In other words, the issue of degree and the end state of second language acquisition is at the heart of defining the concept of bilingualism.

Other researchers such as Mackey, Weinreich, and Haugen define bilingualism to capture language use of bilinguals’ verbal behavior. For Haugen, bilingualism begins when the speakers of one language produce complete meaningful utterances in the second language (Haugen, 1953; Mackey, 2000; Weinrich, 1953). Mackey, on the other hand, defines bilingualism as an “alternate use of two or more languages” (Mackey, 2000). Observe that the main objective of the two definitions is to focus on language use rather the degree of language proficiency or equal competency in two languages.

The other notable types of bilingualism identified are as follows: Primary/Natural bilingualism in which bilingualism is acquired in a natural setting without any formal training; Balanced bilingualism that develops with minimal interference from both languages; Receptive or Passive bilingualism wherein there is understanding of written and/or spoken proficiency in second language but an inability to speak it; Productive bilingualism then entails an ability to understand and speak a second language; Semilingualism, or an inability to express in either language; and Bicultural bilingualism vs. Monocultural bilingualism. The other types of bilingualism, such as Simultaneous vs. Successive bilingualism (Wang, 2008), Additive vs. Subtractive bilingualism (Cummins, 2000), and Elite vs. Folk bilingualism (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981), will be detailed later in this chapter. From this rich range of scales and dichotomies, it becomes readily self-evident that the complexity of bilingualism and severe limitation of the “fractional” view of bilingualism that bilinguals are two monolinguals in one brain. Each case of bilingualism is a product of different sets of circumstances and, as a result, no two bilinguals are the same. In other words, differences in the context of second language acquisition (natural, as in the case of children) and proficiency in spoken, written, reading, and listening skills in the second language, together with the consideration of culture, add further complexity to defining individual bilingualism.

3.1 Individual Bilingualism: A Profile

The profile of this author further highlights the problems and challenges of defining and describing a bilingual or multilingual person. The author, as an immigrant child growing up in India, acquired two languages by birth: Saraiki—also called Multani and Lahanda, spoken primarily in Pakistan—and Punjabi, which is spoken both in India and Pakistan. Growing up in the Hindi-speaking area, he learned the third language Hindi-Urdu primarily in schools; and his fourth language, English, primarily after puberty during his higher education in India and the United States. He cannot write or read in Saraiki but can read Punjabi in Gurmukhi script, and he cannot write with the same proficiency. He has native proficiency in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. A close analysis of his bilingualism reveals that no single label or category accounts for his multifaceted bilingualism/multilingualism. Interestingly, his self-assessment finds him linguistically least secured in his two languages, which he acquired at birth. Is he a semilingual without a mother tongue? No matter how challenging it is to come to grips with bilingualism and, consequently, develop a “holistic” view of bilingualism, it is clear that a bilingual person demonstrates many complex attributes rarely seen in a monolingual person. See Edwards (2004/2006) and Wei (2013) for more details. Most important, multiple languages serve as a vehicle to mark multiple identities (e.g., religious, regional, national, ethnic, etc.).

3.2 Social Bilingualism

While social bilingualism embodies linguistic dimensions of individual bilingualism, a host of social, attitudinal, educational, and historical aspects of bilingualism primarily determine the nature of social bilingualism. Social bilingualism refers to the interrelationship between linguistic and non-linguistic factors such as social evaluation/value judgements of bilingualism, which determine the nature of language contact, language maintenance and shift, and bilingual education among others. For instance, in some societies, bilingualism is valued and receives positive evaluation and is, thus, encouraged while in other societies bilingualism is seen as a negative and divisive force and is, thus, suppressed or even banned in public and educational arenas. Compare the pattern of intergenerational bilingualism in India and the United states, where it is well-known that second or third-generation immigrants in the United States lose their ethnic languages and turn monolinguals in English (Fishman, Nahirny, Hofman, & Hayden, 1966). Conversely, Bengali or Punjabi immigrants living in Delhi, generation after generation, do not become monolinguals in Hindi, the dominant language of Delhi. Similarly, elite bilingualism vs. folk bilingualism has historically prevailed in Europe, Asia, and other continents and has gained a new dimension in the rapidly evolving globalized society. As aristocratic society patronized bilingualism with French or Latin in Europe, bilingualism served as a source of elitism in South Asia in different ages of Persian and English. Folk bilingualism is often the byproduct of social dominance and imposition of a dominant group. While elite bilingualism is viewed as an asset, folk bilingualism is seen as problematic both in social and educational arenas (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981). One of the outcomes of a stable elite and folk bilingualism is diglossia (e.g., Arabic, German, Greek, and Tamil) where both High (elite) and Low (colloquial) varieties of a language—or two languages with High and Low social distinctions—coexist (e.g., French and English diglossia after the Norman conquest (Ferguson, 1959). Diasporic language varieties have been examined by Clyne and Kipp (1999) and Bhatia (2016). Works by Baker and Jones (1998) show how bilinguals belong to communities of variable types due to accommodation (Sachdev & Giles, 2004/2006), indexicality (Eckert & Rickford, 2001), social meaning of language attitudes (Giles & Watson, 2013; Sachdev & Bhatia, 2013), community of practice, and even imagined communities.

3.3 Political Bilingualism

Political bilingualism refers to the language policies of a country. Unlike individual bilingualism, categories such as monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual nations do not reflect the actual linguistic situation in a particular country (Edwards, 1995, 2004/2006; Romaine, 1989/1995). Canada, for instance, is officially recognized as a bilingual country. This means that Canada promotes bilingualism as a language policy of the country as well as in Canadian society as a whole. By no means does it imply that most speakers in Canada are bilinguals. In fact, monolingual countries may reflect a high degree of bilingualism. Multilingual countries such as South Africa, Switzerland, Finland and Canada often use one of the two approaches—“Personality” and “Territorial”—to ensure bilingualism. The Personality principle aims to preserve individual rights (Extra & Gorter, 2008; Mackey, 1967) while the Territorial principle ensures bilingualism or multilingual within a particular area to a variable degree, as in the case of Belgium. In India, where 23 languages are officially recognized, the government’s language policies are very receptive to multilingualism. The “three-language formula” is the official language policy of the country (Annamalai, 2001). In addition to learning Hindi and English, the co-national languages, school children can learn a third language spoken within or outside their state.

4. The Bilingual Mind: Language Organization, Language Choices, and Verbal Behavior

Unlike monolinguals, a decision to speak multiple languages requires a complex unconscious process on the part of bilinguals. Since a monolingual’s choice is restricted to only one language, the decision to choose a language is relatively simple involving, at most, the choice of an informal style over a formal style or vice versa. However, the degree and the scale of language choice are much more complicated for bilinguals since they need to choose not only between different styles but also between different languages. It is a widely held belief, at least in some monolingual speech communities, that the process of language choice for bilinguals is a random one that can lead to a serious misunderstanding and a communication failure between monolinguals and bi- and multilingual communities (see pitfalls of a sting operation by a monolingual FBI agent (Ritchie & Bhatia, 2013)). Such a misconception of bilingual verbal behavior is also responsible for communication misunderstandings about social motivations of bilinguals’ language choices by monolinguals; for example, the deliberate exclusion or sinister motives on the part of bilinguals when their language choice is different from a monolingual’s language. A number of my international students have reported that on several occasions monolingual English speakers feel compelled to remind them that they are in America and they should be using English, rather than say Chinese or Arabic, with countrymen/women.

Now let us examine some determinants of language choice by bilinguals. Consider the case of this author’s verbal behavior and linguistic choices that he normally makes while interacting with his family during a dinner table conversation in India. He shares two languages with his sisters-in-law (Punjabi and Hindi) and four languages with his brothers (Saraiki, Punjabi, Hindi, and English). While talking about family matters or other informal topics, he uses Punjabi with his sisters-in-law but Saraiki with his brothers. If the topic involves ethnicity, then the entire family switches to Punjabi. Matters of educational and political importance are expressed in English and Hindi, respectively. These are unmarked language choices, which the author makes unconsciously and effortlessly with constant language switching depending on participants, speech events, situations, or other factors. Such a behavior is largely in agreement with the sociolinguistic Model of Markedness, which attempts to explain the sociolinguistic motivation of code-switching by considering language choice as a means of communicating desired group membership, or perceived group memberships, and interpersonal relationships (Pavlenko, 2005).

Speaking Sariki with brothers and Punjabi with sister-in-laws represent unconscious and unmarked choices. Any shift to a marked choice is, of course, possible on theoretical grounds; however, it can take a serious toll in terms of social relationships. The use of Hindi or English during a general family dinner conversation (i.e., a “marked” choice) will necessarily signal social distancing and fractured relations.

Languages choice is not as simple as it seems at first from the above example of family conversation. In some cases, it involves a complex process of negotiation. Talking with a Punjabi-Hindi-English trilingual waiter in an Indian restaurant, the choice of ethnic language, Punjabi, by a customer such as this author may seem to be a natural choice at first. Often, it is not the case if the waiter refuses to match the language choice of the customer and replies in English. The failure to negotiate a language in such cases takes an interesting turn of language mismatching before a common language of verbal exchange is finally agreed upon; often, it turns out to be a neutral and prestige language: English. See Ritchie and Bhatia (2013) for further details. When the unmarked choice is not clear, speakers tend to use code-switching in an exploratory way to determine language choice and thus restore a social balance.

During a speech event, language choice is not always static either. If the topic of conversation shifts from a casual topic to a formal topic such as education, a more suitable choice in this domain would be English; subsequently, a naturally switch to English will take place. In other words, “complementarity” language domains or language-specific domain allocation represent the salient characteristics of bilingual language choice. The differential domain allocation manifests itself in the use of “public” vs. “private” language by bilinguals, which is central to bilingual verbal repertoire (Ritchie & Bhatia, 2013). Often the role of expressing emotions or one’s private world is best played by the bilingual’s mother tongue rather than by the second or prestige/distant language. Research on bilingualism, emotions, and autobiographical memory accounts of bilinguals shows that an account of emotional events is qualitatively and quantitatively different when narrated in one’s mother tongue than in a distant second language (Devaele, 2010; Pavlenko, 2005). While the content of an event can be narrated equally well in either language, the emotional experience/pain is best described in the first language of the speaker. Particularly, bilingual parents use their first language for terms of endearment for their children. Their first language serves as the best vehicle for denoting emotions toward their children than any other language in their verbal repertoire. Taboo topics, on the other hand, favor the second or a distant language.

Any attempt to characterize the bilingual mind must account for the following three natural aspects of bilingual verbal behavior: (1) Depending upon the communicative circumstances, bilinguals swing between the monolingual and bilingual language modes; (2) Bilinguals have an ability to keep two or more languages separate whenever needed; and (3) More interestingly, they can also carry out an integration of two or more languages within a speech event.

4.1 Bilingual Language Modes

Bilinguals are like a sliding switch who can move between one or more language states/modes as required for the production, comprehension, and processing of verbal messages in a most cost-effective and efficient way. If bilinguals are placed in a predominantly monolingual setting, they are likely to activate only one language; while in a bilingual environment, they can easily shift into a bilingual mode to a differential degree. The activation or deactivation process is not time consuming. In a bilingual environment, this process usually does not require bilinguals to take more than a couple of milliseconds to swing into a bilingual language mode and revert back to a monolingual mode with the same time efficiency. However, under unexpected circumstances (e.g., caught off-guard by a white Canadian speaking an African language in Canada) or under emotional trauma or cultural shock, the activation takes considerable time. In the longitudinal study of his daughter, Hildegard, reported that Hildegard, while in Germany, came to tears at one point when she could not activate her mother tongue, English (Leopard, 1939–1950). The failure to ensure natural conditions responsible for the activation of bilingual language mode is a common methodological shortcoming of bilingual language testing, see Grosjean (2004/2006, 2010). An in-depth review of processing cost involved in the language activation-deactivation process can be found in Meuter (2005). Do bilinguals turn on their bilingual mode, even if only one language is needed to perform a task? Recent research employing an electrophysiological and experimental approach shows that both languages compete for selection even if only one language is needed to perform a task (Martin, Dering, Thomas, & Thierry, 2009; Hoshino & Thierry, 2010). For more recent works on parallel language activation and language competition in speech planning and speech production, see Blumenfeld and Marian (2013). In other words, the potential of activation and deactivation of language modes—both monolingual and bilingual mode—hold an important key to bilingual’s language use.

4.2 Bilingual Language Separation and Language Integration

In addition to language activation or deactivation control phenomena, the other two salient characteristics of bilingual verbal behavior are bilinguals’ balanced competence and capacity to separate the two linguistic systems and to integrate them within a sentence or a speech event. Language mixing is a far more complex cognitive ability than language separation. Yet, it is also very natural to bilinguals. Therefore, it is not surprising to observe the emergence of mixed systems such as Hinglish, Spanglish, Germlish, and so on, around the globe. Consider the following utterances:




Such a two-faceted phenomenon is termed as code-mixing (as in 1 and 2) and code-switching (as in 3). Code-mixing (CM) refers to the use of various linguistic units—words, phrases, clauses, and sentences—primarily from two participating grammatical systems within a sentence. While CM is intra-sentential, code-switching (CS) is an inter-sentential phenomenon. CM is constrained by grammatical principles and is motivated by socio-psychological factors. CS, on the other hand, is subject to discourse principles and is also motivated by socio-psychological factors.

Any unified treatment of the bilingual mind has to account for the language separation (i.e., CS) and language integration (CM) aspects of bilingual verbal competence, capacity, use, and creativity. In that process, it needs to address the following four key questions, which are central to an understanding the universal and scientific basis for the linguistic creativity of bilinguals.


Is language mixing a random or a systematic phenomenon?


What motivates bilinguals to mix and alternate two languages?


What is the social evaluation of this mixing and alternation?


What is the difference between code-mixing or code-switching and other related phenomena?

I. Language mixing as a systematic phenomenon

Earlier research from the 1950s–1970s concluded that CM is either a random or an unsystematic phenomenon. It was either without subject to formal syntactic constraints or is subject only to “irregular mixture” (Labov, 1971). Such a view of CM/CS is obsolete since late the 20th century. Recent research shows that CM/CS is subject to formal, functional, and attitudinal factors. Studies of formal factors in the occurrence of CM attempt to tap the unconscious knowledge of bilinguals about the internal structure of code-mixed sentences. Formal syntactic constraints on the grammar of CM, such as The Free Morpheme Constraint (Sankoff & Poplack, 1981); The Closed Class Constraint (Joshi, 1985), within the Generative Grammar framework; and The Government Constraint and the Functional Head Constraint within the non-lexicalist generative framework, demonstrate the complexity of uncovering universal constraints on CM; for details, see Bhatia and Ritchie (2009). Recently, the search for explanations of cross-linguistic generalizations about the phenomenon of CM, specifically in terms of independently justified principles of language structure and use, has taken two distinct forms. One approach is formulated in terms of the theory of linguistic competence within the framework of Chomsky’s Minimalist Program (MacSwan, 2009). The other approach—as best exemplified by the Matrix Language Frame (MLF) model (Myers-Scotton & Jake, 2001) is grounded in the theory of sentence production, particularly that of Levelt (1989). Herring and colleagues test the strengths and weaknesses of both a Minimalist Program approach and the MLF approach on explanatory grounds based on switches between determiner and their noun complements drawn from Spanish-English and Welsh-English data (Herring, Deuchar, Couto, & Quintanilla, 2010). Their work lends partial support to the two approaches.

II. Motivations for language mixing

While research on the universal grammar of CM attempts to unlock the mystery of the systematic nature of CM on universal grounds, it does not attempt to answer Question (II), namely, the “why” aspect of CM. The challenge for linguistic research in the new millennium is to separate grammatical constraints from those motivated by, or triggered by, socio-pragmatic factors or competence. Socio-pragmatic studies of CM reveal the following four factors, which trigger CM/CS: (1) the social roles and relationships of the participants (e.g., dual/multiple identities; social class); (2) situational factors (discourse topic and language domain allocation); (3) message-intrinsic consideration; (4) language attitudes, including social dominance and linguistic security. See Ritchie and Bhatia (2013) and Myers-Scotton (1998) for further details. The most commonly accepted rule is that language mixing signals either a change or a perceived change by speaker in the socio-psychological context of a speech event. In essence, CM/CS is motivated by the consideration of “optimization,” and it serves as an indispensable tool for meeting creative and innovative needs of bilinguals (Bhatia, 2011). A novel approach provides further insights into a discourse-functional motivation of CM, namely, coding of less predictable, high information-content meanings in one language and more predictable, lower information-content meanings in another language (Myslin & Levy, 2015).

III. Social evaluation of language mixing

Now let us return to Question (III). From the discussion of Questions (I and II), it is self-evident that complexity and multifaceted creativity underlies CM/CS in bilingual communication. Surprisingly, though, the social evaluation of a mixed system is largely negative. Even more interestingly, bilinguals themselves do not have a positive view of language mixing. It is the widely held belief on the part of the “guardians” of language (including the media) and puritans that any form of language mixing is a sign of unsystematic or decadent form of communication. Bilinguals are often mocked for their “bad” and “irregular” linguistic behavior. They are often characterized as individuals who have difficulty expressing themselves. Other labels such as “lazy” and “careless” are also often bestowed upon them. Furthermore, the guardians of language often accused them of destroying their linguistic heritage. For these reasons, it is not surprising that even bilinguals themselves become apologetic about their verbal behavior. They blame mixing on “memory lapse,” among other things, and promise to correct their verbal behavior, vowing not to mix languages. In spite of this, they cannot resist language mixing!

Table 1 illustrates the anomaly between the scientific reality of language mixing and its social perception. Social perception translates into the negative evaluation of mixed speech.

Table 1. Language Mixing (CM/CS) Anomaly (Adapted from Bhatia & Ritchie, 2008, p. 15).

Natural Fact

Social Fact/Perception

Systematic behavior

Unsystematic behavior

Linguistic augmentation

Linguistic deficiency

Natural behavior

Bad linguistic behavior

Motivated by creative needs

Memory/recall problem, clumsiness

Language change

Language death

Optimization strategy

Wasteful and inefficient strategy

Backlash to mixing is not just restricted to societies and bilinguals; even governments get on the bandwagon. Some countries, such as the newly freed countries of the ex-Soviet Union and France, regulate or even ban mixing either by appointing “language police” or by passing laws to wipe out the perceived negative effects of “bad language” in the public domain. Asia is not an exception in this regard. A case in point is a recent article by Tan (2002) reporting that the Government of Singapore has banned the movie Talk Cock because it uses a mixed variety of English, called Singlish. Linguistic prescriptivism clearly played a central role in the decision. In spite of the near-universal negative evaluation associated with CM/CS, the benefits rendered by language mixing by far outweigh its negative perception, which, in turn, compels the unconscious mind of bilinguals to mix and switch in order to yield results that cannot be rendered by a single/puritan language use; for a typology of bilingual linguistic creativity, and socio-psychological motivations, see Ritchie and Bhatia (2013).

IV. Language mixing and other related phenomena

Returning to the fourth question, it should be noted that CM/CS is quite distinct from linguistic borrowing. The primary function of linguistic borrowing is to fill a lexical gap in a borrower’s language (e.g., Internet, satellite). Furthermore, with borrowing, the structure of the host language remains undisturbed. However, CM requires complex integrity of two linguistic systems/grammar within a sentence, which may yield a new grammar. Other mixed systems, such as pidgin and creole languages, often fail to match the complexity and creativity of CM/CS. The distinction between code-mixing and code-switching is controversial for a number of reasons, particularly the integration of the participating grammar’s intrasententially details; see Bhatia and Ritchie (2009). Additionally, Deuchar and Stammers (2016) claim that code-switches and borrowings are distinct on the basis of frequency and degree of integration. Specifically, only the former are low in both frequency and integration. For details about contrasting and comparing different positions on this issue, see Myslin & Levy (2015); Poplack and Meechan (1998); and Lakshmanan, Balam, and Bhatia (2016). Furthermore, there is a debatable distinction between CM and Translanguaging (Garcia & Wei, 2014).

5. Bilingual Language Development: Nature vs. Nurture

Beyond innateness (e.g., nature, Biolinguistic and Neurological basis of language acquisition), social factors play a critical play in the language development of bilinguals. As pointed out earlier, describing and defining bilingualism is a formidable task. This is due to the fact that attaining bilingualism is a lifelong process; a complex array of conditions gives rise to the development of language among bilinguals. Based on the recommendation of educators, among others, bilingual families usually adopt a “One-Parent/One-Language” strategy with different combinations, such as language allocation based on time and space; for example, using one language in the morning and other in the evening or one language in the kitchen and another in the living room. This is done to maintain minority language. In spite of their obvious potential benefits for language maintenance, such strategies fall short in raising bilingual and bicultural children for a number of reasons, including imparting pragmatic and communicative competence and providing negative and positive evidence to children undergoing heritage language development with sociolinguistically real verbal interactional patterns (Bhatia & Ritchie, 1995). Therefore, De Houwer (2007) rightly points out that it is important for children to be receiving language input in the minority language from both parents at home. This also represents a common practice in non-Western societies in Asia (e.g., India) and Africa (e.g., Nigeria) where both parents, including members of the joint family minority languages, speak in their minority language.

While raising bilingual children does not pose any serious challenge for majority children (e.g., English-speaking children learning French in Canada), it is a different story for minority or heritage children. Sadly, a complex mix of political and social bilingualism leads heritage/minority parents, who themselves experience adverse discrimination in social and work settings, simply to prohibit the use of minority languages in family and educational environments. This practice, no matter how well intended, often results in negative school performance and emotional problems for minority children.

6. Simultaneous vs. Sequential Childhood Bilingualism

Broadly speaking, childhood bilingualism can manifest itself in two distinct patterns: (1) Simultaneous bilingualism and (2) Sequential bilingualism. A child being exposed to two languages to more or less to the same degree from birth onward is described as a simultaneous bilingual; conversely, a child being exposed to one language first followed by a second language, with the latter coming after the age of five, is referred to as sequential bilingual. Sequential bilingualism takes place either in schools or in peer groups and/or family settings. Surely, sequential bilingualism can persist throughout the adulthood. How is early bilingualism different from late bilingualism? Research on sequential and adult language acquisition shows that the pattern of sequential/successive language acquisition falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum between a simultaneous bilingual and an adult language learner.

7. Adult Bilingualism: UG and Native Language Dominance

Why is the task of learning a second language by adults more difficult and time consuming than by children? In spite of considerable motivation and effort, why do adults fall short of achieving native-like competency in their target language? Why do even very competent and balanced bilinguals speak with an “accent”? The Critical Period Hypothesis by Lenneberg (1967) attempts to answer these questions, and it is sensitive to age (Lenneberg, 1967). Children are better equipped to acquire languages because their brains are more “plastic” before they hit maturity. They have access to UG, to which adults have either no access or only partial access. Afterward, the loss of plasticity results in the completion of lateralization of language function in the left hemisphere. Even though adults are more cognitively developed and exhibit a high degree of aptitude, they have to rely on their native language (L1 transference—including “foreign accent” together with morphological features) in the process of learning a second language (Gass, 1996). Then there comes a time when their ultimate attainment of L2 falls short of the native language target, termed “fossilization” stage. No amount of training allows them to bypass this stage to free themselves from second language errors. Siegel, for instance, offers an alternative explanation of the language attainment state termed fossilization in second language acquisition research—a stage of falling short of attaining a native-speaker end grammar (Siegel, 2003). He argues that fossilization is not biologically driven but is the reflection of learners’ decisions not to clone the native speaker’s norm in order to index their own identity. Some researchers believe that this stage does not have a biological basis; instead, it is the result of bilingual, dual, or multiple identities. Adult learners are not ready to give up their identity and, as a result, this prevents them from having a perfect native-like competency of L2. For alternative theories of language acquisition, see, for example, a usage-based approach by Tomasello (2003); and the Dynamic System Theory by De Bot, Wander, and Verspoor (2007).

The differential competencies, as evident from the different types of adult bilinguals, can be accounted for primarily on sociolinguistic grounds. For instance, gender or the period of residency in a host country yields the qualitative and quantitative differences in bilingual language acquisition. Factors such as access to workplace, education, relationship, social networks, exogamic marriage, religion, and other factors lead to differential male and female bilingualism in qualitative grounds (Piller & Pavlenko, 2004/2006). Additionally, learners’ type, their aptitude, and attitude also contribute to a variable degree of language learning curves. Instrumental learners who learn a second language for external gains tend to lag behind Integrative learners who aim at integration with the target culture. Similarly, the Social Accommodation Theory (Sachdev & Giles, 2004/2006) attempts to explain differences in language choices and consequences on one hand and the social evaluation of speech (good vs. bad accents) on the other, which influence the social-psychological aspects of bilingual verbal interaction in different social settings (Altarriba & Moirier, 2004/2006; Lippi-Green, 2012).

8. Effects of Bilingualism

Until the middle of the 20th century in the United States, researchers engaged in examining the relationship between intelligence and bilingualism concluded that bilingualism has serious adverse effects on early childhood development. Such findings led to the development of the “factional” view of bilingualism, which was grounded in a flawed monolingual perspective on the limited linguistic capacity of the brain on one hand and the Linguistic Deficit Hypothesis on the other.

Their line of argument was that crowding the brain with two languages leads to a variety of impairments in both the linguistic and the cognitive abilities of the child. Naturally, then, they suggested that bilingual children not only suffer from semilingualism (i.e., lacking proficiency both in their mother tongue and the second language) and stuttering, etc., but also from low intelligence, mental retardation, left handedness, and even schizophrenia.

It took more than half a century before a more accurate and positive view of bilingualism emerged. The main credit for this goes to the pioneering work of Peal and Lambert (1962), which revealed the actual benefits of bilingualism. The view of bilingualism that subsequently emerged can be characterized as the Linguistic Augmentation Hypothesis (Peal & Lambert, 1962). Peal and Lambert studied earlier balanced bilingual children and controlled for factors such as socioeconomic status. Sound on methodological grounds, their result showed bilinguals to be intellectually superior to their monolingual counterparts. Their study, which was conducted in Montreal, changed the face of research on bilingualism. Many studies conducted around the globe have replicated the findings of Peal and Lambert. In short, cognitive, cultural, economic, and cross-cultural communication advantages of childhood and lifelong bilingualism are many, including reversing the effects of aging (Bialystok, 2005; Hakuta, 1986). Nevertheless, the effects of bilingualism on children’s cognitive development, particularly on executive function and attention, is far from conclusive; see Klein (2015) and Bialystok (2015).

9. Bilingualism: Language Spread, Maintenance, Endangerment, and Death

Language contact and its consequences represent the core of theoretical and descriptive linguistic studies devoted to bilingualism, and onto which globalization has added a new dimension. Ironically, in the age of globalization, the spread of English and other Indo-European languages, namely, Spanish and Portuguese, has led to the rise of bilingualism induced by these languages; they also pose a threat to the linguistic diversity of the world. Researchers claim that about half the known languages of the world have already vanished in the last 500 years, and that at least half, if not more, of the 6,909 living languages will become extinct in the next century (Hale, 1992; Nettle & Romaine, 2000). Research on language maintenance, language shift, and language death addresses the questions of why and how some languages spread and others die. Phillipson and Mufwene attempt to account for language endangerment within the framework of language imperialism (2010) and language ecology (2001), respectively. Fishman (2013) examines the ways to reverse the tide of language endangerment. Skutnabb-Kangas views minority language maintenance as a human rights issue in public and educational arenas (1953).

Critical Analysis of Scholarship

Advances in our understanding of bilingualism have come a long way since the predominance of the “factional” and linguistically deficient view of bilingualism. The complexity and diverse conditions responsible for lifelong bilingualism has led to a better understanding of this phenomenon on theoretical, methodological, and analytical grounds. A paradigm shift from monolingualism and the emergence of a new, interdisciplinary approach promises new challenges and directions in the future study of bilingualism.

Issues and Conceptualization

Although bilingualism is undoubtedly a widespread global phenomenon, it is rather ironic that, for a number of reasons, including the primary objective of linguistics, multidimensional aspects of bilingualism, and misperception of bilingualism as a rare phenomenon, the study of bilingualism has posed—and continues to pose—a serious of challenges to linguistics for quite some time. This is evident from eminent linguist Roman Jacobson’s observation from more than half a century ago: “bilingualism is for me a fundamental problem of linguistics” (Chomsky, 1986). Similarly, Chomsky remarked that the pure idealized form of language knowledge should be the first object of study rather than the muddy water of bilingualism (Grosjean, 1989). Consequently, research on bilingualism has taken a backseat to monolingualism, and monolinguals have served as a benchmark to characterize and theorize bilinguals, which, in turn, led to the ill conceptualization of the bilingual person as “two monolinguals in one brain” (Dehaene, 1999).

Are bilinguals just a composite or sum of two monolinguals crowded in one brain? A large body of research devoted to the bilingualism and intelligence debate either implicitly or explicitly subscribed to the “two monolinguals in one brain” conception. This set the stage for the “linguistic deficiency hypothesis” about bilingual children and adults on one hand and the limited linguistic capacity of the brain on the other. When looking from the lens of monolingualism, a “factional view” (Bhatia & Ritchie, 2016; Nicol, 2001), or even distorted view, of bilingualism emerged that portrayed bilinguals as semilinguals with a lack of proficiency not just in one but two languages. Although still in its infant stage, from recent research on bilingualism, a more accurate or holistic view of a bilingual and multilingual person has begun to emerge in 1990s, namely, just as an individual bilingual does not constitute two monolinguals in one brain, a multilingual is not merely a byproduct of bilingualism alone or vice versa. Similarly, the notion that brain capacity is ideally suited for one language is a myth. Additionally and interestingly, no two bilinguals behave the same way all the time since they are not a clone of each other.

Bilingualism, unlike monolingualism, exhibits complex individual, social, political, psychological, and educational dimensions in addition to involving a complex interaction of two or more languages in terms of coexistence, competition, and cooperation of two linguistic systems. Additionally, although bilingualism is a lifelong process, the language development among bilinguals is not merely a linear process; there are turns and twists on the way to becoming bilingual, trilingual, and multilingual. The path to trilingualism is even more complex than growing up with two languages (Bhatia & Ritchie, 2016).

The role of sociolinguistic factors in language learning; language use (creativity); language maintenance; and language shift, particularly in trilingual language acquisition and use, opens new challenging areas of future research. The main challenge for theoreticians and practitioners is how to come to grips with various facets of the bilingual brain ranging from language contact, bilingual language interaction, to language modes of the bilingual mind/brain on one hand and methodological issues on the other.

Despite a number of studies on the Critical Period Hypothesis, and other competing hypotheses of bilingual language acquisition, future research in cognitive aptitude, age, and multiple language effects with the lens of interdisciplinary debatable findings and methodologies continues to pose new challenges and promises to the field of bilingualism (Long, 2016).

Further Reading

  • Auer, P., & Wei, L. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of multilingualism and multilingual communication. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bhatia, T., & Ritchie, W. (2004/2006). The handbook of bilingualism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Bhatia, T., & Ritchie, W. (2013). The handbook of bilingualism and multilingualism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Ferreira, A., & Schwieter, J. W. (Eds.). (2015). Psycholinguistic and cognitive inquiries into translation and interpreting. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Heredia, R., & Cieślicka, A. (Eds.). (2015). Bilingual figurative language processing. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schwieter, J. W. (Ed.). (2015). The Cambridge handbook of bilingual processing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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