By Paweł Zieliński

The aim of this article is to present a short compendium of theories concerning bilingualism and bilinguals. Firstly, one needs to provide a clear definition of a bilingual. The most common, or rather a layman one would claim that a bilingual is a person with a command of two languages. A person who can speak and understand more than two languages is called a multilingual. However, in this day and age most people have some command of two or more languages. They are able, for instance, to read a simple text, or a newspaper article in a second language (L2). A question has to be put forth: what command of a second language could guarantee labeling someone as bilingual; does an L1 speaker have the possibility to master an L2 language, or is it just possible when a child is exposed to two languages from the start? Finally, should we only consider language comprehension i.e. grammar, vocabulary etc, or is being aware of certain cultural nuisances in L2 of equal importance.

These are all difficult questions to answer. After over 20 years of learning English I can say that I have mastered some of it. There are some areas (especially those concerning my studies) where my English surpasses my Polish, there are other areas where this does not happen. However, if I were to write an English comprehension test, I’d probably score high.

One can classify bilinguals in two groups. Spolsky wrote on bilingualism in Sociolinguistics (1998) (…) compound bilinguals whose two language were assumed to be closely connected, because one language had been learned after another. (Spolsky 1998:48). A different term used in opposite to compound is co-ordinate. Co-ordinate bilinguals, again from Spolsky, are supposed to have learned the two languages separately (48). Thus L1 and L2 are treated by that person as two different entities. (Spolsky 1998:48). What can be considered controversial about this is how much can a distinction be made between the two concepts. The two ideas are treated in opposite of one another, so if a co-ordinate bilingual knows two separate language systems and, for example, the English table and Polish stół are two different entities, the compound bilingual must posses a system with changeable variants where the words mentioned in the example are basically the same thing. Does one type of bilingual have separate ‘drawers’ for every word and object, and the other has everything blended? Finally, how could we distinguish between the two, and is the division really necessary?

There are also some pragmatic issues worth discussing. Firstly, as posed in the first paragraph, does a person need to be exposed to the L2 really early, i.e. by one of the parents, if the parents are from different countries, or is it possible to start acquiring a foreign language after a while. To answer in brief, it must be said that one can master a language even when not exposed to it since a very young age (it would be harder, but possible). The only difference between a person learning a second language from a very young age and someone learning it a little later is the accent. However, an accent is a physical trait, which can be practiced.

Linguists love to create groups, categories etc, however, it is believed by the author that the division provided by Spolsky is not necessary. It is very vague, with examples which are not very conspicuous. For all the bilinguals reading this, how would you call yourself? A compound of a co-ordinate bilingual?

The next matter to be discussed is whether being a bilingual means only to be very competent in a foreign language or does it entail some additional, non-linguistic knowledge? Non native English speakers have learned their L2 in schools or special courses, some have managed to continue their education at University, which supposedly guarantees a C2 level of language knowledge (a European standard evaluation system: A1 – beginner -> C2 Proficiency level), but do they know the customs of the country that they are studying about? Is a person who has a great command of two languages but is not prepared for the culture shock of visiting a foreign country be considered a bilingual? To illustrate this let me give an example from Polish and English. In Poland, when a shop wants to issue an apology to a customer in writing, the person responsible for this apologises, offers an explanation, apologises a few more times and offers a consolation. In England one just needs to apologise once, give reason for the wronging and proceed to offer a compensation. The length of the two letters differs. The Polish one is longer, because it would not be treated as sincere otherwise. In England it is the exact opposite – if a letter is too long it is deemed insincere. A person from Poland may have a great command of English, and yet sound artificial and insincere to a native English speaker.

The above is a phenomenon that is very difficult to test. The nuisances of language and culture are interwoven and are hard to separate. Even though most language schools provide some background information on the culture and customs it is not the same as experiencing it all at first hand. Knowledge of culture and customs enhances the linguistic competence of people. Knowing just what to say at what time, not only the dictionary, but also the pragmatic meaning of words, feeling confident and natural in the L2 environment are the things essential to be considered a bilingual.

Posted in Languages.