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Bilingualism and Multilingualism from a Socio-Psychological Perspective  

Tej K. Bhatia

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.