Definition and Examples of Bilingualism

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Two people conversing in front of a chalkboard with writing in two different languages

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Bilingualism is the ability of an individual or the members of a community to use two languages effectively. Adjective: bilingual.

Monolingualism refers to the ability to use a single language. The ability to use multiple languages is known as multilingualism.

More than half of the world's population is bilingual or multilingual: "56% of Europeans are bilingual, while 38% of the population in Great Britain, 35% in Canada, and 17% in the United States are bilingual," per statistics referenced in "Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia."

Etymology

From the Latin, "two" + "tongue"

Examples and Observations

Bilingualism as the Norm
According to "The Handbook of Bilingualism," "Bilingualism—more generally, multilingualism—is a major fact of life in the world today. To begin with, the world's estimated 5,000 languages are spoken in the world's 200 sovereign states (or 25 languages per state), so that communication among the citizens of many of the world's countries clearly requires extensive bi- (if not multi-)lingualism. In fact, [British linquist] David Crystal (1997) estimates that two-thirds of the world's children grow up in a bilingual environment. Considering only bilingualism involving English, the statistics that Crystal has gathered indicate that, of the approximately 570 million people worldwide who speak English, over 41 percent or 235 million are bilingual in English and some other language.... One must conclude that, far from being exceptional, as many lay people believe, bilingualism/multilingualism—which, of course, goes hand in hand with multiculturalism in many cases—is currently the rule throughout the world and will become increasingly so in the future."

Global Multilingualism
"The political history of the 19th and 20th centuries and the ideology of 'one state—one nation—one language' have given rise to the idea that monolingualism has always been the default or normal case in Europe and more or less a precondition for political loyalty. Facing this situation, it has been overlooked that the vast majority of the world's population—in whatever form or conditions—is multilingual. This is quite obvious when we look at the linguistic maps of Africa, Asia or Southern America at any given time," according to Kurt Braunmüller and Gisella Ferraresi, editors of the book, "Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language."

Individual and Societal Bilingualism
Per the "Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education," "Bilingualism exists as a possession of an individual. It is also possible to talk about bilingualism as a characteristic of a group or community of people [societal bilingualism]. Bilinguals and multilinguals are most often located in groups, communities or in a particular region (e.g. Catalans in Spain).... [C]o-existing languages may be in a process of rapid change, living in harmony or one rapidly advancing at the cost of the other, or sometimes in conflict. Where many language minorities exist, there is often language shift...."

Foreign Language Instruction in the U.S.
According to language research consultant Ingrid Pufahl, "For decades, U.S. policymakers, business leaders, educators, and research organizations have decried our students’ lack of foreign language skills and called for better language instruction. Yet, despite these calls for action, we have fallen further behind the rest of the world in preparing our students to communicate effectively in languages other than English.
"I believe the main reason for this disparity is that foreign languages are treated by our public education system as less important than math, science, and English. In contrast, E.U. governments expect their citizens to become fluent in at least two languages plus their native tongue. . . .
"[F]oreign language instruction in the U.S. is frequently considered a 'luxury,' a subject taught to college-bound students, more frequently in affluent than poor school districts, and readily cut when math or reading test scores drop or budget cuts loom."

Sources

Colin Baker, Colin and Sylvia Prys Jones. Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Multilingual Matters, 1998.

Bhatia, Tej K. and William C. Ritchie. "Introduction." The Handbook of Bilingualism. Blackwell, 2006.

Braunmüller, Kurt and Gisella Ferraresi. "Introduction." Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language History. John Benjamins, 2003.

Cortes, Carlos E. Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia. Sage Publications, 2013.

Pufahl, Ingrid. "How Europe Does It." The New York Times, February 7, 2010.