Examples of the types of bilingualism

Bilingualism refers to the ability to speak and understand two languages, which can be acquired in various ways. It is a result of language contact, which can occur for multiple reasons, such as education, technology, religion, politics, or disasters. 

Before our further discussion, you may want to watch this kid who can speak multiple languages. Indeed, he is more than bilingual (2 languages). A clever boy.

How is it Possible? 

People can become bilingual in various ways. One way is to grow up speaking two languages, either as children of immigrants or in households where multiple languages are spoken. Regular exposure to both languages from an early age through interaction is necessary for a child to become a fluent native speaker of both languages. Another way is to learn a second language after childhood, but it becomes harder to learn a new language as well as a native speaker as a person gets older. Many linguists believe that there is a critical period for language acquisition lasting from birth until puberty. In some countries, bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm, while in the US, English is often the only language spoken, and people are rarely encouraged to become fluent in other languages.

What are the types of bilingualism based on acquisition?

Three types of bilingualism are characterized by the acquisition of two languages, with the primary difference being the timing and manner of the acquisition. In simultaneous bilingualism, both languages are learned from birth or early infancy. In contrast, in sequential bilingualism, the second language is learned after the first language is established. In compound bilingualism, both languages are learned together in a single context or from a single source.

Simultaneous bilingualism

Simultaneous bilingualism results from prolonged exposure to two languages from birth, where one parent or primary caregiver speaks one language, and another parent or primary caregiver speaks another language. Studies have shown that young children who develop simultaneous bilingualism are able to distinguish and switch between the two languages depending on the social context. Furthermore, research indicates that having proficiency in two languages is associated with increased metalinguistic awareness, communicative sensitivity, and divergent thinking skills.

Sequential bilingualism

Sequential bilingualism refers to the process of learning two or more languages by first learning one language and then another. This is different from simultaneous bilingualism, where both languages are learned at the same time. The period in which learning must take place for bilingualism to be considered sequential varies, but generally applies if the child is approximately three years old before being introduced to the second language.

When acquiring a second language through sequential bilingualism, the dominant language of bilingual speakers is often their native language or the language used more frequently. As a result, the language acquired later in life is often weaker. However, there are some situations where the language acquired later through sequential bilingual acquisition can become dominant, whether through language attrition or other external causes.

The level of second language competence depends on various factors, including the mode of sequential language acquisition and the age at which the second language is acquired. Overall, sequential bilingualism can occur at any age and is a valuable skill that can enhance communication and understanding across different cultures and communities.

Compound bilingualism

Compound bilingualism occurs when a person learns two languages in a single context or from a single source, such as a bilingual school or a bilingual family. The person’s two languages are often intertwined, and they may use vocabulary or grammatical structures from both languages when speaking. For example, a person who grew up in a bilingual household where both parents speak both English and Spanish may use Spanglish (a mixture of both languages) when speaking.

What are the types of bilingualism based on skill?

There are also four types of bilingualism characterized by the ability to use or understand multiple languages to varying degrees. Receptive bilingualism refers to the ability to understand a second language, while productive bilingualism refers to the ability to write and speak both languages fluently. Coordinate bilingualism refers to the ability to switch between languages depending on the situation or the people being interacted with. Subtractive bilingualism is characterized by the loss of proficiency in the first language due to the acquisition of a second language. 

Receptive bilingualism

Receptive bilingualism is when a child understands more than one language but primarily uses one language. This usually happens when a child has more exposure to one language than another, resulting in a strong imbalance between the languages. For example, a child may grow up in a home where one language is spoken but attend a school where another language is predominantly used. In this case, the child may develop receptive bilingualism in the home language, where they can understand the language but not necessarily speak it fluently.

The receptive bilingualism process differs from simultaneous and sequential bilingualism because the child is not actively learning both languages. Rather, they are exposed to both languages but primarily using one. Although children may acquire some language passively through exposure to media or older siblings, they are only considered bilingual once they can use the language actively.

The timing of when children become receptively bilingual is not agreed upon, as it depends on many factors, such as exposure to the languages and opportunities to practice using them. For example, some children may enter preschool with some understanding of English but may have had few opportunities to practice using it. Ultimately, receptive bilingualism is a state of understanding more than one language but not necessarily being able to use them equally or interchangeably.

Productive bilingualism

Productive bilingualism refers to a person’s ability to fluently speak, read, and write in two languages. It involves being able to communicate effectively in both languages and use them appropriately in a variety of social and cultural contexts. For example, a person who grew up speaking Spanish at home and then learned English in school would be considered productively bilingual if they are able to read, write, and speak fluently in both languages.

Coordinate bilingualism

Coordinate bilingualism occurs when a person is able to switch between two languages depending on the situation or the people they are interacting with. This type of bilingualism is also known as code-switching. For example, a person who speaks both Spanish and English may switch between the two languages when speaking with family members in Spanish but switch to English when speaking with coworkers.

Subtractive bilingualism

Subtractive bilingualism occurs when a person loses proficiency in their first language due to the acquisition of a second language. This often occurs due to social or cultural pressures to assimilate into the dominant culture and can lead to the loss of language, cultural heritage, and identity. For example, a person who immigrates to a new country and is forced to speak only the dominant language (such as English in the US) may eventually lose proficiency in their first language (such as Spanish), leading to subtractive bilingualism.

Additive bilingualism

Additive bilingualism is a type of bilingualism in which the acquisition of a second language enhances the first language and overall language development rather than replacing or subtracting from it. In this type of bilingualism, individuals are able to maintain and develop proficiency in both languages and are often able to code-switch between them in a seamless manner. Additive bilingualism is generally seen as a positive outcome of bilingual language acquisition, as it can provide cognitive and social benefits and allow individuals to fully participate in both their heritage and dominant cultures.

Aren’t bilingual children confused?

Simply said, bilingual children are not confused. While parents may worry about their children mixing languages, this is a normal part of bilingual development and does not indicate confusion. In fact, bilingual children have good reasons to mix languages, such as hearing adults around them do so or due to limited linguistic resources. Even infants can distinguish their two languages and show no signs of confusion. Recent research indicates that bilingual infants may even be more sensitive to language distinctions than monolinguals.

Can bilingualism have more mind advantages?

Bilingualism may confer some cognitive and social advantages, such as better perspective-taking skills, enhanced sensitivity to communication cues, and improved performance on certain tasks that involve switching between activities and inhibiting learned responses. These advantages have been observed in bilingual adults, children, infants, and toddlers. However, the exact reasons for these advantages still need to be fully understood. It is important to note that the reported advantages have only been demonstrated using highly sensitive laboratory-based methods. It is yet to be known whether they play a role in everyday life. Therefore, while bilingualism may provide certain benefits, it is not an essential ingredient for successful development.

Would it be better for a bilingual child if each person spoke only one language to them?

The “one-person-one-language” approach to raising bilingual children was first recommended over 100 years ago to avoid confusion and intellectual fatigue in children. However, this notion has been proven false. Infants need high-quality and quantity language exposure from interacting with different speakers. The quantity can be measured by the number of words children hear daily in each language. Relatively balanced exposure to both languages is likely to promote the successful acquisition of both languages. In communities that are largely bilingual, there are fewer challenges in ensuring the ongoing use of the two languages. The best strategy is whatever promotes high-quality and high-quantity exposure to each language.

Is it advisable for parents to refrain from using mixed languages?

Code mixing refers to the use of elements from two or more languages in the same sentence or conversation. Research on the impact of code-mixing on bilingual children’s language development is limited. Some studies show a relationship between high amounts of code-mixing by parents and smaller vocabulary sizes in children, while others have found no relationship. Bilingual children are able to understand code-mixed sentences from an early age, suggesting that they can cope with code-mixing. Practice switching back and forth between languages may lead to later cognitive benefits. Different communities have different patterns and rules for code-mixing, and children need exposure to these patterns in order to learn them. It is important to consider the social implications of code-mixing, as it is an important part of being bilingual in some communities.

Is it advantageous to learn a language at an earlier age?

Research suggests earlier is better for language learning, but no definite age limit exists. There is an incremental decline in language learning abilities with age, and the biological and environmental factors are interrelated. Young children experience a very rich language environment that gives them rich, diverse, and engaging opportunities to learn about the sounds, syllables, words, phrases, and sentences that comprise their native language. However, second language learning often happens very differently, as older children and adults usually have a different amount of available time to devote to language learning. 

Learning two languages early on in life is advantageous; simultaneous bilinguals tend to have better accents, more diversified vocabulary, higher grammatical proficiency, and greater skill in real-time language processing. There are ways to foster bilingual development, including hiring bilingual nannies or sending children to bilingual preschools and immersion programs. However, exposure to a second language only sometimes guarantees functional bilingualism.

Is there a greater likelihood of bilingual children experiencing language difficulties, delays, or disorders?

Bilingual children are not more likely to have language difficulties, delays, or disorders than monolingual children. However, parents often believe their child is behind in language development due to bilingualism, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Bilingual children typically have a smaller vocabulary in each language. Still, when combined, their conceptual vocabulary matches that of monolingual children. It is important to note that some bilingual children may have language difficulties or disorders. Still, it does not mean that bilingualism leads to these problems. If parents are concerned, they should first consult a pediatrician, who may refer them to a speech-language pathologist with expertise in bilingualism. Clinicians have a difficult task when assessing language skills in bilingual children, but early intervention can increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.

Is acquiring two languages simultaneously harder for children?

Acquiring two languages at once is not harder for a child than acquiring just one language, as long as the child is exposed to both languages regularly. 

Written by: Sittie Ashia Said

Edited and Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Juhairah Magarang-Said

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