What is bilingualism Classification of types development Examples

What is bilingualism

The concept of bilingualism has not yet been fully defined. While some scholars are very strict about it, others are less specific.

In general, bilingualism would be the coexistence of two linguistic systems in an individual’s daily life, whether in simultaneous or separate use.

For some scholars, this means having minimal competence in a second language. For example, being a native speaker of Portuguese and knowing how to communicate in English.

For others, bilingualism is complete competence in a second language. The bilingual individual would be able to read, listen, write and speak perfectly in two languages.

There is no single definition because fluency is difficult to define. If being fluent means knowing how to talk about anything in a language, even native speakers would not be fluent, for example.

Types of Bilingualism

There are three types of particular person bilingualism. These are coordinate, subordinate and incipient bilingualism. Allow us to see what every type represents…

Coordinate Bilingualism

Coordinate bilingualism happens when a person has or possess the power to make use of or communicate the 2 languages proficiently. Such a person is a coordinate bilingual.

Subordinate Bilingualism

A person is a subordinate bilingual when they’re proficient in one of many two languages. This language by which they’re proficient is often the mom tongue; then they will communicate the opposite language, however not with nice proficiency as the opposite language.

Incipient Bilingualism

An incipient bilingual is simply ready to make use of one of many two languages proficiently and that is often the mom tongue, however with a partial understanding of the opposite language.

Classification of types of bilingualism

According to the moment of mastery of the two languages

  • Native bilingualism: One that a person has for being originally from a country but that has foreign influences, which allows him to dominate both the language of his country and the foreign one. An example could be a child who lives in Spain and has an American parent who speaks English at home.
  • Acquired bilingualism: That which is acquired when someone with a mother tongue studies a foreign language until they know it and use it very well. For example, a child whose mother tongue is Spanish, begins at a very young age to study English, and ends up mastering this language over the years.

According to the use of both languages

  • Social bilingualism That capacity that a person acquires to communicate independently and alternately in two languages. It also refers to the existence of two languages ​​in the same territory.

In these cases, we can mention the concept of diglossia , that is, the linguistic situation that occurs in a society in which two languages ​​coexist with different communicative functions.

However, two languages ​​that coexist can give rise to three different situations:

  1. Bilingualism and diglossia: The language that has more prestige corresponds to the higher social classes, while the less prestigious is used by the lower ones.
  2. Bilingualism without diglossia: Generally, the use of one of the two languages ​​prevails.
  3. Diglossia without bilingualism: It occurs in very unequal societies, in which the language of the most powerful group does not correspond to the one used by the people in general. Communication between both groups can only be carried out through translators.
  • Individual bilingualism: It is the person himself who has the ability to master both languages ​​and who decides when to use one or the other interchangeably.

According to the linguistic level of each language

  • Complete bilingualism: When a person uses both languages ​​for communicative purposes.
  • Incomplete bilingualism: When the mother tongue has been consolidated, but the second language is still in the process of development.
  • According to the relations of sociocultural status of the languages
  • Additive bilingualism: Both languages ​​are valued equally, considering bilingualism as a cultural enrichment.
  • Subtractive bilingualism: One language is valued more than the other and bilingualism is perceived as a threat of loss of identity.

According to the moment of language learning

  • Simultaneous bilingualism: When the two languages ​​are learned at the same time, that is, simultaneously.
  • Successive bilingualism: When first one of the languages ​​is learned and the other is acquired progressively later.
  • Receptive bilingualism: When the mother tongue is mastered and the individual is only able to read and listen in the other language, being unable to produce it orally and in writing.

The development of bilingualism

The fit between the primary language and the secondary language is made from the first exposures to speech. The first thing presented is a cross-language phonology : that is, a phonology that uses a repertoire of practically equal phonemes in both languages. Then there would be parallel development in terms of phonetics, morphology and syntax, and finally the awareness of bilingual ability (and, therefore, ability to deliberately translate).

In later stages, learning the contextual use of different languages, the language is related to attitudes, affections, specific situations, etc. subconsciously That is, it becomes a contextual tool. That is why, for example, some people always speak Catalan in academic contexts, even if there is no written or unwritten rule that requires it. It should not be forgotten that language acquisition and production is mediated by the environment, and it is in a particular context where a language is used.

Examples of Bilingual Societies


The Canadian society, which acknowledges and uses French and English, assigns functions to the two languages. It uses both, French and English as official languages and languages of interaction. That is, the society uses both languages as lingua franca and national languages.


Nigeria is also an example of a bilingual society which assigns different roles to both the official language and the regional languages. English has the role of official language while the regional languages have the roles of interaction.

The scientifically proven advantages of speaking several languages

There is scientific consensus that at earlier ages there is more cerebral plasticity , that is, the brain is more sensitive to external stimuli that cause changes in the nervous system. This plasticity makes it possible to learn new languages ​​with relative ease (there is even talk of critical periods, establishing a time threshold until which any language can be learned quickly), and this learning in turn  entails many other advantages . The main advantage of these young apprentices is not only in the speed with which they can start speaking in another language: their ability to pronounce the phonemes of the secondary language in comparison to the successive bilinguals is also significant.

This marries the fact of the “unlimited range of phonemes” that newborns have. As a general rule, the closer the birth and learning of a new language are in time, the less likely it is that the ability to differentiate and produce certain phonemes used in that language has been lost.

On the other hand, adults, when learning a language, have resources that younger children cannot have. The most obvious is the cognitive ability, but also the possibility of self-motivation, deliberate learning, etc. However, beyond the psychology of development, what makes learning multiple languages ​​possible is the need. In that sense, both simultaneous and successive bilinguals use languages ​​in response to a specific context .

There are many criteria to explain and predict the bilingual development of people. From a more positivist perspective, the variable “exposure to a language” measured according to the time during which the subject is subjected to each language seems valid to us. The same applies to the variable “language to which it has been exposed before”. However, going further we could also consider variables such as the one the child feels for the speaker of each language (in its closest environment, of course), the context in which he uses each language and therefore the need linked to the use of each language. However, this kind of qualitative analysis escapes the claims of most lines of research, more focused on a work or academic field defined by the asepsis and one-dimensionality of human relationships.

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