MYTH #1: A BILINGUAL IS FULLY PROFICIENT IN TWO LANGUAGES

One of the most common myths about bilingualism is the view that a bilingual is completely fluent in two languages. It is often assumed that “true” bilinguals are those who are equally proficient in their two languages, with competence in both languages comparable to those of monolinguals of those languages. Figure 1.1, which illustrates this myth, shows three individuals—a monolingual speaker of language A, a monolingual speaker of language B, and an “ideal” bilingual speaker of languages A and B. This is a crude and oversimplified diagram that does not accurately depict the changing needs for a bilingual’s two languages in different situations with different interlocutors, but it nonetheless illustrates my point. Notice that the size of the circles (which indicate the level of proficiency in each language) is the same for monolingual A and monolingual B speakers as well as for the bilingual A-B speaker.

In reality, however, bilinguals will rarely have balanced proficiency in their two languages. Terms such as “full” bilingual and “balanced” bilingual represent idealized concepts that do not characterize the great majority of the world’s bilinguals. Rarely will any bilingual be equally proficient in speaking, listening, reading, and writing both languages across all different situations and domains. In other words, a bilingual is not the sum of two monolinguals. However, the monolingual view of bilingualism is so entrenched in popular and scholarly thinking that bilinguals themselves may apologize to monolin- guals for not speaking their language as well as do monolinguals, thus accepting and reinforcing the myth.

Most bilinguals in the world look more like those in Figure 1.2, which shows four A-B bilinguals. Notice that the relative sizes of the circles are different in

A Mythical View of the “Ideal” or “Full” Bilingual

FIGURE 1.1 A Mythical View of the “Ideal” or “Full” Bilingual

More Realistic Conceptions of Bilinguals

FIGURE 1.2 More Realistic Conceptions of Bilinguals

each, indicating that the bilinguals have different proficiencies in the two languages. The bilinguals’ proficiency in each of the two languages may be lower than that of monolingual speakers of each language, but taken together, the bilinguals’ two languages are bigger than a monolingual’s only language in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and range of expression. Most bilinguals have different proficiencies in two languages because the two languages are often learned under different conditions for a range of purposes, and are used in a variety of situations with different people.

As an illustration, I will describe my experiences as a bilingual. I am a native speaker of Korean who started learning English as a second language at the age of 13 when I moved to the U.S. as an immigrant. As a newcomer student in a local junior high school, I had to skip one class each day to go to a separate ESL class where I learned English grammar and pronunciation with other immigrant students. Learning school subjects in English was enormously difficult, and I remember often coming home frustrated and exhausted from having to hear, speak, and read English all day. I spoke in Korean at home with my family but slowly my two younger brothers and I included bits of English in our otherwise Korean interactions. We watched TV programming in English, made friends with kids from other countries in our ethnically diverse neighborhood in New York City, and tried to keep up with schoolwork in English.

While my English skills developed both academically and socially throughout high school and college, my Korean skills stagnated since I used it only at home. I would say that my current reading and writing skills in Korean are at about an eighth-grade level which is when I stopped going to school in Korean. Although I have no trouble communicating informally in Korean, I find giving an academic lecture in Korean quite challenging because I never learned the advanced discipline-specific vocabulary and syntax in Korean to be able to do so. I am married to a Korean American and we have two American- born sons who, despite our many efforts to teach them Korean, are mostly English-speaking. Spousal communication at our home is a mixture of Korean and English but we find ourselves speaking more and more English as our children grow up. I do almost all of my reading and writing in English now and rarely pick up a Korean newspaper. Since the uses for my two languages are very compartmentalized (English for work, Korean for home and ethnic community), I do not have the same proficiencies in both languages. Overall, my

What a “Semilingual” Child Might Look Like bilingualism has been an evolving phenomenon and is continually changing with shifting circumstances and communicative needs in my life

FIGURE 1.3 What a “Semilingual” Child Might Look Like bilingualism has been an evolving phenomenon and is continually changing with shifting circumstances and communicative needs in my life. The same is true for many bilinguals in the world.

In educational circles, the term semilingual has been used to describe bilingual students who appear to lack proficiency in both languages (Martin-Jones & Romaine, 1986). Figure 1.3 shows what a semilingual child might look like. Compared to the “ideal” or “full” bilingual in Figure 1.1, a semilingual falls short in both languages. Before the 1960s, there was an overwhelming number of studies that highlighted the negative effects of bilingualism on children (Romaine, 1995: 107). Observers noted many problems with language development of bilingual children, such as restricted vocabularies, limited grammatical structures, unusual word order, errors in morphology, hesitations, stuttering, and so on. Some have even argued that bilingualism could impair the child’s intelligence and lead to split personalities.

Valadez, MacSwan, & Martinez (2000) quote a 1996 Los Angeles Times article which reported that in the schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District there were 6,800 immigrant students who have been labeled “non-nons” or “clinically disfluent,” that is, children who allegedly do not know English, Spanish, or any other language. The district’s educational response was to place these children in separate classrooms and provide them with intensive language instruction. Supposing that this many students could not all be linguistically deficient, Valadez et al. (2000) systematically compared the oral language proficiencies of children who were labeled as “clinically disfluent” by the school psychologist and children who were identified as having “normal” or “high” ability. They found that the group of children labeled “clinically disfluent” or “semilingual” did not have an impoverished knowledge of morphology, nor did they make frequent errors in syntax. Contrary to the school evaluations, these students were not inexpressive. In fact, the authors found that the “semilingual” children have the same command of language as do the children in their control group. Valadez et al. (2000) conclude that labels like semilingual or non-non are extensions of a deficit-based model of bilingualism for language minority children and must be used with extreme caution.

Research comparing monolingual and bilingual children on a wide variety of linguistic and cognitive tasks often includes a measure of receptive vocabulary, usually the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) (Bialystok, Luk, Peets, & Yang, 2010). PPVT is relatively easy to administer, and the task requires children to point to one of four pictures that best represents a word spoken by the experimenter. The items become increasingly difficult and detailed tables convert children’s raw scores to standard scores based on their age. Many studies have reported lower vocabulary scores for bilingual children than for monolinguals (Romaine, 1995), but each study is based on a small sample so it is difficult to determine whether the vocabulary difference is due to sampling error (Bialystok et al., 2010).

To address this problem, Bialystok et al. (2010) analyzed the PPVT scores of 1,738 children between three and ten years of age recruited from multiple studies. They found that there was indeed a significant difference in the vocabulary sizes of monolingual and bilingual children. However, the difference was largely confined to words that are part of home life—a reasonable result given that English is not used as extensively in bilingual homes as it is in the homes of monolinguals. When the researchers looked at the school vocabulary for children in the two groups, they were more comparable. Bialystok et al. (2010) conclude that bilingual children are thus not typically disadvantaged in academic and literacy achievement in school because the linguistic basis of school activities is well established.

Aside from vocabulary, there is evidence that young immigrant children momentarily lag in grammatical development in both of their languages when compared to their same-age monolingual peers (Pfaff, 1994; Shin & Milroy, 1999; Verhoeven & Boeschoten, 1986; Verhoeven & Vermeer, 1984) but the errors usually disappear as they grow up. However, findings such as these have been misinterpreted as saying that it is counterproductive to the child’s welfare to develop and maintain proficiency in more than one language. Similarly, tests that are designed for monolinguals are often used to compare bilinguals’ proficiency in either of their languages with that of monolinguals. These assessments often do not take into account the fact that bilinguals use their two languages with different people, in different contexts, and for different purposes. They also do not take into account the fact that bilingualism is never static and that children are continuously developing in their two languages.

So, who is a bilingual? Francois Grosjean, a leading authority in bilingualism, provides the following definition:

The bilingual is a fully competent speaker/hearer; he or she has developed competencies (in the two languages and possibly a third system that is a combination of the two) to the extent required by his or her needs and those of the environment [italics mine]. The bilingual uses the two languages— separately or together—for different purposes in different domains of life and with different people. Because the needs and uses of the two languages are usually quite different, the bilingual is rarely equally or completely fluent in the two languages. Levels of fluency in a language will depend on the need for that language and will be extremely domain specific.

(Grosjean, 1985: 471)

Grosjean’s definition emphasizes that bilingualism must be understood in its own right and that monolingual competence should not be used as a basis for assessing bilingual ability.

 
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