Bilingualism: Meaning And Significance

Bilingualism, in the simplest sense, is the ability of a person to speak two languages. This contrasts with monolingualism, where a person only speaks one language. There are many ways to be bilingual other than the commonly understood way. People can also be bimodally Bilingual. That is, they speak one oral language and one sign language. People can also be receptive to bilinguals. That is, they can understand a language but cannot speak it. All these differences must be kept in mind when discussing bilingualism. Another distinction is made between bilingual, the ability to speak two languages equally fluently, and unbalanced bilingual, an individual who can speak two languages but not with equal fluency. Most bilinguals fall into the latter category.

Like everything, bilingualism (and multilingualism in general) also affects the brain. The effects of bilingualism have depended on how early the second language was acquired and how it was acquired.

Dimensions of Bilingualism

Certain dimensions of bilingualism have been created by various linguistics. These include Age of acquisition; Context of acquisition; Order and consequence of acquisition; Cognitive organization; (Relative) Competence; Functional ability; Exogeneity; Cultural identity, and Social-cultural status of the languages.

Age Of Acquisition

Early, Late, Infant, Child, Adolescentl, Adult, Simultaneous, Sequential, Consecutive Childhood

Context Of Acquisition

Natural, Primary, Ascribed, Secondary, Achieved, Natural, School,

Order And Consequence Of Acquisition

Incipient, Ascendant, Recessive, Additive, Subtractive

Cognitive Organization

Coordinative, Compound, Subordinative

(Relative) Competence

Perfect, True, Balanced, Dominant

Functional Ability

Receptive, Passive, Functional, Productive


Endogenous Bilinguality, Exogenous Bilinguality

Cultural Identity

Bicultural, Monocultural, Acculturated, Deculturated

Social Cultural Status Of The Languages

Elite, Folk, Circumstantial, Elective, Additive, Subtractive

Second Language Acquisition

Acquiring a second language is different from acquiring your second language. Learning a new language is influenced by the previous languages you know, and this influence is known as Language Transfer. This language transfer is not only influenced by the prior language known by the person but also by the language input they use to learn and even their cognitive processes. This phenomenon occurs when a learner notices similarities between their known language and the one they are learning. This can sometimes hamper learning because people prefer familiar forms and do not use other language forms.

Why are People Bilingual?

People become multilingual for various reasons, including the country's political position, social or economic circumstances, and cultural and educational considerations. Military invasions and colonization were widespread in previous centuries, and due to these upheavals, languages spread to other regions of the world. Because of the Spanish conquest of the New World, almost everyone in Central and South America speaks Spanish. Similarly, many Irish people immigrated to the United States due to the potato famine in the nineteenth century. The migration of people is a significant cause of bilingualism, resulting in marriages between two immigrants from different nations or between an immigrant and a native. Today, many children are educated in a language different than their native tongue; for example, kids in India, Pakistan, and many African countries are taught English. Because of the country's colonial background, almost all children in Papua New Guinea are educated in English.

Cognitive Benefits

Before the 1960s, the accepted view was that being bilingual would be detrimental, especially to children. It was believed that bilingual children would be spending much of their time differentiating between multiple languages to learn any of them adequately. It was also believed that they would have stunted cognitive abilities.

These studies were considered for using substandard methodologies by today's standard, and further studies have invalidated their claims. Nevertheless, the debate is not settled. While bilinguals have a smaller vocabulary when compared to their monolingual peers, it is not without advantages. For example, bilingual people find it easier to learn novel words even as adults than their monolingual peers. They also find it easier to learn new languages when compared to monolingual peers.

Studies have found that bilingual people perform better academically, exhibit more cognitive elasticity, and can analyze abstract visual patterns. They also have better working memory, perception, and attentional control. Nevertheless, these results are currently contested, and the opponents to these hypotheses believe that the studies have been published due to publication bias. Moreover, many studies and meta-analyses have come to the opposite conclusion.

Bilinguals also have better auditory processing capabilities, with people being more fluent in their second language, positively influencing these results. Bilinguals also have better metalinguistic abilities. Metalinguistic awareness is understanding the separation between a language's structure and meaning. This is tied to bilingual people being better at suppressing distracting information.

However, it has also been shown that bilinguals have a disadvantage over monolinguals in speech fluency and speed of lexical access. Some studies have also claimed that being bilingual can delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline like dementia, and Bilingualism enables functional cognition for a longer period. That is, being bilingual protects against the symptoms of cognitive decline and not the damage to the brain itself.

Consequences and Implications of Bilingualism

Bilingual research also aims to identify how language is structured in the brain and whether languages help or hinder each other (positive transfer) (negative transfer). Educators, physicians, and parents are frequently interested in whether bilingual children have benefits or disadvantages in language abilities compared to their monolingual classmates. Adult research investigations have discovered that a bilingual person's mental dictionary, which retains word meanings and spelling-sound information, contains items from all known languages. When people read their L1 or L2, both the L1 and L2 are active concurrently.

In general, L1 oral language abilities are connected to L2 oral language skills, with children with good L1 skills demonstrating greater second language acquisition. On the other hand, Bilingualism affects distinct language abilities in diverse ways, both positively and negatively. Vocabulary growth is often slowed while learning a second language, whether gained sequentially or concurrently. Further study on vocabulary acquisition reveals that L2 learners' vocabulary knowledge differs significantly. The phrase breadth of vocabulary (as measured by the number of words known) and depth of vocabulary (the richness of the word representation) are commonly used to characterize distinctions in vocabulary knowledge. L2 groups have been recognized as having a relative problem with vocabulary depth.

Furthermore, in a model evaluating L2 reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge was found to be particularly significant for enhanced reading comprehension results. In contrast, weak vocabulary abilities might negatively influence reading comprehension skills. Reading comprehension in the L2 has long been a source of frustration for bilinguals.

Economic and Cultural Benefits

Bilingualism can benefit a person both professionally and personally. Speaking more than one language opens up opportunities that would not be available otherwise. Bilinguals can help communicate between groups who do not speak each other's language, which is necessary in our interconnected world. Learning another language also exposes a person to the culture and people behind that language. This increases understanding of different cultures and reduces decision-making bias. This learning can increase a person's empathy and open-mindedness.


Bilingualism, like any other thing, comes with disadvantages, but there are significant benefits of being bilingual that cannot be ignored. While earlier it was seen as detrimental to learning, the attitude towards bilingualism has changed. It is now a skill in demand in this increasingly globalized world. However, the questions regarding some of its cognitive benefits need to be researched more. There also needs to be more research on various types of bilingualism and how their effects differ from each other.