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The Issue Of Bilingualism With Psycholinguists

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 1877 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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Bilingualism is a controversial issue that psycholinguists vary in the way they define it due to its multidimensional aspects. It should be carefully viewed with great consideration to certain variables appearing in the coming definitions. Auer (1995), states that bilingualism can be referred to the linguistic competences in more than one language. This bilingual competence can be “accessible via the analysis of well-formed sentences involving two languages which may be treated as a window on the bilingual mind” (Auer, 1995, p.115). Clearly, psycholinguists deem bilingualism as hidden competence in bilinguals’ minds, and it can be revealed as bilinguals produce utterances. Conversely, Saunders (1988) declares that bilingualism has different associations in people’s minds. Some people assume that bilingualism is “native-like control of two languages” which is later on called “true bilingualism” (p,7). However, bilinguals who have no native speakers’ competence in both languages reject this definition utterly. Some linguists stress that this definition is restrictively limited to bilingual individuals who master their two languages completely. Dual monolingual is also a term used to refer to bilinguals mastering two languages as if they were native speaker monolinguals in both languages. However, Saunder (1988) argues that many bilinguals comprehend a foreign language without being able to speak it fluently. Therefore, linguists define bilingualism as the ability to speak two languages at any level of competency. After all these various arguments regarding bilingualism’s nature, it is clear that bilingual individuals have different degrees of competence in the second language. Saunder (1988).

Colin Baker & Sylvia Prys Jones (1998). Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd. (in the library).

*Definition of bilingualism:

According to Baker & Jones (1998), when asked about bilingualism, most people believe that they know the answers of the following questions, what is bilingualism? How can a bilingual be defined? They would say that a bilingual person is the one who speaks two languages. However, defining bilingualism and bilinguals is more difficult than what the people think.

Bilingualism involves a number of dimensions. There are five main issues that show the difficulty to define bilingualism very concisely. Also, they show that there might be degrees of bilingualism which vary in the same person over time.

There is distinction between ability in language and use of language. They are two separate things. For example, a bilingual person has the ability to speak two languages very fluently, but he or she uses and practices only one of the two languages regardless whether it is the native language or the second language. Another bilingual person has the ability to speak two languages but he or she has some problems in speaking one of the two languages regardless whether it is the native language or the second language, but this person uses and practices both languages regularly. This distinction can be referred to the degree of difference between proficiency or competence of language (ability) and function of that language (use).

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Proficiency may vary in a language. For example, the abilities of a bilingual person will vary in using a language among the four skills of that language (speaking, listening, reading, and writing), where that person might be very good in speaking A language but when it comes to writing, the person will use B language to write or read, because his or her ability of writing in A language is weak or low. Another bilingual person might have good abilities (proficiency) in speaking and writing of a language, but he or she cannot use and practice (speak or write) that language, so he or she tends to use another language. This is called receptive competence.

Few bilingual people are equally proficient in both languages, but one language tends to be stronger and better developed than the other language. It is called the dominant language and it is not necessarily to be the first or native language.

Few bilinguals possess the same competence as monolinguals in either of their languages. This is because bilinguals use their languages for different functions and purposes.

A bilingual’s competence in a language may vary over time and according to changing circumstances. For example, a child starts to learn a minor language at home or in the childhood. As time goes, he or she learns another language in the school or community and he or she will gradually will lose the minor language, because it is out of use and that person became away from the childhood; the situation where the minor language is used.

Leonard Bloomfield (1933). Language. UK: GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN LTD.

“In the extreme case of foreign language learning, the speaker becomes so proficient as to be indistinguishable from the native speakers round him. …In this case where this perfect foreign language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native language, it results in bilingualism, (the) native-like control of two languages. (P. 55-56).

Romaine, S (1995). Bilingualism (2nd ed.). UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Proficiency and function are the factors which are related to the terms of categories, scales and dichotomies in defining and describing bilingualism. In one side of the issue of the definition of bilingualism, there would be a definition like Bloomfield’s definition (1933 p, 55-56) “In the extreme case of foreign language learning, the speaker becomes so proficient as to be indistinguishable from the native speakers round him. …In this case where this perfect foreign language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native language, it results in bilingualism, (the) native-like control of two languages”. This definition identifies ‘native like control of two languages as being the norm for bilingualism. In the other side, Haugen (1953 p, 7) shows that when a person of any language can produce complete meaningful sentences in another language, he or she would be a bilingual.

According to Mackey (1967 p, 555), there are four aspects should be taken into account when defining and describing bilingualism. They are overlapped to each other and cannot be treated separately. These aspects are degree, function, alteration, and interference. The degree of bilingualism indicates the proficiency and competence of language, which is the extent to which the bilingual knows each of the languages. The part of function focuses on the use and practice a bilingual has for the languages. How much each language is used and practiced by the bilingual? Alteration concentrates on the extent to which the bilingual switches between the languages (code switching). And interference is the degree to which a bilingual manages to keep the two languages separate or fused. The four questions are overlapped to each other and they cannot be treated separately. For example, a bilingual’s knowledge of a language will to some extent specify the functions to which it is put; and the vice versa. The contexts in which bilinguals have the opportunity to use language will affect their competence in it.

Josiane, F. Hamers & Michel H. Blanc. (2000). Bilinguality and Bilingualism (2nd edition). UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hamers & Blanc (2000) mention a number of definitions of bilingualism, but they are not satisfied with any one of them because they are one sided as they assume. Moreover, they highlight unidimensionality as being one weakness of bilingualism because when defining it, only one dimension would be taken account, ignoring other sides of bilingualism. For example, a definition of bilingualism may concerns competence, without the other significant dimensions. ( p, 3 & 23). Hoffmann (1991) mentions the same previous point in the way that the most remarkable and significant feature of bilingualism is the multi-faceted phenomenon of it which is expected to be the point of difficulty when defining bilingualism from one dimension.

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At first sight, the concept of bilingualism seems to be non-problematical and easy to be defined. However, when moving deep down on the many variant definitions of bilingualism, one can recognise how difficult it is to define a bilingual. According to Webster’s dictionary (1961), bilingual is defined as ‘having or using two languages especially as spoken with the fluency characteristic of a native speaker; a person using two languages especially habitually and with control like that of a native speaker’ and bilingualism as ‘the constant oral use of two languages’.

Many people view bilingualism as the ability of speaking two languages perfectly; like native speakers. This approach comes in one side of bilingualism and it is related to Leonard Bloomfield (1953: 56) who defines bilingualism as ‘the native like control of two languages’ which concentrates on the dimension of proficiency in language. In contrast, on the other most different side there is a definition of Macnamara (1967a) who defines a bilingual as an individual who acquire a minimal competence in only one of the four skills in a language other than the mother tongue. Between these most two distinctive definitions, there is a collection of other definitions of bilingualism, for example, Titone (1972) defines bilingualism as the individual’s capacity to speak a second language while following the concepts and structures of that language rather than paraphrasing his or her mother tongue.

The previous three distinctive definitions show the degree of difficulty in providing a concise definition of a bilingual and bilingualism, because those three definitions themselves lack specifity and clarity in the main points on them like ‘native-like competence’, ‘minimal proficiency in a second language’, and ‘following the concept of structures of the second language’. (p, 6-7).

Hoffmann, C. (1991). An Introduction to Bilingualism. UK: Longman.

An oft-quoted definition is found in one of the early books on modern linguistics, Leonard Bloomfield’s Language, first published in the USA in 1933. Bloomfield pays special attention to users who become so proficient in the new language that they cannot be distinguished from the native speakers and he considers these users are bilinguals. He relates bilingualism to those individuals who speak a second language with high native level of proficiency.

According to Hoffmann (1991), Bloomfield has a clear notion of bilingualism, but there is some contradiction on his definition of bilingualism. For example, if ‘a degree of perfection’ cannot be defined in bilingualism, so how could Bloomfield talk of ‘perfect foreign language learning’?


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