What is bilingualism?

The bilingualism that we live today is that of a massively globalized world, with a clearly prevailing frank language (English) and minority languages ​​but to a greater or lesser extent are exposed to everyone. The possibility of being bilingual today means the virtual possibility of knowing any language that exists right now somewhere on the planet .

And all this because, at some point in human evolution, the brain became so complex and moldable that it became able to lay the foundations for a linguistic system, all its possible variants, and the ability to learn them. How do you explain this?

A priori, almost all definitions of bilingualism understand that in bilingual people there is a mother tongue or dominant language, and a second language (speaking less rigorously, it can be understood that it can also occur when there is more than one “secondary” language, or to start talking about multilingualism), and it is very rare that this hierarchical distinction between languages ​​is obvious, simply remaining in the definition of bilingualism as the ability to master two languages. Ambilingual or equilingual people are practically non-existent. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases the bilingual person will have a primary language (L1) and at least one secondary language (L2).

However, we have not yet offered a complete definition. That is because the conceptualization of bilingualism itself is a controversial issue. Just as some authors can argue that this only occurs when a person controls the grammatical structures of L1 and L2, there are also definitions of bilingualism such as the ability to have minimal competence in speech, comprehension, reading and writing of a language other than the maternal

Types of bilingualism

It is useful to know the distinction between additive bilingualism and extractive bilingualism .

This classification responds to cases in which one language complements the other (the first category) and those in which one language tends to replace the other. This substitution mechanism would be explained from the habits, customs and contexts linked to the use of the languages ​​that the same person dominates, rather than from the biological structures common in all human beings. If one language is more valued than another, it has more prestige, is heard more or simply does not have communicative situations in which one of the languages ​​can be used, the mastery of one of the languages ​​will end up diminishing. This process is not explained, therefore by the neuropsychological bases, but it also exists.

Another important distinction is that of simultaneous bilingualism and successive bilingualism .

The first is the result of exposure to different languages ​​during very early stages of growth, even in the pre-linguistic stages of the first months of life. In the second, a language is learned when a well-established primary language already exists. These are constructs made to explain the differences in the domain of L1 over L2, these being more evident in cases of successive bilingualism.

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.

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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