Bilingualism is the ability to communicate in two languages unlike monolingualism, which is the ability to speak only one language. More than half of the world’s population can speak two or more languages, people tend to use it in their everyday lives. It’s not surprising that so many people can be bilinguals, since there are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world. Each individual country can have more than one language, such as in India there are 445 languages, in Indonesia there are 722, in China 296 languages or dialects are spoken everyday (Kloss, 1966). People use language as a way of communication and since there are varieties of different languages all around the world, people become bilinguals. In this essay, the history of bilingualism, how many types of bilingualism there are and what they are, the psycholinguistics of bilingualism, the bilingual person, their attitudes, emotions, mental activities and the benefits of being a bilingual, will be discussed.
Until the late 1960’s bilingualism was considered as a handicap (Saer, 1923). People were new to the idea of knowing more than two languages. Hence people were worried whether or not bilingualism results in problems in thinking. Is having two languages in the brain a burden to thinking processes? Does speaking a minority language at home hinder the acquisition of a majority language? (Baker and Jones, 1998). During the 20th century one of the main beliefs were that, if two languages reside inside an individual’s thinking, there wouldn’t be enough room to store new areas and ideas of learning. Therefore, people were concerned that the ability to speak two languages would be at a cost to efficiency of thinking. To prove that idea researchers conducted experiments and some of the earliest research on bilingualism was to compare monolinguals and bilinguals on intelligence (IQ) tests. Results showed that monolinguals were found to have a higher IQ than bilinguals. In the early days bilinguals were mostly immigrants with poor education and monolinguals were usually people from high class families and reputations, thus it is not surprising for monolinguals to have had a higher IQ than bilinguals. (Baker and Jones, 1998).
There are two types of bilinguals, the native bilinguals and the late bilinguals. The native bilinguals are those who learn two languages since birth, one considered the mother tongue and the other can be any reason such as being a migrant or living in a country where more than one language is spoken. The late bilinguals are those who learn a second language at later in life, this may be the result of educational, cultural or political purposes.
Grosjean (1994) discussed about two kinds of modes in his studies, the monolingual language mode and the bilingual language mode. He believed that bilinguals could also be considered as monolinguals. He mentioned that for bilinguals adopting monolinguals’ language can be very easy and also they can easily block away any other languages. And bilinguals, who could do this without any struggle, speak a fluent language and manage to have speak it in the way that it doesn’t sound foreign or had any accents in it, was considered as monolinguals. In some cases if a bilingual could speak both languages at the same level of fluency, this idea made people think that you could consider a bilingual as two monolinguals, having two minds in one body. The bilingual language mode is the interaction between two bilinguals. They use two languages; one of them is the most used, also known as the base language. According to Grosjean (1994) this process was called “language choice” and was governed by a number of factors, such as; their language proficiency, language preference, socioeconomic status, age, sex, occupation, kinship relation, education and attitude toward the languages. The language choice between two bilinguals is a well-learned behaviour. Which means a bilingual unconsciously chose the language they wished to speak. On the other hand it could be a very complex phenomenon. Usually, bilinguals go through their daily interactions with other bilinguals quite unaware of the many psychological and sociolinguistic factors that interact to help choose one language over another (Grosjean, 1994). When the base language has been chosen, bilinguals used the second language, also known as the guest language, in various ways. One of the common ways was to code-switch, which means to shift a word or a sentence while speaking in the base language. For instance, ‘leí un artículo sobre on children development’, (I read an article on children development). Recently code-switching has drawn significant interest from researchers. They have been researching when and why code switching occurs in social context. Reasons that have been put forward are: to fill a linguistic need, to continue the last language used, to quote someone, to exclude someone from the conversation, to qualify a message, to specify speaker involvement, to mark group identity, to convey emotion and to change the role of the speaker.
When it comes to feelings and attitudes about bilingualism, some bilinguals have no strong opinion or feelings towards their bilingualism, they believe it simply a requirement of life. On the other hand, some bilinguals see it as big advantage. They appreciate being able to communicate with people from other cultures, they feel more open-minded, they see life from different perspectives and they get better job opportunities. Bilingualism can have its disadvantages too. Bilinguals can sometimes mix the languages unconsciously, they can have difficulties adjusting to new cultures and they can be in situations where they have to act as translators. When bilinguals use their mental activities, such as, when they are having dreams, when they are under pressure, under stress or praying, it is not clear in what language they are having these thoughts. It depends on the person and on the situation they are in. But it is known that the majority of bilinguals have their mental activities in their first language (mother tongue or the language they feel most comfortable speaking in). When bilinguals are in an argument or emotionally unstable they can shift in between languages unintentionally. In times like that bilinguals mentioned that they preferred the people that are close to them to be bilinguals as well, for instance, their family, their significant other, co-worker and any other close members in their lives (Grosjean, 1994). Researchers found that when bilinguals change language they also change behaviours and attitudes. Some bilinguals strongly believe that being bilingual has a split personality whereas others believe it is just a fact of life and does not interfere with their emotions, attitudes or behaviours. As mentioned earlier bilinguals choose the language depending on the situation, the topic or the person they are interacting with. Therefore what is seen as a personality change due to the language change may just be a shift in the situation, the surroundings, and not the change on the individual’s behaviour. In regards to behaviour and attitude, one of the biggest difference between bilinguals and monolinguals is that bilinguals can easily switch languages if they are not feeling comfortable or whatever the reason is, but monolinguals do not have an opportunity to do that. In addition bilinguals can shift to different cultures and can have a better understanding of other cultures hence they can easily fit in to different cultures and ideas, this is also known as being bicultural, whereas monolinguals tend stay in the same atmosphere and same culture (Grosjean, 1994).
Finally we can see that people’s thought on bilingualism has significantly changed over the past couple of decades. What seemed like a handicap in 1960’s is now a big advantage to have. The reason why people changed their perspective on bilingualism is because in the early days researchers couldn’t conduct experiments as easily as they could nowadays. Today people are more aware of their surroundings and they realised that being a bilingual is important in all aspects of life. Such as, in education, in business, in politics, in healthcare and in many other ways. Being a bilingual has more benefits than being a monolingual. A bilingual can easily adapt to different cultures, environments, ideas and situations. They are more capable to be noticed in social world and they have higher chances of getting jobs. Bilinguals can have better control over their attitudes and emotions since they know more words to describe the ways they feel.