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Facts and Myths about Bilingualism


Bilingualism is a fact of life for the vast majority of the world’s populations. It is estimated that as much as two-thirds of the people in the world are bilingual (Crystal, 2003). There are anywhere between 6,000 and 7,000 languages spoken in the world today and only about 190 countries in which to house them, which suggests how widespread bilingualism (or multilingualism) must be. Bilingualism involving two or more languages is quite common in many of the historically multilingual societies of Africa and Asia. For example, some 25 languages are spoken in South Africa and 20 in Mozambique (Kamwangamalu, 2006). Bilingualism is an integral part of the cultural fabric of India where 216 languages have at least 10,000 speakers each and 24 of them are recognized by the national constitution (Bhatia & Ritchie, 2006b).

Pandit (1977), as cited in Gargesh (2006: 91), provides an apt description of the functional multilingualism of an Indian businessman living in a suburb of Bombay (Mumbai). His mother tongue and home language is a dialect of Gujarati; in the market he uses a familiar variety of Marathi, the state language; at the railway station he speaks Hindi, the pan-Indian lingua franca (a common language used by speakers of different mother tongues); his language of work is Kachhi, the code of the spice trade; in the evening he watches a film in Hindi or in English and listens to a cricket match commentary on the radio in English. As this example illustrates, a whole range of languages are available to Indians, who choose each language purposefully to perform particular social functions.

Even in many of the world’s so-called “monolingual” nations, one can find substantial numbers of bilingual individuals and communities. For instance, nearly 55 million Americans—or roughly one in five Americans—age five and older, speak a language other than English at home (U.S. Census Bureau,

2005-2009). France is home to the biggest Muslim population (4.7 million) in Europe (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2011), and more than 15 million people living in Germany (18% of the total population of 82 million) have an immigrant background (Facts about Germany, 2011). Many people in officially monolingual countries know someone who is bilingual even if they may not use two or more languages regularly.

Although there are more bilingual than monolingual people in the world, bilingualism has traditionally been treated as a special case or a deviation from the monolingual norm (Romaine, 1995: 8). Most linguistic research has tended to focus on monolinguals and has treated bilinguals as exceptions. For instance, Chomsky’s (1965: 3) theory of grammar is concerned primarily with “an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly.” Given the emphasis on describing the linguistic competence of the ideal monolingual speaker, bilingualism has necessarily been regarded as problematic, an impure form of communication by people who do not seem to know either language fully.

One of the ways in which people display their bilingual abilities is through code-switching, a change of language within a conversation, usually when bilinguals are in the company of other bilinguals. Code-switching is perhaps the most obvious indication of one’s bilingual abilities, since very few bilinguals keep their two languages completely separate (Gardner-Chloros, 2009). However, monolinguals who hear bilinguals code-switch often have negative attitudes toward code-switching and think that it represents a lack of mastery of either language. Pejorative names such as “Chinglish” (Chinese-English), “Konglish” (Korean-English), and “Franglais” (French-English) are often used to refer to the mixed speech of bilinguals, and bilinguals themselves may feel embarrassed about their code-switching and attribute it to careless language habits or laziness (Grosjean, 1982: 148). However, a great deal of research in the past few decades has shown that code-switching, far from being a communicative deficit, is a valuable linguistic strategy (see Chapter 6 for a review of the research on code-switching).

Strictly speaking, it would be difficult to find someone who thinks bilingualism is downright bad. After all, to most people, having proficiency in two or more languages is considered a desirable attribute—one can reasonably argue that knowing two languages is better than knowing just one. Indeed many people think that bilingualism is a sign of intellectual prowess and sophistication—those who have competence in several languages are often regarded with envy and admiration. However, attitudes toward bilingualism and bilingual people vary widely depending on who the bilingual is and the circumstances of his/her bilingualism. For example, while the bilingualism of a Haitian immigrant to the U.S. may be frowned upon as evidence that he has not yet fully integrated into mainstream American society, the bilingual



abilities of a native English-speaking Anglo American who has learned French as a foreign language may be prized as a valuable asset.

In this book, I discuss the social contexts that make certain kinds of bilingualism desirable and others not so desirable, and how these influence language and educational policies at various levels. The languages involved in any bilingual situation almost never have the same status—one variety is perceived as having greater prestige and value than another. We will explore how these unequal perceptions shape and color the ways in which people—bilinguals and monolinguals alike—identify themselves and others. We will also see how parents’ and teachers’ educational decisions are driven by larger sociopolitical forces as well as by personal motivations for achieving bilingualism. I will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different models of bilingual education programs and research-based best practices for promoting bilingual development in children from both majority and minority language backgrounds. Throughout the book, I aim to show that bilingualism is a resource to be cultivated for all kinds of populations, not a problem to be overcome.

At the heart of much debate on language in schools and society are certain myths about bilingual processes and people. In the following, I disprove five such myths by providing the relevant facts and research evidence:

Myth #1: A bilingual is fully proficient in two languages.

Myth #2: Immigrants are reluctant to learn English.

Myth #3: Children need early exposure to a second language if they are to learn it successfully.

Myth #4: Immigrant parents should speak the societal language to their children at home to help them succeed in school.

Myth #5: High dropout rates of Hispanic students in the U.S. demonstrate the failure of bilingual education.

The following discussion of the myths and facts about bilingualism introduces the reader to some of the major topics that are covered in this book.

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