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Who is Who in the Culturelink Team

Culturelink review, Special Issue 1994 - imprint - archive

And I Like....Bilingualism

Martina Mencer Salluzzo holds B.A. in French and English language and literature from the University of Zagreb. She also studied language and communications at Lock Haven University, Pennsylvania, USA, as well as French didactics at Centre de Linguistique Appliquee, Besancon, France. She is currently in the United States, working for the Global Linguistic Systems and on the project concerning bilingualism.


As a societal and political phenomenon present in multilingual nations and communities around the world, as well as an individual phenomenon, the issue of psychology, neurology, communication sciences and personal development, bilingualism has been the focus of my interest. This article will review some topics, themes of research, and terminology related to different aspects of bilingualism. It will also introduce those who know little or nothing about bilingualism to this interesting field.

It is hard to start with a good old definition, since linguists themselves cannot agree upon one. Is it the 'native-like control of two languages' 1, 'complete mastery of two languages' 2, or just 'ability to produce a meaningful statement in another language,' as some proponents of incipient bilingualism would claim.3 Jakobson considered bilingualism 'the fundamental problem of linguistics'.4 Bilingualism, however, is not only a linguistic issue; its various aspects necessitate an interdisciplinary approach. Bilingualism can easily be related to different fields, such as sociology, psychology, pedagogy and its subdiscipline second language acquisition, education, law, etc.

Early research in the field of bilingualism (in the 1950's and 1960's) was concerned mostly with the degree of bilingualism and the problem of how to measure language proficiency objectively. First studies focused on 'quantitative' aspects of bilingualism, those which are easily measured, such as the size of the vocabulary, or the control of inflectional morphology. The term balanced bilingual was applied to a person who was supposed to be equally fluent in both languages and at all linguistic levels (phonological/graphic, grammatical, lexical, semantic, stylistic).

Another common topic of studies has been code-switching, or alternation between the languages. Although sometimes unaware of doing so, bilingual speakers often switch from one language to the other. The pragmatic reasons and motivation for switching and borrowing are basically stylistic and metaphoric. Switching serves an expressive function: to emphasize a message, mark interjections, serve as sentence-filler, mark a distinction between direct vs. reported speech, etc. Linguists studying code-switching would focus either on the above mentioned discourse/pragmatic aspect or on the grammatical/syntactic aspect - the underlying grammar and syntactic rules which restrict the switching and define the place where it may occur.

Sociologists interested in bilingualism study the function of language(s) in communities where two languages co-exist. Some bilingual communities have a particular kind of language standardization, when the choice of language depends on the social context. Such standardization, when each linguistic variety has a distinct place or function in society and code selection is relatively stable, is called diglossia. Other social aspect of bilingualism would be linguistic integrity, standardization of language, linguistic minorities, official majority language, minority languages, immigrant bilingualism, education policies, etc. Social aspects of language may further be connected to law, policy making, education, etc.

Bilingualism in education concerns teachers, parents, and policy makers, as well as scientists, scholars and researchers in the field of education (and here again we have psychologists, sociologists, communication scientists, etc.). The issue of bilingual education is closely related to the reasons why and societal circumstances under which children become bilingual. Skutnabb-Kangas 5 divides these social circumstances into four groups: elite bilinguals (who become bilingual by choice, travel or live abroad, have foreign nannies, choose to study in another language), children from linguistic majorities, children from bilingual families, and children from linguistic minorities. Both children from linguistic majorities and children from linguistic minorities may sometimes be obliged by government policies to follow a school programme in another language. Children in Papua New Guinea, for example, are educated in English (minority language) as a legacy of the country's colonial heritage. Speakers of a minority language need to become bilingual if they want to become integrated into society, and usually as a consequence of government educational policies. The types of bilingual education and educational policies are influenced by the effects that the government is trying to achieve.

The traditional policy, which many countries have pursued with regard to various minorities, is the eradication of the native language/culture and assimilation into the majority language and culture. Such a policy, obviously, has no respect for bilingualism. As far as bilingual programmes are concerned, the three most common types are immersion, submersion, and maintenance programmes. In immersion programmes (whose educational aim is additive bilingualism), children are taught some or all subjects through the medium of the second language, which is added without threatening the first. Most of the positive results of bilingual education have been obtained in this kind of acquisitional context. Most minority children, especially immigrants, follow a submersion programme, which is aimed at the assimilation of the minority with the majority speakers. Children are provided some instruction in their mother tongue, to help them to move towards mainstream classes. Most American bilingual programmes are transitional submersion programmes, whose goal is to switch students to mainstream English-only instruction when they gain enough proficiency. Maintenance programmes are becoming more common in Europe, especially for languages of European minorities. As the term implies, their aim is to maintain a minority language and culture and keep it alongside the majority culture (for more info, and support!, please contact Mercator, a valuable member of the Culturelink Network).

Research on bilingualism in the field of psychology and psycholinguistics has focused mostly on the following aspects: mental representation underlying the competence of a bilingual speaker (in which language s/he thinks), language-specific effects on brain organization, relationship between language and thought, language interference and ways to avoid it, and possible links between bilingualism and intelligence. Current research is aimed at determining the influence of bilingualism on the entire cognitive process. Some scientists believe that the way languages have been learned influences the way they are encoded in the brain, and thus they make a distinction between compound and coordinate bilinguals. A coordinate bilingual learns his languages in separate environments, associates them with different contexts, and is therefore believed to develop different conceptual systems for the two languages. Compound bilinguals learn their languages in one context and develop only one, fused conceptual system. In the mind of a compound bilingual, a single concept has one mental representation, but two different verbal labels attached to it.

Another important subject of research is the effect of bilingualism on the cognitive content, thinking process, and, particularly, on intelligence. Researchers in the first half of the 20th century wanted to find out whether bilingualism had negative effects on intelligence. Most of those studies show a bias towards the negative aspects of bilingualism, which can be explained by the social and political climate in the USA in the early 1900's and attempts to restrict the flow of new immigrants, coming mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe (Romaine, 1989:99-109). The most recent studies demonstrate positive effects of bilingualism on intelligence. Lambert 6 claims that there is 'a definite cognitive advantage for bilingual children in the domain of cognitive flexibility'. Bilinguals seem to be especially good on subtests which require mental manipulation and reorganization of visual patterns.

The last (but not least interesting) area to be mentioned in this brief overview is one of the major reasons for my own interest in bilingualism. The bilingual family still seems to be the best environment to raise bilingual children. Similar to elite bilingualism, bilingual families have the possibility to choose to raise their children bilingually, even if they live in a monolingual community where bilingualism is not needed. Several types/models of bilingual families have been studied so far. The popular one-person-one-language model is applicable when parents have different native tongues and the language of one of the parents is the dominant language of the community. Each parent would speak his/her language to the child. The result of this strategy should be a simultaneous, coordinate bilingual. The child connects each language to a particular person; mixing and confusion are reduced to a minimum; speaking his/her native language, each parent can develop the most natural emotional relationship with the child. Phonology, morphology and syntax develop in parallel in both languages. Children raised in such families become aware of their bilingualism quite early. If the parents speak a non- dominant language as the home language, the child is fully exposed to the dominant language only outside the home, particularly in a nursery school. This type of language acquisition also relies on the one-environment-one-language strategy, and it tends to result in a coordinate bilingual with two language domains. Under this type we can make a subdivision between families which are truly bilingual (the parents have different native languages, the language of one of the parents is the dominant language of the community, but they decide to speak only the non-dominant language at home) and families which are monolingual (the parents share the same native language which is not the dominant language of the community - the common case of immigrant families). When the parents are bilingual, and so are some sectors of the community, it is difficult to avoid code-switching and mixing languages. Such a 'strategy' (combining, mixed strategy) is probably the most frequently occurring context for natural bilingual acquisition in multilingual societies. It is widely used, even though it may lead to more mixing and interference than other types. The choice of the language will depend on numerous elements: topic and place of the conversations, situation, persons involved, etc. Probably because of its complexity, this type is least studied and represented in the literature.

The personal attitude of both the parents and the family is an important factor affecting the outcome of bilingual upbringing. Parents may sometimes be misdirected or discouraged by attitudes of some 'professionals' (doctors, teachers, psychologists) who are not sufficiently familiar with the entire process of bilingual acquisition. In the case of immigrants, negative attitudes may sometimes be connected with the lower socio-economic status of 'bilingual speakers'. Social support is also very important in building a positive attitude in the child.

And where am I, and where is Culturelink, in all this 'bilingual talk'? Some personal developments in my life took me far, physically, from Culturelink's focal point, yet closer to some American members of our Culturelink network. (So what? We have E-mail, fax, phones.. !). Aspects of bilingualism are being studied at both personal (my little bilingual is heading towards the terrible two's) and social levels (linguistic integration of immigrant families and their little soon-to-be bilinguals, as well as the educational policies of the American so-called bilingual programmes).

The results are yet to be published.


  • Bloomfield, L. (1933); Language, New York: Holt.
  • Destreicher, in Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1984): Bilingualism or Not: The Education of Minorities. Clevedon, Avon; Multilingual Matters, p. 101.
  • Term first introduced by Diebold - Diebold, A. R. (1964): Incipient Bilingualism. In Hymes, D. ed. Language in Culture and Society, New York; Harper and Row, pp. 495-511.
  • Jakobson, R. (1953): Results of the conference of anthropologists and linguists. IJAL Supplement, Memoire No. 8, 19-22.
  • Skutnabb-Kangas, T., 93-99.
  • Lambert, W.E. and Fillenbaum, S. (1969): A pilot study of aphasia among bilinguals. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 13, pp.28-34.