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Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism and Society


Child bilingualism constitutes a significant global phenomenon which implies that many societies worldwide are multilingual. Thus, children encounter many languages which play a crucial role in shaping their thoughts and minds. If on one hand children may hear two (or more) languages from birth, they could also be reared bilingually despite not living in a bilingual family. This series of articles is therefore focused on bilinguals’ development and the mechanisms involved in the mastery of a plurality of linguistic codes.

The Bilingualism 101 series will be divided into the following chapters of content:

  1. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Early Childhood

  2. Bilingualism 101: Biological Basis of Bilingualism

  3. Bilingualism 101: The Bilingual Brain

  4. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism and Society

  5. Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism in Immigrants

  6. Bilingualism 101: Language Delay in Bilingualism

Bilingualism 101: Bilingualism and Society

Research on bilingualism has repeatedly shown (Li, 2000) how the phenomenon is widespread. Even if data do not show the exact extent of the phenomenon, at least half of the world's population is bilingual (if not more). According to the European Commission report (2006), some 56% of the inhabitants of the 25 European countries speak a second language in terms of mastering it enough to have a conversation in it. Hence, the exact boundaries and proportion of bilingualism are in fact hard to describe, as in some parts of the world such as Africa or Asia the use of several languages in everyday life is extremely common (Rudwick, 2021). Describing the extent of bilingualism requires considering the populations which speak two or more languages. In most cases, bilingual populations have one (or two) languages which are used along with their more local one(s), thus communicating as bilinguals. On top of that, trades, commerce, conflicts, and all human activities lead people to move and travel, consequently generating contact between populations. Moreover, many populations are themselves the result of migration processes through history and in these cases immigrants usually learned the language of their host country, thus becoming bilinguals. In a smaller number of cases, the original inhabitants have adopted the new language, sometimes due to a forced substitution. This has been the case for American Indians in North America: according to Lutz (2007, p. 1)

“Native Americans did not lose their languages. Their languages were stolen from them by immigrants to American shores who believed in assimilation, the melting pot, and the great American dream.”

Nonetheless, recently bilingualism has also sprouted as a product of education and culture, as students often pursue their studies abroad from their original ones. The evolution of society in its full force looks quite prone to generate language contact, that is why bilingualism is such a magmatic and frequent process.

Bilingualism can be a product of education, as a consequence of the increase of people studying abroad

Globalization in the 20th and 21st centuries has brought a large number of people to move from their original countries. According to Yeates (2001, p. 629), globalization creates a series of interconnections and interdependencies between people “in ways that appear to ‘bring together’ geographically distant localities.” The numerous technological advances of this time led to an increase in the possibilities of communication, beyond the limits of regional, national, and international boundaries (Johannessen & Thorsos, 2012). Consequently, multilingual communication started taking place: Saxena and Omoniyi (2010, p. 103) defined globalization as “the intensification of worldwide social relations.” The changes globalization implied have become a crucial means for countries’ growth and are the basis of what Watkins (2006, p. 9) describes as a “world shrunken by advanced communication, transportation, and mobility.” Globalization has in fact determined a worldwide change in everyday life, schooling, and education, causing therefore the diffusion and domination of the English language as a lingua franca for international use.

Bilingualism is a powerful means to bring diverse populations closer than they are based on geography

The use of English as a second language in bilingual contexts permeates all aspects of society (e.g., politics, economics, politics, etc.) granting this language a new status of lingua franca (LF). English has established its domination so that people adopt it as it is “appealing to employers from all walks of life and also as a passport to the international community” (Chen, 2011, p.1). The work by Braj Kachru (1976) has given rise to a distinct research field which is addressed as World Englishes (WE), which focuses on the varieties of English that are spoken in various countries. The linguistic and geo-political analysis conducted by Kachru led to the so-called “Three Circle model,” also known as the “three concentric circles of English” (Kachru, 1985). According to this model, the “Inner Circle” represents countries where English is spoken as a first language by most of the population (e.g., U.K., U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Canada). The “Outer Circle” represents countries where English is commonly used by multilingual speakers as an additional language, along with a native one (such as India, or Singapore). Those countries do recognize the English language as an official status in the government’s policies: for example, Singapore recognizes English as one of its four official languages (Mandarin Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English). The last circle of the Kachru model is the “Expanding Circle,” including those countries where English is taught in schools as a foreign language (e.g., China, Russia) without having an official status, thus not being used in everyday interactions between natives.

The "Three Circles Model", adapted from Kachru (1985), showing English-speaking countries

According to Grosjean (1982), societal bilingualism is a result of contact between two or more language groups that do not have the same numerical, economic, and political power. In the work by Shin (2013, p. 48), the author comments that

“Far from being simply a communicative device, language is a means to seize and hold onto power. In a world where large numbers of people must compete for access to limited resources, mastery of the societal language is considered a ticket to upward social mobility.”

Consequently, people that are in charge use language as a barrier to social advancement for people who find themselves in weaker social positions. Societal language gives authority, but along with it, many minority languages struggle to survive. This struggle is in fact due to the tendency of minority groups to switch to societal language. The prevention of language death, which is usually conducted through language policies, should be everyone’s business, as languages (even minority ones) are part of national identity. According to Shin (2013, p. 63) “bilingualism is present to varying degrees in practically all countries of the world,” regardless of whether the countries are officially bilingual or not. According to Mackey (1967), it seems that there are more bilinguals in countries which are not officially bilingual than in those that officially are. The author (Mackey, 1967, p. 11) affirms that “bilingual countries were created not to promote bilingualism, but to guarantee the maintenance and use of two or more languages in the same nation.”

Language policies can strongly affect societal bilingualism. For instance, after World War II, Latvia was occupied by the Soviets, thus requiring Latvian people to learn Russian as a second language. After Latvia regained its independence, the government made Latvian the only official language, making Russian the largest minority language which is spoken in that country. So, according to Dilans (2009), Latvia is a de jure monolingual country, but a de facto bilingual society, even if authorities prescribe only Latvian in formal education. Latvian are de facto keeping their Russian skills, even if some of them consider Russian to be an important language, and some others think that officializing Latvian and de-emphasizing Russia is good for nation-building processes. All of them, though, recognize the importance of Russian in making Latvians competitive on an international level.

Formal education in bilingual countries provides people with a mastery of the societal language, which gives them authority

In conclusion, bilingual societies usually come about as a consequence of populations’ (and their different languages) contact, which usually involves power differences between them. The power linked to a language is the result of the perceived status of people who speak it. Thus, people who do not know or use the “high variety” spoken in a country could be left out of the activities which are associated with it. This has a societal entailment because the “high variety” is usually learnt at school, hence educational policies come into play. Nonetheless, there can be a mismatch between a country’s linguistic policy and the actual use of the population. Usually, this pattern shows the will of a newly independent country (such as Latvia, as seen before) to re-affirm its sole power. However, in most cases, a complete switch to monolingualism is not suitable and puts the same country at risk of being excluded from international dynamics.

Bibliographical references

Chen, Y. (2011). Becoming Global Citizens through Bilingualism: English Learning in the Lives of University Students in China. Education Research International, 2011, 1–9. Grosjean, F. (1984). Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism (New edition). Harvard University Press. Dilans, G. (2009). Russian in Latvia: an outlook for bilingualism in a post-Soviet transitional society. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 12(1), 1–13. European Commission (2006). Europeans and their languages. Special Eurobarometer 243. Johannessen, B. G. G., & Thorsos, N. (2012). Constructivist teaching model for digital learners. International Journal of Case Method Research & Application, 3, 162-169. Kachru, B. B. (1976). Models of English for The Third World: White Man’s Linguistic Burden or Language Pragmatics? TESOL Quarterly, 10(2), 221. Kachru, B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: the English language in the outer circle. In Randolph Quirk and Henry G.Widdowson (Eds.), English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures (pp. 11–30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Li, W. (2000). The Bilingualism Reader (1st ed.). Routledge.

Lutz, E. L. (2007). Saving America’s Endangered Languages. Cultural Survival. Mackey, W. F., Colemagne, O., & MacGill university. Centre d’études canadiennes-françaises (Montréal). (1967). Bilingualism as a world problem . . . Penguin Random House. Saxena, M., & Omoniyi, T. (2010). Contending with Globalization in World Englishes (Critical Language and Literacy Studies, 9). Multilingual Matters. Shin, S. J. (2013). Bilingualism in Schools and Society. Routledge. Rudwick, S. (2021). The Ambiguity of English as a Lingua Franca: Politics of Language and Race in South Africa (Routledge Studies in Linguistics) (1st ed.). Routledge. Yeates, N. (2002). Globalization and Social Policy. Global Social Policy, 2(1), 69–91. Watkins, W. H. (2006). Globalization education and new realities. American Educational History Journal, 33(1), 9.

Visual sources

Figure 1. Anastasgisin. (n.d.). App traduttore multilingue online o vettore di apprendimento delle lingue straniere isolato [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from Figure 2. Beck Chelsea. (n.d.). Potential brain benefits of bilingual education. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from Figure 3. Zabizullah Alimyar. (2015). Adapted from Kachru's three-circle model of World Englishes. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from Figure 4. Vectorjuice. (n.d.). Logopedia concetto astratto illustrazione vettoriale terapia della patologia del linguaggio miglioramento del linguaggio ritardo nello sviluppo trattamento della disabilità nel parlare esercizio della lingua a casa metafora astratta. Freepik. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from

1 Comment

Meltem Demiraran
Meltem Demiraran
Jul 20, 2022

The article reveals that bilingualism may both be an outcome and a policy and how it may affect societies through solid examples from different corners of the world. Seeing language's extent and power in this article was illuminating! Thank you for this great work!

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Antonio Verolino

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