Bilingualism - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"In many non-Western countries, e.g., in Africa and Asia, bilingualism is the norm, and people are surprised to hear about the negative connotations of bilingualism. They may see it as an expression of Western ethnocentrism" ( Language Contact and Bilingualism, 2006).

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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" (Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia, 2013).


From the Latin, "two" + "tongue"

Examples and Observations

  • Bilingualism as the Norm
    "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, 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 world-wide 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."
    (Tej K. Bhatia and William C. Ritchie, "Introduction." The Handbook of Bilingualism. Blackwell, 2006)
  • 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."
    (Kurt Braunmüller and Gisella Ferraresi, "Introduction." Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language History. John Benjamins, 2003)
  • Individual and Societal Bilingualism
    "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 . . .."
    (Colin Baker and Sylvia Prys Jones, Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. Multilingual Matters, 1998)
  • Foreign Language Instruction in the U.S.
    "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."
    (Ingrid Pufahl, "How Europe Does It." The New York Times, February. 7, 2010)