Bilingualism is succinctly defined by Uriel Weinreich in his book Languages in Contact (1953) as the ability to alternatively use two languages. He defined the person involved in using two languages as bilingual. Bilingualism is common throughout the world and results from  various  language  contact  situations including: (1) colonization – colonizer imposition of a language different from the native language; (2) residing in officially bilingual countries (e.g., Canada, where English and French are official languages, and Finland, where Finnish and Swedish are official languages); (3) growing up in a bilingual house hold  where  caretakers  use  two  different languages; and (4) migrating to a new society where immigrants often continue to use their native language at home while learning the host country’s dominant language and using it in official institutions. Bilingualism can occur at either the individual or societal level and can be examined using a variety of disciplinary lenses. For example, individual bilingualism is examined via disciplines such as neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and psycholinguistics. Societal bilingualism is studied by researchers representing various disciplines such as sociology, the sociology of language, sociolinguistics, and anthropology.

At the individual level, how learners acquire a second language and become bilingual is the focus of study. A speaker can, at various ages and developmental stages, acquire two languages in diverse learning contexts such as the home, school, or work. Factors that influence second language acquisition include  learner (1) age, (2) ability or intelligence, (3) previous school and literacy experiences, (4) attitudes, and (5) personality. In addition, since second language acquisition represents an acculturation process, access to second language speakers and culture determines, to some degree, successful second language acquisition. Second language acquisition can be adversely affected when learners experience social distance (lack of opportunity  to authentically interact with native speakers) or feel psychological distance from the second language speakers and their culture (Schumann 1978). The process by which learners acquire a second language also varies. For example, learners can acquire two languages concurrently or sequentially: the former begins at the inception of language acquisition and the latter begins at approximately age 5, when the essential elements of the first language have been acquired (McLaughlin 1984).

Few bilinguals are balanced bilinguals, that is, equally proficient in both languages, since each language is typically used in different con texts for differing purposes and functions. In addition, individuals’ language use and skill do not necessarily remain constant over time. Furthermore, the term bilingualism is somewhat ambiguous in that it does not specify a level of proficiency required for a speaker to be labeled ‘‘bilingual.’’ Levels of proficiency range from fully, balanced bilingual to ‘‘semilingual,’’ a pejorative term used to signal the lack of native like proficiency in either language. The notion of ‘‘semilingualism’’ is regarded as linguistically inaccurate since notions of language proficiency typically reflect social biases and preferences for standard academic language registers as used by dominant culture speakers. (For an example of this literature, see Bartolome´ 1998.) Moreover, a comprehensive view of proficiency exceeds the mere ability to understand and speak and also includes reading and writing abilities as well as mastery of phonology, lexicon, syntax, and semantics across the four language modes. In sum, there are numerous linguistic dimensions along which the learner’s language skill can vary from complete fluency to minimal command.

Bilingualism is also used to describe the use of two languages at a societal level. Socioliguistics is one major discipline that has studied societal bilingualism. This disciplinary perspetive points out the inadequacy of utilizing solely physiological and psychological perspectives to understand the phenomenon of bilingualism and emphasizes the importance of studying the interaction between language use and social organization. Although a recent field of study, developing only since the beginning of the 1960s, sociolinguistics specifically examines phenomena such as bilingualism, ethnic/linguistic conflict, language planning efforts, and language standardization movements.

In any society, it is highly improbable that two languages are used for identical functions; a language community is more likely to use each language in certain contexts and for specific purposes. Charles Ferguson (1959) initially coined the term diglossia to describe a specific type of societal bilingualism where two varieties of the same language exist side by side. In this linguistic situation, a ‘‘low’’ or colloquial variety is used for everyday affairs in informal institutions (e.g., family) and the ‘‘high’’ or ‘‘classical’’ form is used for formal affairs in official institutions (e.g., church). One example of diglossia is in Arab nations where there is a clear separation in the use of classical and colloquial Arabic. Later, Joshua Fishman (1972) extended the meaning of the term diglossia to refer to the use of two separate languages in one society. Societal bilingualism can be either stable or unstable. In stable bilingual societies, languages tend to be reserved for different domains with clearly differentiated functions and uses. In transitory or unstable bilingual societies, the domain–language separations are not as clear cut and, ultimately, allow for the use of the two languages across various domains and functions.

Another dimension of bilingualism has to do with the social status of speakers. For example, there is a distinction between ‘‘elite’’ bilingual ism and ‘‘folk’’ bilingualism (Fishman et al.1966). The former refers to high status groups who speak the society’s dominant language and who further enhance their status by learning a second socially prestigious language. The latter, ‘‘folk’’ bilingualism, refers to languages spoken by groups such as immigrants and linguistic minority groups who reside in a society where the dominant language is not their own and where they occupy sociopolitical and economic positions of low status.

The  concepts of  ‘‘additive’’ and  ‘‘subtractive’’ bilingualism also  reflect  speaker social status issues (Lambert 1975). An additive bilingual situation is where the addition of a second language and culture does not require that students lose their first language and culture. In fact, in an additive bilingual context, the first language and culture are maintained and supported. In a subtractive bilingual situation, the opposite is true – the second language and culture are expected to replace the learners’ first language and culture. Typically, learners from groups that are considered low status (e. g., Mexican Americans in the US) are schooled under subtractive conditions while high status learners (English speakers in  Canada) are expected to maintain their first language while acquiring French as a second language.

Where linguistic minorities possess-significant political power, they are often able to require  state provided  bilingual  education. Bilingual education programs vary widely in orientation,  purpose,  implementation,  and results and reflect either additive or subtractive philosophies. Some programs strive to teach learners a second language while maintaining their first (e.g., maintenance and two way bilingual programs), while others focus on teaching the second language and only utilize the students’ first language as a way of accessing the second (e.g., transitional bilingual education). (For examples of bilingual education programs and the orientations that inform them, see Crawford 2004.)

Currently, critical sociolinguists urge greater recognition of the political and ideological dimensions of bilingualism in order to develop more comprehensive linguistic theories that explore the complex relationship between language, ideology, and social organization and their implications for solving urgent educational problems of linguistic minorities and oppressed groups of people. (For an example of this literature, see Macedo et al. 2004.) They propose that bilingualism cannot be understood fully outside a power relations framework that can shed light on the constant tensions and contradictions between linguistic hegemonic tendencies (i.e., the present attack on bilingual education in the United States where laws are being promulgated to prohibit instruction in languages other than English) and the increasing cultural and ethnic self affirmation of linguistic minority groups that look at the native language as a point of reference for identity formation.


  1. Bartolome´, (1998) The Misteaching of Academic Discourses: The Politics of  Language in  the Classroom. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
  2. Crawford, (2004) Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom, 5thedn. Bilingual Educational Services, Los Angeles.
  3. Ferguson, (1959) Diglossia. Word 15: 325 40. Fishman, J. A. (1972) The Sociology of Language: An Interdisciplinary Social Science Approach to Language in Society. Newbury Press, Rowley, MA.
  4. Fishman, A., Nahirny, V., Hofman, J., & Hayden, R. (1966) Language Loyalty in the United States: The Maintenance and Perpetuation of Non English Mother Tongues by American Ethnic and Religious Groups. Mouton, The Hague.
  5. Hakuta, (1986) Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism. Basic Books, New York.
  6. Lambert, W. E. (1975) Culture and Language as Factors in Learning and In: Wolfgang, A. (Ed.), Education of Immigrant Students. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, pp.55 83.
  7. Macedo, , Dendrinos, B., & Gounari, P. (2004) The Hegemony of  English. Paradigm  Press, Boulder, CO.
  8. McLaughlin, (1984) Second Language Acquisition in Childhood. Vol. 1: Preschool Children. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ.
  9. Schumann, J. (1978) The Pidginization Process: A Model for Second Language Acquisition. Newbury Press, Rowley,

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