From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Stop sign in English and French in Ottawa

Bilingualism generally refers to the existence of more than one language in an individual or a community. Bilingualism in a broad meaning constitutes the most common condition on both the personal level and the society level: the real exception is rather monolingualism. More specifically, bilingualism refers to both the broader and more general concept of the knowledge and usage of two languages, and the more specific concept of linguistic inventory (better defined as social bilingualism) formed by two languages, which stands opposite to diglossia. Diglossia is therefore a particular form of bilingualism in which the two available languages are related in a hierarchical and complementary way.

Definition of bilingualism over time[edit]

For a long time bilingualism has been defined as the perfect mastery of two languages but over time its concept has deeply changed.

According to Leonard Bloomfield bilingualism is a speaker's possess of "native-like control of two languages".[1] The Webster Dictionary[2] also describes bilingualism as the ability to habitually use two languages with a native- like control over them. Thanks to the two linguists Einar Haugen[3] and Uriel Weinreich (the author of a very important volume for the bilingualism and linguistic interference studies, "Languages in Contact",1953[4]) bilingualism acquires a broader meaning that includes all the graduations of use of two or more languages.

In 1967 Macnamara[5] gives an extensive definition of bilingualism according to which anybody who has a minimum proficiency in one of the four linguistic skills (comprehension, reading, writing and speaking) in a language that is not their native language can be defined bilingual.

According to Titone (1995) bilingualism is the ability to effectively communicate, that is to understand and produce messages, in more than one language. finally Weinreich in his book "Languages in Contact", expands the meaning of bilingualism to the use of two different types of the same language by a person or a community.

Classification of bilingualism[edit]

Common road sign in Ireland
The often Irish road sign system reports the names of places using capital print for English and lower case print for Irish.
Bilingual road sign (French and Breton) in Quimper in Brittany.
Welcome sign in Newry in Northern Ireland in Irish and English
Bilingual sign in French and Basque in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle/Senpere in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques
Bilingual sign in Slovenian and Italian in Piran, in Slovenia.

Bilingualism refers to three different phenomenons:

  • Personal bilingualism (David is bilingual).
  • Social, regional or national bilingualism (Finland is a bilingual country).
  • International bilingualism (a Swedish person and a Norwegian person who communicate in two languages).

In 2000, Hamers and Blanc made a distinction between the term "bilingualism" that would only refer to the bilingualism that concerns communities and the term "bilinguality" that would be the bilingualism that involves just the individual speaker.

Also, in 1954 Ervin and Osgood made a distinction between coordinate bilingualism and compound bilingualism.[6]

The coordinate bilingualism is characterized by the speaker's use of two different independent linguistic systems, meaning that the speaker builds a specific series of correspondences between signifier and meaning in each one of the two languages. In the compound bilingualism instead the speaker owns one unitary cognitive structure which means that the speaker uses two different words, in the two different languages, to refer to the same object but to both of them he connects the same concept.

Another important classification of bilingualism has been carried out by considering in what moment the second language is acquired by the speaker.

As a matter of fact, we can speak of :

  • Ideal bilingualism: when the speaker has perfect knowledge of both languages.
  • Precocious bilingualism: when the language is acquired before the grammatics of the second language has been studied, normally in preschool age.
  • Simultaneous bilingualism: when the acquisition of the two languages is simultaneous. This is the case of people who live in families in which the two languages coexist and are both used, simultaneously.
  • Consecutive bilingualism: when first the native language is acquired and then the second one. This is the case of people who migrate to countries where a different language is spoken, to then move in the adoptive country.
  • Passive bilingualism: when one of the two languages is only understood by the speaker but he does not have the ability to reproduce it. This, according to the majority of linguists, is a specific kind of bilingualism since the two codes cannot be considered to be on the same level as the speaker's proficiency is different in the two languages.

Administrative bilingualism[edit]

It is generally defined bilingual (or extensively trilingual, etc.) a territory where multiple languages that are habitually spoken by the population (normally the official country language and the language spoken by the local population which consists in a minority compared to the state it is a part of are officially recognized as administrative languages ) are officially recognized for administrative purposes. In a more limited sense bilingualism requires for the two spoken languages to be equal on both the administrative and the daily usage level, as well as for the languages to be actively spoken by a significant part of the population.

Constitutive elements of bilingualism are:

  • The actual habitual usage by an important part of the population of multiple languages perceived as different languages (even if not by the same people);
  • The official acknowledgement of the second local language by administrative authorities;
  • The "visibility" of the linguistic duplicity extended to road sign, to toponymy, to communication;
  • The application of bilingualism to scholastic teaching.

Referring to administrative bilingualism multiple eventualities can occur:

  • "perfect" bilingualism, which attributes equal importance and visibility to both languages;
  • "imperfect" bilingualism, which attributes greater legal value to the main language of the country, granting to the second language minor measures of protection and recognition;
  • "mono-linguistic" bilingualism, in which the local language acquires greater importance and outclasses the language of the country which usage becomes secondary.

Different kinds of bilingualism exist in relation to the local situation of the involved territories:

  • Border national bilingualism: linked to the presence in the territory of a country of a population whose language and culture are afferent to the ones of the adjacent country. This phenomenon has always been very common especially after the determination of borders or the formation of national states historically occurred after wars or international treaties that often did not keep in consideration the identities of the populations involved. This kind of minorities are often aim of linguistic protection also as result of international agreements with adjacent countries. Examples of this type are the Italian/German bilingualism in South Tyrol for Italy in which a "perfect" administrative bilingualism is carried out (while in the daily usage Italian prevails in Bolzano and German in other cities), the Region of Bruxelles in Belgium and the New Brunswick in Canada. In multiple occasions, over the centuries and as an effect of the countries' centralizing policies and the mass communication media populations tend to become more or less assimilated and uniformed in the national culture. It is the case in Italy of Aosta Valley and the Slovenian speaking part of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, in France of Alsace (now widely French influenced made exception for toponymy and the familiar usage of German dialects and where French is the only administrative language anyway), of the already Italian speaking istrian coast in Slovenia and Croatia. Greater forms of protection can lead to the official recognition of the only local language or even so a greater visibility in relation to the language of the country: it is the case of the Dutch speaking Flemish Region in Belgium, once administratively bilingual, or the French speaking Quebec in Canada.
  • Regional bilingualism: linked to the presence in a country, or over multiple countries, of regions which have a strong linguistic identity. In these instances the linguistic protection mechanism is way more complicated and difficult (in particular between languages that belong to the same linguistic group), and it normally occurs through long processes of emancipation and local self-determination that are often antagonised by the central states that sometimes are worried that by giving visibility to a territory's cultural peculiarities they will create territorial fragmentation. Bilingualism is perfect in the Basque Country in Spain while today in Catalonia Catalan widely outclasses the use of the castilian Spanish. Minor forms of linguistic protection (often regional and with very different characteristics) are found in France in Corsica and Brittany, in Great Britain in Wales and in Scotland, in Germany in the border sorbian speaking area, in Italy in Sardinia in Friuli and in Julian March, in Netherlands in Frisia; a specific case of bilingualism rebirth has happened in Cornwall where the local language that had already been declared as extinct is now encouraged by the British government.
  • Linguistic islands: they constitute territories of limited dimension and consistency and also often far apart from the national/regional group they refer to. Due to their limited dimension and political importance they are rarely the communities aim of linguistic protection. It is, for instance, the case of the historical Italian ethno-linguistic minorities (Catalans of Alghero; Croatians of Molise; Albanians of Basilicata, Calabria, Sicily; Molise, etc. grecanici etc.) where the means of bilingualism promotion are often very limited.

Administrative bilingualism by country[edit]

Related items[edit]


  1. ^ Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. New York: Holt. 
  2. ^ Edited by The National Lexicographic Board (1955). The New American Webster Dictionary. New York: The New American Library. 
  3. ^ Haugen, Einar (1978). "Bilingualism, Language contact, and immigrant languages in the United States. A research report, 1956-1970". Advances in the study of societal multilingualism. 
  4. ^ Weinreich, Uriel (1979). Languages in contact. Berlin / Boston: DE: De Gruyter Mouton. 
  5. ^ Macnamara, John (1966). Bilingualism and Primary Education: A Study of Irish Experience. Edinburgh University Press. 
  6. ^ Titone, R. (1972). Bilinguismo precoce ed educazione bilingue. Roma: Armando. 


  • Bloomfield, L. (1993). Language. New York: Holt.
  • Edited by The National Lexicographic Board (1995). The New American Webster Dictionary. New York: The New American Library.
  • Haugen, Einar (1978)."Bilingualism, Language contact, and immigrant languages in the United States. A research report, 1956-1970". Advances in the study of societal multilingualism.
  • Weinreich, Uriel (1979). Languages in contact. Berlin/ Boston: DE: De Gruyter Mouton.
  • Macnamara, John (1966). Biligualism and Primary Education: A study of Irish Experience. Edinburgh University Press.
  • Titone, R. (1972). Bilinguismo precoce ed educazione bilingue. Roma: Armando
  • Hamers, J.F., Blanc, M. (1989) .Bilinguality and Bilingualism. Cambridge University Press
  • Grosjean, F.(1982). Life with two languages: an introduction to bilingalism. Harvard University Press.
  • Pavlenko, A. (2011). Thinking and speaking in two languages. Bristol: Multilingual matters.

External links[edit]