Speaking in plain terms, a bilingual person is, as defined by the Linguistic Society of America, “someone who speaks two languages.” A person who speaks more than two languages is called ‘multilingual’. Of course, bilingualism is a term that can be used in both cases. But, is that all you need when you are searching for different types of bilingualism?
Not really. There is quite a number of ways in which you can differ as a bilingual person. It does not only involve whether you know two or more languages. Other factors are involved, and they include, the timing of learning those languages, the level of knowledge, as well as a few other elements.
Some people might be under the impression that bilingualism is an unusual phenomenon. It actually isn’t. As professor Hamzeh Moradi explains, “bilingualism is the norm in most of the countries of the world.”
He also introduces us to another term, ambient-bilingualism. This term means that a person has “the capability and aptitude to function equally well in two or more languages across a wide range of domains.” These domains include the knowledge of background, culture and other elements of the people that use that language.
Types of bilingualism are usually classified into two general categories. The first is based on the age when an individual learns two or more languages. The second is according to the skill she/he has with the languages they know. Each of these categories has additional sub-divisions.
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This post was updated in April 2021
Types of bilingualism as defined by age
As Moradi (above) notes, a thing “to keep in mind is that bilingualism has multiple dimensions.” Some researchers, as Steven Pinker1think that “when neuroscientists look directly at the brain, using a variety of techniques, they can actually see language in action in the left hemisphere.” He continues by saying that “A patient with a sleeping right hemisphere can talk; a patient with a sleeping left hemisphere cannot.” (p.300)
The first element researchers look at when they define types of bilingualism is the age at which an individual learns more than one language. There, they classify these persons as early bilinguals and late bilinguals. This classification is quite clear. If a person learns two or more languages while they are very young, they belong to the first group of bilinguals. If they learn them later in life, they are classified as latter.
Still, there is a sub-classification for those that belong to early bilinguals. These sub-divisions are simultaneous early bilingualism and successive early bilingualism.
Prof Moradi explains that “simultaneous early bilingualism occurs in situations when a child learns two languages at the same time.” Usually from birth. In these situations, their knowledge of two or more languages is very strong.
With successive early bilingualism, a child has already learned some of their first language (L1). It then starts to learn a second language (L2), also early in its childhood. This situation often occurs when a family moves temporarily or permanently to another country when that child is still very young.
Types of bilingualism based on skill level
BUC, Bilingual Upbringing of Children correctly points out that “there are no clearly defined levels of bilingual skills”. It is rather a continuum that ranges in the level of knowledge of a certain language.
A person with the lowest level of knowledge is called passive bilingual. Such a person is capable of understanding another language. That level of understanding can vary from low to high. On the other hand, their ability to speak or communicate in any other form in that language is not on a very high level.
The second group is called the dominant bilingual. In those cases, such a person can fully, or almost fully communicate in two languages. Still, a dominant bilingual is actually more proficient in one of the two languages. Usually, that is a native language level. The thing where this distinction usually shows up the most is in the ability to write in any of the two languages.
Balanced bilingual is a category that defines a person that is more or less equally capable of fully communicating in both languages. This does not mean that they will “necessarily pass for a native speaker in both languages.”
When somebody can pass in any situation as a native speaker of both or more languages, they are considered as being equilingual. Although such cases do exist, equilingual persons can be considered a relatively rare breed.
When you try to determine which category a certain bilingual person belongs to, you consider a number of elements. These include listening comprehension, speaking and writing capabilities. The higher the level of each of those is, the better is the knowledge of a certain language.
Other elements in classifying bilingualism
Back in the Fifties, Uriel Weinrich2 came up with another classification of types of bilingualism. He defined bilinguals as a compound, coordinate and subordinate. According to him, “in compound bilinguals, two sets of linguistic codes are stored in one meaning unit. Example, ‘Dog’ and ‘Sag’. In other words, they have one system of meaning for words that are used for both L1 and L2.
On the contrary, “in coordinate bilinguals, each linguistic code is stored and organized separately in two meaning units and the bilinguals have two systems of meanings for words. There, “one system of meaning is for words that the individuals know in the L1 and the other is for words they know in L2.”
Subordinate bilinguals, on the other hand, interpret and understand the linguistic codes of L2 through L1. These individuals seem to possess two linguistic codes but only one meaning unit. This unit is accessible merely through their L1.
J.A. Fishman3 made another classification based on the social status of the language. On that basis, he classified bilinguals as folk or elite bilinguals.
According to him, folk bilinguals are often “language minority communities whose own language does not have a high status in the predominant language society in which they dwell.” On the other hand, elite bilinguals are those who speak a dominant language in a given society and also those who can speak another language which provides them additional value and benefit within the society.
Adding or losing language knowledge and advantages of bilingualism
Many parents of children who are in a position to learn two or more languages have a serious concern. They worry that the knowledge their children have of one language will suffer. Usually, that is their native language.
A number of linguists like Landry and Allard research bilinguals that could gain or lose language knowledge. They categorize them as either additive or subtractive bilinguals. As Moradi (above) puts it, “bilinguals who can improve their L2 without losing their L1 proficiency are called additive bilinguals, on the contrary, those whose L2 is acquired or learned at the cost of losing their L1can be called as subtractive bilinguals.”
Of course, such a possibility certainly exists. But, as Teresa Parodi, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge states, there are many benefits of bilingualism. The most obvious advantage is understanding and using different languages. A less obvious element is that “ bilingual children have a raised awareness for how language works.” She gives the following example. Bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.
She adds that “probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives.” They can deal with conflicting cues and ignore irrelevant information. “This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.”
What is the sum of all bilingual classifications?
By looking at all the various classifications that define types of bilingualism, a non-linguist might see an ever-shifting puzzle. But having a general idea of these types can often be essential when a bilingual person is to do a serious job. That job in practically every case involves their knowledge of two or more languages.
In many cases, having this general idea of types of bilingualism can give a potential employer a strong clue to whom they should assign a translation job or who they should appoint as their representative in another country.
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- Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind Penguin 1994. ↩
- Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. New York, 1953. Reprint, Mouton, The Hague, 1963, ISBN 90-279-2689-1. ↩
- Fishman, J.A. (1977) The social science perspective. In Bilingual Education: Current Perspectives. Social Science, pp. 1-49. Arlington, VA: Centre for Applied Linguistics ↩