Approaching bilingualism and multilingualism from a communication perspective sheds light on a phenomenon which otherwise would appear static and asocial. MerriamWebster’s online thesaurus defines bilingualism as “the ability to speak two languages: the frequent oral use of two languages,” and multilingual as “of, containing, or expressed in several languages” and “using or able to use several languages.” The apparent simplicity of these definitions is, however, deceptive for a number of reasons.
First, they fail to make the distinction between bilingualism as a collective characteristic defining nations and bilingualism as a person’s competence in one or more languages. As we will see below, the distinction is crucial to our understanding of bilingualism as the product of the interplay between individuals and their context.
Second, defining bilingualism at a national level entails, in itself, a number of difficulties. Since there are approximately 5,000 languages distributed in 200 countries, most would be characterized by a state of relative bilingualism. For a state to qualify as bilingual does not, however, follow from a simple head count. A key question, here, is: how do we distinguish a language from a dialect? Normally, languages are not mutually intelligible. Dialects, however, as varieties of one language differentiated by grammar, vocabulary, and accent may or may not be mutually intelligible. European French speakers would probably not understand the Creole dialect spoken in the French West Indies but they would probably understand the French spoken in Canada. Does that make Creole a language and French Canadian a dialect? Not necessarily. According to Weinreich (1945, 13), “A language is a dialect that has an army and a navy.” This introduces the issue of power hierarchies in the definition of languages. Languages are not languages unless they are recognized as such by the state and this usually entails the obligation to support their acquisition, maintenance, and use. Hence, a state-level degree of bilingualism is heavily dependent on the political and social climate.
The third set of definitional problems is related to individual bilingualism or bilinguality (Hamers & Blanc 2000). A bilingual person could be someone who can speak two languages perfectly. However, there are those who suggest that even a minimal knowledge of both languages is enough to qualify one as a bilingual. Adding to the confusion is the fact that a strictly linguistic definition may not be appropriate. Apart from linguistic competence, Skutnab-Kangas (1981) proposes three other definitions of bilingualism based respectively on its developmental aspects, its functions for the individual and the community, and the speaker’s identification and attitudes toward the second language community. This perspective supports the social and political underpinnings discussed above regarding societal bilingualism. It compels us to view bilingualism as heavily embedded in its social context and communication practices.
Each of the questions raised by these definitional problems will be discussed in turn. When we refer to bilingualism or multilingualism, we do not only mean languages in contact, but also the people from various cultural origins using these languages. Bilingualism is, therefore, an intercultural communication (IC) phenomenon. While bilingualism and multilingualism have not been much explored in the literature on IC (see Gudykunst & Mody 2002), I will argue that the two fields of research share many concepts that are similar and that showing these would highlight their complementary characteristics.
Acquiring and using a language other than the first language learned is a matter of fact in most areas of the world. A distinction is usually made between simultaneous and successive bilingualism. In simultaneous bilingualism both languages are acquired simultaneously, whereas in successive bilingualism the second language is acquired later in life. The first description of simultaneous bilingualism is attributed to Ronjat (1913) who observed the linguistic development (in French and German) of his son Louis from birth to age 4. Ronjat made positive conclusions about the development of his son. Since then, there have been numerous studies of simultaneous bilingualism which generally confirm what the early studies found: that children developing both languages simultaneously from an early age are able to differentiate their languages at an early stage and are not at any disadvantage in terms of language acquisition compared to their monolingual peers. However, achieving such a state of “balanced bilingualism” is subject to the existence of contextual factors such as the equal status of the languages, their equal valuing by parents, and the availability of a language community for each language, as well as individual factors such as positive attitudes toward bilingualism and the languages.
These factors are also present, under other labels in numerous IC theories. The importance of a network representing each language is expressed in Kim’s (1986) representation of the relation between second language (L2) competence and individual communication networks. Specifically, she relates network heterogeneity and the relative importance of out-group members in the network to the achievement of out-group communicative competence. Similarly, Gudykunst’s (2005) anxiety uncertainty management theory proposes that situational processes such as norms for interacting with L2 speakers as well as the individual’s connection with the L2 speakers act as determinants of communication effectiveness and intercultural adjustment. Finally, communication accommodation theory (e.g., Gallois et al. 1995) underlines the importance, among other factors, of interpersonal and intergroup factors in determining the individual’s accommodative orientation. None of these theories deals specifically with development. They do, however, lay out concepts and constructs pertaining to the broader issue of communicative behavior. As suggested by MacIntyre et al. (1998), L2 usage is fundamental to L2 acquisition.
The factors affecting successive bilingualism (the acquisition of L2 after L1 has been established) are by and large identical to those affecting simultaneous bilingualism. Research results underline the importance of such factors as linguistic aptitude, learning strategies, and personality factors such as introversion. These aspects find little correspondence in the IC literature. Pioneering work on the question of motivation does, however, cross many of the IC paths. Gardner & Lambert (1972) originally proposed that motivation is, with linguistic aptitude, the factor determining L2 competence. They further showed that L2 motivation was closely linked to attitude toward the L2 community and an interest in becoming similar to valued members of that group, a tendency which they labeled “integrativeness.” Originally aimed at describing the Canadian situation, research over three decades has shown that L2 motivation, as affectively based in intergroup attitudes, is a determining factor in L2 competence in numerous settings across the world. And this connects with aspects of the IC theories described above. Since the original research, many alternative motivational models have been created (Clément & Gardner 2001). In all cases, however, the affective basis of the motivation is linked to contextual.
Besides intergroup attitudes, the more recent literature has supported the importance of L2 confidence as a determinant of L2 behavior and competence. L2 confidence corresponds to the belief in being able to react adaptively to situations involving the use of a second language. It is related to positive self-ratings of competence and a lack of anxiety when using the second language (Clément 1980). It originates from situations where contact with the L2 community is both frequent and pleasant. Thus, while positive attitudes may orient the individual toward the L2 community, intercultural contact generates the confidence required for L2 interaction and, in so doing, promotes L2 competence as well as others consequences of L2 acquisition to be discussed below (MacIntyre et al. 1998).
Anxiety and uncertainty are also concepts found in IC theories. Notably, Gudykunst (1985) proposed a general theory of interpersonal and intergroup communication in which anxiety management occupies a central role. Accordingly, reconciling intergroup and interpersonal communication hinges on defining as the “stranger” any other person, whether or not they are perceived as culturally different. Specifically, it is suggested that the influence on communication effectiveness of the motivation to interact with strangers, the reaction to strangers, the social categorization of strangers, and the connection with strangers are mediated (in part) by an anxiety management system.
Many descriptions of bilinguality may convey the impression that the phenomenon is individually based or, at best, relevant to dyadic interactions. The reference above to the attitudinal context of bilingual development and L2 acquisition, however, situates it at the intersection of individual and societal processes. This question has, therefore, come to be a key issue for government authorities in a number of countries. Language planning has been the political and administrative instrument used to promote and protect languages according to predetermined societal options. Accordingly, the state may determine the goals of language education; the medium of interaction with government agencies, tribunals, and schools; and the relative visibility of different languages in public and commercial signs – the linguistic landscape. These actions are often premised on the idea that a minority situation will not only entail the loss of L1 but may also result in the disappearance of entire cultural groups.
Under the concepts of additive and subtractive bilingualism, Lambert (1978) proposed that language learning outcomes could be very different for members of majority and minority groups. Notably, subtractive bilingualism would refer to a situation where members of a minority group would come to lose their first language as a result of learning the second one. Additive bilingualism, on the other hand, refers to situations where members of a majority group acquire L2 without losing L1. This notion of relative group status was subsequently formalized by Giles et al. (1977) under the concept of ethnolinguistic vitality, which encompasses demographic representation of the communities, their institutional representation, and the socio-economic status of their members. Ethnolinguistic vitality is linked to a family of language phenomena, and the results obtained to date show a consistent relation between these structural factors and first language retention and competence among minority group members.
These aspects find an echo in Kim’s (2005) contextual theory of interethnic communication. Accordingly, language behavior is described along an associative– dissociative continuum controlled by various aspects of the communicator, the situation, and the environment. Associative verbal behavior would correspond to attempts at modulating messages to adjust to one’s interlocutor whereas dissociative verbal behavior would seek to establish communicative distance. While no mention is made explicitly of usage of L2 to accommodate the interlocutor, that type of behavior would be considered associative. Kim’s theory also describes the environment in terms of institutional equity, relative in-group strength, and environmental stress, all aspects of the context that are likely to influence associative/dissociative behavior in a manner consistent with ethno linguistic vitality theory.
Social And Cognitive Consequences
A relevant issue here is the idea that positive benefits from L2 acquisition and usage will be achieved only to the extent that the first language and culture are well established within the individual (Clément 1980; Hamers & Blanc 2000). This presupposes a familial, educational, and social context that allows the development and transmission of the first language and culture. Although such conditions may be present for majority group members, they may not characterize the situation of minority group members, immigrants, refugees, and sojourners. The relative status of the firstand second-language speaking groups and the linguistic composition of the community are here key determinants of the linguistic and cultural outcomes of second language acquisition.
Specifically, as suggested by identity-based IC theories (Gudykunst & Mody 2002), there is an intimate link between communicative processes and individual identity. To the extent that a context brings about loss of the first language, it will also bring about loss of the first cultural identity. Noels & Clément (1996) have shown this to be the case among minority group members but not among majority group members. The systemic relationships between societal conditions and language loss, therefore, risk bringing about results that are the opposite of the intended goal of bilingualism programs.
A similar argument may be proposed as concerns cognitive consequences of bilingualism. It was originally thought that bilingualism would produce negative consequences for cognitive functioning. The study by Peal & Lambert (1962), however, showed that bilinguals scored higher than monolinguals on verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests and showed a more diversified intelligence structure. According to these authors, bilinguals have the ability to manipulate two symbolic systems and thus analyze semantic features in greater detail. Subsequent studies have resulted in the conclusion that bilinguals have greater metalinguistic awareness and cognitive flexibility, that is, they are better able to distinguish the symbol from its specific meaning which gives them an advantage in most school-type cognitive abilities. According to Hamers & Blanc’s (2000) sociocultural interdependence hypothesis, positive cognitive outcomes will result only where both first and second languages are valued.
In conclusion, the picture that emerges, whether from the perspective of IC theories or of theories dealing specifically with bilingualism and bilinguality, shows a phenomenon that is closely interwoven with social factors pertaining to the community at hand. Whereas IC theories are generally formulated in more abstract terms than bilingualism theories, they do not cover some specific aspects, such as linguistic and cultural attrition, or cognitive enhancements, which have been the prime focus of interest in societies that value cultural diversity. Most theories (in either camp) attempt, however, to explain these phenomena through complex multitiered mechanisms. They vary in emphasis and epistemological style but none of them makes predictions that are diametrically opposed to the others.
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