Life as a Bilingual

The reality of living with two (or more) languages

Visualizing One's Languages

How two defining factors of bilingualism can be portrayed

We saw in an earlier post that the defining factor of bilingualism has shifted over time from language fluency to language use. Bilinguals are no longer seen as those who are equally, and fully, fluent in two or more languages. Instead, for more than fifty years now, a more realistic definition has been proposed: bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives (see here).

However, it is important to take into account both language use and the level of fluency that bilinguals have in their different languages. I set about finding a way of doing so visually and the outcome is in the form of a grid that is presented here.

Language use is presented along the vertical axis (from Never used at the bottom all the way to Daily use at the top) and language fluency is on the horizontal axis (from Low fluency on the left to High fluency on the right). These labels can be replaced with numerical values if necessary.

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Based on the two factors - measured objectively or based on self reports - a bilingual's two or more languages can be placed in the appropriate cells of the grid.

To illustrate how the grid functions, I have inserted the three languages of a given bilingual, Lucia: English (E), Spanish (S) and French (F). Her most fluent and most used language is English (E) and it can be found at the top right corner of the grid. She is also fluent in Spanish (S) but slightly less so, and hence it is slightly to the left of E. In addition, she does not use it as much as English and so it is slightly lower than E.

As for French (F), a language Lucia learned in school, her fluency is between low and medium, and she never uses it. Hence its position is in the bottom left part of the grid. This is not uncommon in bilinguals who, in addition to the languages they use on a regular basis, know one or two other languages to a much lesser degree, and use them quite rarely.

Examining a grid such as this one is instructive. Thus, in our example, Lucia is clearly bilingual (she uses English and Spanish on a regular basis) and she also knows one other language, French. Had her French been situated at the top of the grid, and towards the middle or the right hand side, she could have been considered to be trilingual. When I filled in my own grid with four languages, it came out clearly that I am bilingual in English and French, and that I also know two other languages, but to a much lesser extent, and that I rarely use them.

Any bilingual can fill in his/her own grid. An empty grid is presented at the bottom of this post and can be copied and saved for personal use. Once filled in, it can be compared to the grid of other bilinguals or multilinguals.

Separate grids can be used for each of the bilingual's four language skills (speaking, listening, writing, and reading) since it is often the case that amount of use and degree of fluency can be quite different in these skills in the different languages. Thus, some bilinguals may have very good oral comprehension of a language but may not speak it very well; others may know how to read and write one of their languages but not the other(s), and so on.

To represent a bilingual's language history, one will need several grids, with one grid for each important linguistic period in the person's life. That way, major linguistic milestones will appear such as the age of onset of each of the bilingual's languages, changes of language dominance, moments when the bilingual stopped using a language and so on.

Of course, there are many other factors that are important when describing bilinguals, most notably how languages are distributed across different domains of life (see here), the bilinguals' movement along the monolingual - bilingual language mode continuum (see here), as well as whether they are also bicultural (see here). But this visualization of language fluency and language use is a first step in portraying a bilingual's linguistic configuration.

 

Reference

Grosjean, F. Describing bilinguals. Chapter 2 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html

François Grosjean's website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch

 

 

 

François Grosjean, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, among other books.

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