English LanguageStart - Smart Words




Bilingualism (or more generally: Multilingualism) is the phenomenon of speaking and understanding two or more languages. The term can refer to individuals (individual bilingualism) as well as to an entire society (social bilingualism).
The term can also refer to the corresponding scientific research which studies the phenomenon itself.
Bilingualism, multilingualism and polyglotism can all be used as synonyms for the same phenomenon.

Language Learning - Categories

  1. Simultaneous acquisition occurs when, for example, a child learns several languages simultaneously within its social environment. Also called Compound bilingual (amalgamated).
  2. Successive acquisition means. that different languages are learned at different stages during different phases of life. Called Coordinate bilingual when the two languages are equally used / important or Subordinate bilingual when one language (usually the Mother/Native tongue) dominates the daily life.
  3. Natural acquisition means that a language is learned without formal instruction.
  4. Guided acquisition means that the knowledge of a language is acquired by means of instructions (e.g. learning at school).
  5. Symmetric acquisition means that several languages are equally mastered with a similar proficiency.
  6. Asymmetric acquisition means that one language dominates the other.

This set of categories is somewhat arbitrary. A specific bilingual person is not necessarily “completely” coordinated, compound or subordinate. Indeed, a bilingual can be coordinated for certain parts of the linguistic system, at the level of syntax and semantics, for example, but subordinate to the phonological level. It has a strong accent in its L2, while having impeccable syntax and a rich lexicon.

Thus, an ideal coordinated bilingual would have two completely separate linguistic systems and there would never be a mix of languages at any level. It should also be noted that the organization of the linguistic system and thus the state of bilingualism of a person can change depending on his or her experiences during life.

First / Second Language

The mother tongue, L1, or first language all refer to the language first learned by a child during development. It is the language of communication used with the child before it learns to speak. In child development, language acquisition extends generally from 0 to 3 years. A language learned after the age of 12 is regarded as a second language designated L2.

First Language Acquisition

In the bilingual “first language acquisition” ("natural" simultaneous learning of two languages), there are different constellations.

  1. A family language (L1), an environment language (L2) (kindergarten, outside world).
  2. Mixed-languages families A (father speaks L1, mother speaks L2, the environment speaks L1 or L2).
  3. Mixed-languages families B (father speaks L1, mother speaks L2) in a different-language environment (L3).



Language is a combination of sounds, representing words (which can be represented in writing by symbols), and these are combined by grammar rules to form sentences. It is used by human beings, to communicate and to share and express their inner status.

Language in a more technical context (language of algebra, or programming languages) is a system of formal symbols and rules.

A very short but succinct definition comes from the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): "Every communication of mental content is language."

Language serves to grasp and understand the world. Thinking also employs language. Thus, one's identity is developed through one's own language.

The scientific study of language is called linguistics. Some modern philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) argued that philosophy is in fact the study of language. In his magnum opus (= main work), the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" (1921, 75 pages).
The book starts with the statement: "The world is all that is the case."
And it ends with the proposition "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


Empirical research on the consequences of bilingualism deliver mixed results. Especially older studies mainly demonstrated negative effects for bilingualism. Some researches went so far, to state: “we are monolingual creatures and it would be against our nature to learn and speak another language” – seemingly influenced by ideology.
Also, severe methodological flaws have been detected in some older studies, partly due to the fact, that the concept of bilingualism was ill-defined at that time.
In recent years, the benefits of bilingualism became more numerous than disadvantages.

Overall, studies of neuronal representations in bilingual adults have shown that similar areas are activated when processing (active form: speaking / writing; or passive: listening / reading) the first (L1) or second (L2) language. The factors to consider when studying bilinguals are:

Note that these studies comparing early / late learning maintain other variables constant.

The earlier the L2 is learned (the so-called "early" bilingual), the more the cerebral areas are divided between L1 and L2. During later L2 learning, the same areas appear activated but there would be additional recruitment of adjacent areas.

The variable "competences" influences mainly the lexico-semantic treatment in L2. Thus, the higher the L2 skills, the more the cerebral network between L1 and L2 would be shared.

The benefits of a bilingual brain

This TED video (5 minutes long) illustrates recent development in bilingual research and explains the general concept.

Two languages

This conference discussed and explored, via multiple fields and perspectives, the concept of “being bilingual” (“vivre bilingue”). It shared French and North American perspectives from experts in bilingualism, psychology, psychiatry, linguistics, nutrition, multiculturalism and education on the advantages of living with two languages.

The conference "Living with Two Languages: the Advantages of Being Bilingual", took place at the Lycée Français de New York on Saturday, April 13, 2013. Experts from the United States, France and Canada gave serval talks which where recorded and are avialable via the internet.