Bilingualism Is Not a Choice

We learn the languages we live in.

Posted Jan 23, 2015

A New Yorker cartoon by noted artist Victoria Roberts shows a middle-aged couple sitting in their living room. Out of the blue, the wife declares: “I’m not wasting this year. I’m learning Catalan.”

While resolving to spend the next year learning another language may be a noble idea, this woman is unlikely to be successful unless she immerses herself in the society that speaks the language and uses it on a daily basis. For adults occupied in their work-a-day lives, learning a new language just for the fun of it simply isn’t an option.

Few of us have the luxury of choosing which language to learn. As children, we have one or more languages foisted upon us, learning to speak whatever is spoken around us. As adults, we might find ourselves in a position where we need to learn a new language, for example if we study abroad or immigrate to a new country.

There are a number of reasons why people grow up learning more than one language. Globalization has led to an increase in immigration, which usually means learning the language of the new country. In the United States, about one in ten children enrolled in public schools speak a language other than English at home. Obviously, their parents aren’t native speakers of English, either.

English language learners in US

About 1 in 10 US school children speak a language other than English at home.

There are also regions of the world where bilingualism is the norm because those societies consist of multiple ethnic groups. In such circumstances, people need to be able to speak more than one language to fully participate in home and social life. For them, bilingualism is clearly a necessity, not a choice.

Bilingual sign

Bilingual sign in Freiburg, Switzerland

Bilingualism comes in varying degrees. A person who grows up speaking two languages and can communicate equally well in either one is considered a balanced bilingual. However, few bilinguals are truly balanced, and in most cases the person will have a preferred or dominant language.

Although we learn the foundation of our language at home as children, school is also an important environment for language development, especially vocabulary and literacy. Thus, the language the child is educated in will often become the dominant language in adulthood.

People who learn a second language after early childhood rarely develop native speaker proficiency in that language, and in this case the first language learned will usually be the dominant language. Adult immigrants tend to learn some amount of the new language and then reach an endpoint that falls short of full mastery. In other words, second language learners vary widely in their success, ranging from basic survival level with a heavy accent to nearly native speaker proficiency.

Finally, some people will be counted as bilingual or not depending on whether you view the linguistic systems they’re familiar with as distinct languages or as different dialects of the same language. Thus, the question of whether a Spanish-Catalan speaker is bilingual or bidialectal is more of a political than a linguistic question.

Learning a language takes time and effort—a whole lot of both, in fact. So adults, in their busy lives, only learn as much of a second language as they need to get on with their lives. That could be haggling in the marketplace, chatting with your business clients, or attending college in another country. In short, bilingualism isn’t a choice but a necessity, and for half the people on the planet it’s a way of life.1


1In my book The Psychology of Language, I state that two-thirds of the world’s population is bilingual, which is the figure usually cited in discussions of bilingualism. However, as Psychology Today blogger Francois Grosjean indicated in his recent post “Chasing Down Those 65%”, the real number is probably just a little more than 50%.


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Victoria Roberts’ cartoon “I’m not wasting this year. I’m learning Catalan.” can be viewed at:

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).