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Bilingualism is the ability to speak two languages competently.

Cognitive ability

Main article: Cognitive advantages to bilingualism

Bilinguals who are highly proficient in two or more languages are reported to have enhanced executive function[1][2] and are better at some aspects of language learning compared to monolinguals.[3] Research indicates that a multilingual brain is nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts, and resist Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia longer.[4]

There is also a phenomenon known as distractive bilingualism or semilingualism. When acquisition of the first language is interrupted and insufficient or unstructured language input follows from the second language, as sometimes happens with immigrant children, the speaker can end up with two languages both mastered below the monolingual standard.[citation needed] Literacy plays an important role in the development of language in these immigrant children.[citation needed] Those who were literate in their first language before arriving, and who have support to maintain that literacy, are at the very least able to maintain and master their first language.[citation needed]

There is, of course, a difference between those who learn a language in a class environment, and those who learn through total immersion, usually living in the country where the target language is the exclusive.

Without the possibility to actively translate, due to a complete lack of any first language communication opportunity, the comparison between languages is reduced. The new language is almost independently learned - like the mother tongue for a child - with direct concept-to-language translation that can become more natural than word structures learned as a subject. Added to this, the uninterrupted, immediate and exclusive practise of the new language reinforces and deepens the attained knowledge.

Receptive bilingualism

Main article: Passive speakers (language)

Receptive bilinguals are those who have the ability to understand a second language but who cannot speak it or whose abilities to speak it are inhibited by psychological barriers. Receptive bilingualism is frequently encountered among adult immigrants to the U.S. who do not speak English as a native language but who have children who do speak English natively, usually in part because those children's education has been conducted in English: While the immigrant parents can understand both their native language and English, they speak only their native language to their children. If their children are likewise receptively bilingual but productively English-monolingual, throughout the conversation the parents will speak their native language and the children will speak English. If their children are productively bilingual, however, those children may answer in the parents' native language, in English, or in a combination of both languages, varying their choice of language depending on factors such as the communication's content, context, and/or emotional intensity and the presence or absence of third-party speakers of one language or the other. The third alternative represents the phenomenon of "code-switching" (also styled "code switching"), in which the productively bilingual party to a communication switches languages in the course of that communication. Receptively bilingual persons, especially children, may rapidly achieve oral fluency by spending extended time in situations where they are required to speak the language that they theretofore understood only passively. Until both generations achieve oral fluency, not all definitions of bilingualism accurately characterize the family as a whole, but the linguistic differences between the family's generations often constitute little or no impairment to the family's functionality.[citation needed]

Receptive bilingualism in one language as exhibited by a speaker of another language, or even as exhibited by most speakers of that language, is not the same as mutual intelligibility of languages: The latter is a property of a pair of languages, namely a consequence of objectively high lexical and grammatical similarities between the languages themselves (e.g., Iberian Spanish and Iberian Portuguese), whereas the former is a property of one or more persons and is determined by subjective or intersubjective factors such as the respective languages' prevalence in the life history (including family upbringing, educational setting, and ambient culture) of the individual person or persons in question.[5]


Some bilinguals feel that their personality changes depending on which language they are speaking;[6][7] thus multilingualism is said to create multiple personalities. Xiao-lei Wang states in her book Growing up with Three Languages: Birth to Eleven: “Languages used by speakers with one or more than one language are used not just to represent a unitary self, but to enact different kinds of selves, and different linguistic contexts create different kinds of self-expression and experiences for the same person.” However, there has been little rigorous research done on this topic and it is difficult to define “personality” in this context. Francois Grosjean writes: “What is seen as a change in personality is most probably simply a shift in attitudes and behaviors that correspond to a shift in situation or context, independent of language.”[8]

Learning language

Main article: Language education
Main article: Bilingual education

One view is that of the linguist Noam Chomsky in what he calls the human 'language acquisition device '— a mechanism which enables an individual to recreate correctly the rules (grammar) and certain other characteristics of language used by speakers around the learner.[9] This device, according to Chomsky, wears out over time, and is not normally available by puberty, which he uses to explain the poor results some adolescents and adults have when learning aspects of a second language (L2).

If language learning is a cognitive process, rather than a language acquisition device, as the school led by Stephen Krashen suggests, there would only be relative, not categorical, differences between the two types of language learning.

Rod Ellis quotes research finding that the earlier children learn a second language, the better off they are, in terms of pronunciation. See Critical period hypothesis. European schools generally offer secondary language classes for their students early on, due to the interconnectedness with neighbour countries with different languages. Most European students now study at least two foreign languages, a process strongly encouraged by the European Union.[10]

Based on the research in Ann Fathman’s The Relationship between age and second language productive ability,[11][12] there is a difference in the rate of learning of English morphology, syntax and phonology based upon differences in age, but that the order of acquisition in second language learning does not change with age.

People who have Multilanguage background will find out their native language would influence their second language in any other ages.

In second language class, students will commonly face the difficulties on thinking in the target language because they are influenced by their native language and culture patterns. Robert B. Kaplan thinks that in second language classes, the foreign-student paper is out of focus because the foreign student is employing rhetoric and a sequence of thought which violate the expectations of the native reader.[13] Foreign students who have mastered syntactic structures have still demonstrated inability to compose adequate themes, term papers, theses, and dissertations. Robert B. Kaplan describes two key words that affect people when they learn a second language. Logic in the popular, rather than the logician's sense of the word, which is the basis of rhetoric, is evolved out of a culture; it is not universal. Rhetoric, then, is not universal either, but varies, from culture to culture and even from time to time within a given culture.[13] Language teachers know how to predict the differences between pronunciations or constructions in different languages, but they might be less clear about the differences between rhetoric, that is, in the way they use language to accomplish various purposes, particularly in writing.[14]


Main article: Neuroscience of multilingualism

Various aspects of multilingualism have been studied in the field of neuroscience. These include the representation of different language systems in the brain, the effects of multilingualism on the brain's structural plasticity, aphasia in multilingual individuals, and bimodal bilingualisms (people who can speak one sign language and one oral language). Neuroscientific studies of multilingualism are carried out with functional neuroimaging, electrophysiology, and through observation of people who have suffered brain damage.

Centralization of Language areas in the Brain

Language acquisition in multilingual individuals is contingent on two factors: age of the language acquisition and proficiency.[15][16] Specialization is centered in the Perisylvian cortex of the left hemisphere. Various regions of both the right and left hemisphere activate during language production. Multilingual individuals consistently demonstrate similar activation patterns in the brain when using either one of the two or more languages they fluently know. [17] Age of acquiring the second-or-higher language, and proficiency of use determine what specific brain regions and pathways activate when using (thinking or speaking) the language. Contrast to those who acquired their multiple languages at different points in their life, those who acquire multiple languages when young, and at virtually the same time, show similar activations in parts of Broca’s area and left inferior frontal lobe. If the second-or-higher language is acquired later in life, specifically after the critical period, the language becomes centralized in a different part of Broca’s area than the native language and other languages learned when young.[18]

Brain plasticity in multilingualism

A greater density of grey matter in the inferior parietal cortex is present in multilingual individuals. It has been found that multilingualism affects the structure, and essentially, the cytoarchitecture of the brain. Learning multiple languages re-structures the brain and some researchers argue that it increases the brain’s capacity for plasticity.[19] Most of these differences in brain structures in multilinguals may be genetic at the core. Consensus is still muddled; it may be a mixture of both—experiential (acquiring languages during life) and genetic (predisposition to brain plasticity).[20][21]

Aphasia in multilingualism

An abundance of insight about language storage in the brain comes from studying bilingual/ mulilingual individuals afflicted with a form of aphasia. The symptoms and severity of aphasia in bilinguals/ mulitlinguals depend on how many languages the individual knows, what order they have them stored in the brain, how frequently they use each one, and how proficient they are in using those languages.[22] Two primary theoretical approaches to studying and viewing bilingual/ multilingual aphasics exist—the localizationalist approach and the dynamic approach. The localizationalist approach views different languages as stored in different regions of the brain; and therefore, is the reason why bilingual/ multilingual aphasics may lose one language they know, but not the other(s).[23] The dynamical theory approach suggests that the language system is supervised by a dynamic equilibrium between the existing language capabilities and the constant alteration and adaptation to the communicative requirements of the environment.[24][25] The dynamic approach views the representation and control aspects of the language system as compromised as a result of brain damage to the brain’s language regions.[26][27][28] The dynamic approach offers a satisfactory explanation for the various recovery times of each of the languages the aphasic has had impaired or lost because of the brain damage. Recovery of languages varies across aphasic patients. Some may recover all lost or impaired languages simultaneously. For some, one language is recovered before the others. In others, an involuntary mix of languages occurs in the recovery process; the aphasic would intermix words from the various languages he/she knows when speaking.[28]

PET scan studies on Bimodal Individuals

Neuroscientific research on Bimodal individuals—those who speak one oral language and one sign language—has been carried out. Pet scans from these studies show that there is a separate region in the brain for working memory related to sign language production and use. These studies also find that Bimodal individuals use different areas of the right hemisphere depending on whether if they are speaking using verbal language or gesticulating using sign-language.[29] Studies with bimodal bilinguals have also provided insight into the tip of the tongue phenomenon and into patterns of neural activity when recognizing facial expressions.[30][31]

The Executive Control System’s Role in Preventing Cross Talk

There are sophisticated mechanisms to prevent cross talk in brains where more than one language is stored.[16] The executive control system might be implicated to prevent one language from interfering with another in multilinguals.The executive control system is responsible for processes that are sometimes referred to as executive functions, and among others includes supervisory attentional system, or cognitive control. Despite the fact that most research on the executive control system pertains to nonverbal tasks, there is some evidence that the system might be involved in resolving and ordering the conflict generated by the competing languages stored in the mulitlingual’s brain.[32] During speech production there is a constant need to channel attention to the appropriate word associated with the concept, congruent with the language being used. The word must be placed in the appropriate phonological and morphological context.[33] Multilinguals constantly utilize the general executive control system to resolve interference/conflicts among the known languages, enhancing the system’s functional performance, even on nonverbal tasks. In studies, multilingual subjects of all ages, showed overall enhanced executive control abilities. This may indicate that the multilingual experience leads to a transfer of skill from the verbal to the nonverbal.[32] There is no one specific domain of language modulation in the general executive control system, as far as studies reveal. Studies show that the speed with which multilingual subjects perform tasks, with-and-without mediation required to resolve language-use conflict, is better in bilingual than monolingual subjects.[33]

Health Benefits of Multilingualism and Bilingualism

Researcher Ellen Bialystok examined the effect of multilingualism on Alzheimer’s disease and found that it delays its onset by about 4 years. The researcher’s study found that those who spoke more than two languages acquired Alzheimer’s disease at a later time than speakers of a single language.[32] Interestingly, the study found that the more languages the multilingual knows, the later the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Both bilingualism and multilingualism aid in the building up of cognitive reserves in the brain; these cognitive reserves force the brain to work harder—they themselves, restructure the brain.[34] Multilingualism and bilingualism lead to greater efficiency of use in the brain, and organize the brain to be more efficient and conservative in using energy. More research is required to determine whether if learning another language later in life has the same protective effects; nonetheless, it is evident from the variety of studies performed on the effects of multilingualism and bilingualism on the brain, that learning and knowing multiple languages sets the stage for a cognitive healthy life.

Multilingualism within communities

Further information: List of multilingual countries and regions

A multilingual sign at the Hong Kong-Macau Ferry Pier in the Macau SAR, China. At the top are Portuguese and Chinese, which are the official languages of the region, while at the bottom are Japanese and English, which are common languages used by tourists (English is also one of Hong Kong's two official languages).

A caution message in English, Kannada and Hindi found in Bangalore, India

File:Trisulam railway station nameboard.JPG

The three-language (Tamil, English and Hindi) name board at the Tirusulam suburban railway station in Chennai, South India. Almost all railway stations in India have signs like these in three or more languages (English, Hindi and the local language).

File:YVR intl arrivals signage 2.jpg

Multilingual sign at Vancouver International Airport, international arrivals area. Text in English, French, and Chinese is a permanent feature of this sign, while the right panel of the sign is a video screen that rotates through additional languages.

File:SPM A7786.jpg

Multilingual sign at an exit of SM Mall of Asia in Pasay City, Philippines. Three or four languages are shown: Japanese/Mandarin ("deguchi" or "chūkǒu", respectively), English ("exit") and Korean ("chulgu"). While Filipinos themselves are anglophone, such signs cater to the growing number of Koreans and other foreigners in the country.

File:Quadrilingual Train Name written in Kannada-Hindi-Tamil-English.jpg

A Train name found in South India written in four languages: Kannada, Hindi, Tamil and English. Boards like this are common on trains which pass through two or more states where the languages spoken are different.

Widespread multilingualism is one form of language contact. Multilingualism was more common in the past than is usually supposedTemplate:Weasel-inline: in early times, when most people were members of small language communities, it was necessary to know two or more languages for trade or any other dealings outside one's own town or village, and this holds good today in places of high linguistic diversity such as Sub-Saharan Africa and India. Linguist Ekkehard Wolff estimates that 50% of the population of Africa is multilingual.[35]

In multilingual societies, not all speakers need to be multilingual. Some states can have multilingual policies and recognise several official languages, such as Canada (English and French). In some states, particular languages may be associated with particular regions in the state (e.g., Canada) or with particular ethnicities (Malaysia/Singapore). When all speakers are multilingual, linguists classify the community according to the functional distribution of the languages involved:

  • diglossia: if there is a structural functional distribution of the languages involved, the society is termed 'diglossic'. Typical diglossic areas are those areas in Europe where a regional language is used in informal, usually oral, contexts, while the state language is used in more formal situations. Frisia (with Frisian and German or Dutch) and Lusatia (with Sorbian and German) are well-known examples. Some writers limit diglossia to situations where the languages are closely related, and could be considered dialects of each other. This can also be observed in Scotland where in formal situations, English is used. However, in informal situations in many areas, Scots is the preferred language of choice. Similar phenomenon is also observed in Arabic spoken region. The effects of diglossia could be seen if you look at the difference between Written Arabic(Modern Standard Arabic) and Colloquial Arabic. However, as time goes, the Arabic language somewhere between the two have been created which we would like to call Middle Arabic or Common Arabic. Because of this diversification of the language, the concept of spectroglossia[36] have been suggested.
  • ambilingualism: a region is called ambilingual if this functional distribution is not observed. In a typical ambilingual area it is nearly impossible to predict which language will be used in a given setting. True ambilingualism is rare. Ambilingual tendencies can be found in small states with multiple heritages like Luxembourg, which has a combined Franco-Germanic heritage, or Malaysia and Singapore, which fuses the cultures of Malays, China, and India. Ambilingualism also can manifest in specific regions of larger states that have both a clearly dominant state language (be it de jure or de facto) and a protected minority language that is limited in terms of distribution of speakers within the country. This tendency is especially pronounced when, even though the local language is widely spoken, there is a reasonable assumption that all citizens speak the predominant state tongue (E.g., English in Quebec vs. Canada; Spanish in Catalonia vs. Spain). This phenomenon can also occur in border regions with many cross-border contacts.
  • bipart-lingualism: if more than one language can be heard in a small area, but the large majority of speakers are monolinguals, who have little contact with speakers from neighbouring ethnic groups, an area is called 'bipart-lingual'. An example of this is the Balkans.

N.B. the terms given above all refer to situations describing only two languages. In cases of an unspecified number of languages, the terms polyglossia, omnilingualism, and multipart-lingualism are more appropriate.

Multilingualism between different language speakers

Whenever two people meet, negotiations take place. If they want to express solidarity and sympathy, they tend to seek common features in their behavior. If speakers wish to express distance towards or even dislike of the person they are speaking to, the reverse is true, and differences are sought. This mechanism also extends to language, as described in the Communication Accommodation Theory.

Some multilinguals use code-switching, a term that describes the process of 'swapping' between languages. In many cases, code-switching is motivated by the wish to express loyalty to more than one cultural group[citation needed], as holds for many immigrant communities in the New World. Code-switching may also function as a strategy where proficiency is lacking. Such strategies are common if the vocabulary of one of the languages is not very elaborated for certain fields, or if the speakers have not developed proficiency in certain lexical domains, as in the case of immigrant languages.

This code-switching appears in many forms. If a speaker has a positive attitude towards both languages and towards code-switching, many switches can be found, even within the same sentence.[37] If, however, the speaker is reluctant to use code-switching, as in the case of a lack of proficiency, he might knowingly or unknowingly try to camouflage his attempt by converting elements of one language into elements of the other language through calquing. This results in speakers using words like courrier noir (literally mail that is black) in French, instead of the proper word for blackmail, chantage.

Sometimes a pidgin language may develop. A pidgin language is basically a fusion of two languages, which is mutually understandable for both speakers. Some pidgin languages develop into real languages (such as papiamento at Curaçao) while other remain as slangs or jargons (such as Helsinki slang, which is more or less mutually intelligible both in Finnish and Swedish). In other cases, prolonged influence of languages on each other may have the effect of changing one or both to the point where it may be considered that a new language is born. For example, many linguists believe that the Occitan language and the Catalan language were formed because a population speaking a single Occitano-Romance language was divided into political spheres of influence of France and Spain, respectively. Yiddish language is a complex blend of Middle High German with Hebrew and borrowings from Slavic languages.

Bilingual interaction can even take place without the speakers switching. In certain areas, it is not uncommon for speakers each to use a different language within the same conversation. This phenomenon is found, amongst other places, in Scandinavia. Most speakers of Swedish and Norwegian, and Norwegian and Danish, can communicate with each other speaking their respective languages, while few can speak both (people used to these situations often adjust their language, avoiding words that are not found in the other language or that can be misunderstood). Using different languages is usually called non-convergent discourse, a term introduced by the Dutch linguist Reitze Jonkman. To a certain extent this situation also exists between Dutch and Afrikaans, although everyday contact is fairly rare because of the distance between the two respective communities. The phenomenon is also found in Argentina, where Spanish and Italian are both widely spoken, even leading to cases where a child with a Spanish and an Italian parent grows up fully bilingual, with both parents speaking only their own language yet knowing the other. Another example is the former state of Czechoslovakia, where two languages (Czech and Slovak) were in common use. Most Czechs and Slovaks understand both languages, although they would use only one of them (their respective mother tongue) when speaking. For example, in Czechoslovakia it was common to hear two people talking on television each speaking a different language without any difficulty understanding each other. This bilinguality still exists nowadays, although it has started to deteriorate after Czechoslovakia split up [citation needed].

File:Wakkanai Russian sign.jpg

Japanese, English, and Russian sign in Northern Japan

Multilingualism at the linguistic level

Models for native language literacy programs

Sociopolitical as well as socio-cultural identity arguments may influence native language literacy. While these two camps may occupy much of the debate about which languages children will learn to read, a greater emphasis on the linguistic aspects of the argument is appropriate. In spite of the political turmoil precipitated by this debate, researchers continue to espouse a linguistic basis for it. This rationale is based upon the work of Jim Cummins (1983).

Sequential model

Main article: Sequential bilingualism

In this model, learners receive literacy instruction in their native language until they acquire a "threshold" literacy proficiency. Some researchers use age 3 as the age when a child has basic communicative competence in L1 (Kessler, 1984).[38] Children may go through a process of sequential acquisition if they migrate at a young age to a country where a different language is spoken, or if the child exclusively speaks his or her heritage language at home until he/she is immersed in a school setting where instruction is offered in a different language.

The phases children go through during sequential acquisition are less linear than for simultaneous acquisition and can vary greatly among children. Sequential acquisition is a more complex and lengthier process, although there is no indication that non language-delayed children end up less proficient than simultaneous bilinguals, so long as they receive adequate input in both languages.

Bilingual model

Main article: Simultaneous bilingualism

In this model, the native language and the community language are simultaneously taught. The advantage is literacy in two languages as the outcome. However, the teacher must be well-versed in both languages and also in techniques for teaching a second language.

Coordinate model

This model posits that equal time should be spent in separate instruction of the native language and of the community language. The native language class, however, focuses on basic literacy while the community language class focuses on listening and speaking skills. Being a bilingual does not necessarily mean that one can speak, for example, English and French.


Cummins' research concluded that the development of competence in the native language serves as a foundation of proficiency that can be transposed to the second language — the common underlying proficiency hypothesis. His work sought to overcome the perception propagated in the 1960s that learning two languages made for two competing aims. The belief was that the two languages were mutually exclusive and that learning a second required unlearning elements and dynamics of the first in order to accommodate the second (Hakuta, 1990). The evidence for this perspective relied on the fact that some errors in acquiring the second language were related to the rules of the first language (Hakuta, 1990). How this hypothesis holds under different types of languages such as Romance versus non-Western languages has yet to undergo research.

Another new development that has influenced the linguistic argument for bilingual literacy is the length of time necessary to acquire the second language. While previously children were believed to have the ability to learn a language within a year, today researchers believe that within and across academic settings, the time span is nearer to five years (Collier, 1992; Ramirez, 1992).

An interesting outcome of studies during the early 1990s however confirmed that students who do successfully complete bilingual instruction perform better academically (Collier, 1992; Ramirez, 1992). These students exhibit more cognitive elasticity including a better ability to analyse abstract visual patterns. Students who receive bidirectional bilingual instruction where equal proficiency in both languages is required perform at an even higher level. Examples of such programs include international and multi-national education schools.


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See also

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