What Is Bilingualism? The Importance Of Speaking Languages ​​

Speaking several languages ​​has a prize: bilingualism and science, analysis.

It is easy to recognize that the phenomenon that gives this text its title is in vogue. These days we don’t talk about any kind of bilingualism, of course. 

From the small prehistoric tribes that, precisely because of their small size, needed to understand each other with their neighbors to negotiate, to, for example, the Koine of  ancient Greece, the ability to speak several languages ​​has always been present and has been an indispensable characteristic of societies. more primitive.

What is bilingualism?

The bilingualism we live in today is that of a massively globalized world, with a clearly prevailing lingua franca (English) and minority languages ​​but which are exposed to everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The possibility of being bilingual today means the virtual possibility of knowing any language that exists right now somewhere on the planet.  

And all this because, at some point in human evolution, the brain became so complex and moldable that it became capable of laying the foundations for a linguistic system, all its possible variants, and the ability to learn them. How is this explained?

A priori, almost all definitions of bilingualism understand that in bilingual people there is a mother tongue or dominant language, and a second language (speaking less rigorously, it can be understood that it can also occur when there is more than one “secondary” language, or go on to talk about multilingualism), and it is very rare that this hierarchical distinction between languages ​​is obviated simply by remaining in the definition of bilingualism as the ability to master two languages. Ambilingual or equilingual people are practically non-existent. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases the bilingual person will have a primary language (L1) and at least one secondary language (L2).

However, we have not yet provided a complete definition. That’s because the very conceptualization of bilingualism is a controversial issue. Just as some authors may argue that this only occurs when a person controls the grammatical structures of L1 and L2, there are also definitions of bilingualism as the ability to have minimal competence in speaking, understanding, reading and writing a language other than the maternal one.

Types of bilingualism

It is useful to know the distinction between additive bilingualism and extractive bilingualism.  

This classification responds to the cases in which one language complements the other (the first category) and to those in which one language tends to replace the other. This substitution mechanism would be explained from the habits, customs and contexts linked to the use of the languages ​​that the same person dominates, rather than from the biological structures common to all human beings. If one language is more valued than another, it has more prestige, it is listened to more or there are simply no communicative situations in which one of the languages ​​can be used, the command of one of the languages ​​will end up diminishing. This process is not explained, therefore, by neuropsychological bases, but it still exists.

Another important distinction is that of simultaneous bilingualism and successive bilingualism.  

The first is the result of exposure to different languages ​​during very early stages of growth, even in the pre-linguistic stages of the first months of life. In the second, a language is learned when there is already a well-established primary language. These are constructs made to explain the differences in the domain of L1 over L2, these being more evident in cases of successive bilingualism.

The development of bilingualism

The fit between the primary language and the secondary language is made from the first exposures to speech. The first thing that is presented is a cross-language phonology : that is, a phonology that uses a repertoire of phonemes practically the same in both languages. Then there would be the parallel development in terms of phonetics, morphology and syntax, and finally the awareness of bilingual ability (and therefore ability to translate deliberately).

In later stages, learning the contextual use of different languages, language is related to attitudes, emotions, specific situations, etc. subconsciously. That is, it becomes a contextual tool. For this reason, for example, some people always speak Catalan in academic contexts, even if there is no written or unwritten rule that requires it. It should not be forgotten that language acquisition and production is mediated by the environment, and it is in a given context that a language is used.

The scientifically proven benefits of speaking multiple languages

There is scientific consensus that at younger ages there is more brain plasticity, that is, the brain is more sensitive to external stimuli that produce modifications in the nervous system. This plasticity makes it possible to learn new languages ​​with relative ease (we even speak of critical periods, establishing a time threshold up to which any language can be learned quickly), and this learning in turn has  many other advantages. The main advantage of these young learners is not only in the speed with which they can begin to speak in another language: their ability to accurately pronounce the phonemes of the secondary language is also significant compared to the successive bilinguals. 

This marries the fact of the “unlimited range of phonemes” that newborns have. As a general rule, the closer in time the birth and learning of a new language are, the less likely it is that the ability to differentiate and produce certain phonemes used in that language has been lost.

On the other hand, adults, when learning a language, have resources that younger children cannot have. The most obvious is cognitive ability, but also the possibility of self-motivation, deliberate learning, etc. However, beyond developmental psychology, what makes multilingual learning possible is necessity. In this sense, both simultaneous and successive bilinguals use languages ​​responding to a specific context.

There are many criteria to explain and predict the bilingual development of people. From a more positivist perspective, the variable “exposure to a language” measured according to the time during which the subject is subjected to each language seems valid to us. The same happens with the variable “language to which you have been exposed before”. However, going further, we could also consider variables such as how the child feels about the speaker of each language (in their closest environment, of course), the context in which they use each language and therefore the need linked to the use of each language. However, this type of qualitative analysis escapes the claims of most lines of research, more focused on a work or academic environment defined by the asepsis and one-dimensionality of human relationships.

In context

The ability of the human mind to learn more than one language can be seen as both an advantage and a limitation. There is no doubt that it is an advantage in that it allows the appearance of new ways of thinking, feeling and even solving problems. There is even talk of advantages for the brain beyond the linguistic sphere. However, the possibility of mastering languages ​​is also a limitation in a world in which knowledge and skill have become features, traits that help to position ourselves in a competitive world always demanding new and greater skills.

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