True Bilingualism and Second-language Learning
Christopher Thiéry, Université Paris Ill – Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris
“Bilingual: Having, speaking, spoken or written in, two languages”. (Concise Oxford Dictionary).
With such a definition it is hardly surprising that the word is used to cover a multitude of very different things. Even in scientific literature it is often used without being properly defined. The many adjectives which often adorn it do not dispel the general confusion: expressions like preschool, cultural, social bilingualism tell us something about who is bilingual, or the discipline the writer belongs to, but nothing about what bilingualism really is. Does bilingualism mean knowing two languages or speaking two languages? What is meant by “knowing” or “speaking” a language? At what level of performance? Is writing included? How have the languages been acquired? The answers to these questions are by no means academic. Both the linguist and the psychologist will get very different results from the study of “bilingual” subjects depending on what kind of bilinguals they are. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to define and describe an extreme form of bilingualism, which is fairly common among children but very rare in adults, and which we have called “true bilingualism”.
TRUE BILINGUALISM : A DEFINITION
In common parlance when someone is referred to as being “perfectly bilingual” two things arc implied: a) the subject speaks both languages equally well; b) the subject has two mother tongues. The first condition, equality between the two linguistic performances, is unfortunately of no help in defining bilingualism, because there is no means of determining if someone speaks two languages equally well. No one speaks any language “perfectly” and linguistic performance cannot be measured. Even a vocabulary count would be meaningless, because who knows what treasures a long forgotten word association will unearth? And what cannot be measured cannot be compared. It is obvious, furthermore, that no individual can have gone through every single linguistic experience twice. Suppose someone has done a lot of sailing in England, but not in France. The lack of sailing vocabulary in French does not mean that he (or she) does not speak “perfect” French, because the vast majority of the French population shares his (or her) ignorance. Direct comparison between two linguistic performances in the same subject is therefore both meaningless and impossible. The notion of equality between the two linguistic performances, which is definitely present in the common use of the term “perfectly bilingual”, will have to be approached in a different way.
The second condition, having two mother tongues, is of greater interest in that it introduces the question of the manner in which the languages were acquired. To start with, however, it is necessary to define the term “mother-tongue”. For the purpose of this exercise, we will consider the mother-tongue(s) to be the language (or languages) which the child has acquired by “immersion”, by natural reaction to the sounds made by its environment in order to communicate with it. It is the language (or languages) in which the child learns to speak. It may or may not be the actual language spoken by the mother – it usually is, of course. The important thing is that it is not learned via another language, by tuition. The mechanism by which a young Anglo-Saxon American “absorbs” his native language is very different from the way he will learn French in later life. It is true that English as a subject is taught at school. But what the child is taught is how to read and write, not how to speak. He may also be taught (with varying degrees of success) how to speak the oral version of written English, which may be very different from the “English” he speaks at home, and which he acquired without any tuition whatsoever.
What is not always realized is that a child can have several mother tongues in succession if it is moved to different linguistic environments. For instance, a boy born in Indonesia can go from Indonesian to Dutch, and then to French by the age of 6 as he is moved from country to country. He may end up without a trace of Indonesian. There having been no second language tuition in Dutch or French, the child must have “picked-up” Dutch and French by more or less the same process as the original Indonesian. It is in this that he can be said to have “learned to speak” three times: the basic speech-learning mechanism (whatever it is) will have come into play three times, albeit more smoothly and faster the second two times. Now if the new linguistic environment is added to the first without taking its place, such as in the case of a child of British diplomats in Italy who first spoke Italian with the maid, and then English with the family, then the child will have two mother tongues at the same time. Such cases are numerous.
The second condition, then, having two mother tongues is meaningful although not in itself sufficient for there to be bilingualism: it would apply to a New York lawyer of Italian origin who still speaks 6-year old Italian to his mother. He would not pass as “perfectly bilingual” in Italian and English, because in Italy he would be considered illiterate. There is clearly no “equality” between his two linguistic performances. The concept of equality can only be approached, as we have seen, indirectly. Hence the following definition that we propose:
“True Bilingualism: a true bilingual is someone who is taken to be one of themselves by the members of two different linguistic communities, at roughly the same social and cultural level”.
The test of true bilingualism is purely empirical. The subject is placed in his two linguistic environments, which either reject him as a foreign body, or accept him as one of themselves. The immersion must be a prolonged one. Many people can pass as a native speaker for limited conversations with hotel porters, thanks to a good ear for accents and a large fund of colloquialisms. Sooner or later, however, a strange intonation, or a lack of instinctive linguistic creativity will reveal them to be one of those wonders “who speak the language beautifully for a foreigner … ”
Having defined true bilingualism by an indirect approach to the “equality” condition, the next step is to demonstrate that, ipso facto, the “mother tongue” condition is fulfilled, i.e. that in a true bilingual both languages have been acquired by immersion, and not via another language by tuition; this is another way of saying that second-language learning cannot lead to true bilingualism. This was part of the object of the following enquiry.
TRUE BILINGUALISM: AN ENQUIRY
As defined above there are many truly bilingual children, but very few adult true bilinguals – so few that some writers dispute their very existence (Braine, 1971; Christopherson, 1973). Mastery of language being to such a high degree dependent on motivation and opportunity, this is hardly surprising: there are many callings in which it is necessary to have a good command of a foreign language, but very few in which one has to be considered as one of themselves by the members of two different linguistic communities.
Conference interpreting is, to some extent, the exception. It is certainly not necessary to be a true bilingual to be a successful conference interpreter, but only a true bilingual is entitled to the A-A language classification in the AlIC Yearbook (International Association of Conference Interpreters). The AlIC language classification consists of 3 categories:
A: mother tongue
B: 2nd active language
C: passive language.
A complicated system of individual sponsors ensures that anyone with an
A-A classification in French and English, for instance, is considered by delegates and interpreters alike to be French when in the French booth, and English (or American) in the English booth. For all intents and purposes an A-A classification corresponds to our definition of true bilingualism. As conference interpreters have motivation and opportunity for being true bilinguals, they appeared to offer an excellent field of investigation. In the 1973-74 AIIC Yearbook out of 955 members there were 176 A-A interpreters of whom 48 were A-A in English and French.
An 11 page questionnaire was sent to the 48 conference interpreters with an A-A classification in English and French. There were 34 replies. The main headings were as follows:
- Personal particulars
- Linguistic environment in childhood and adolescence for every two year period from 2 to 18, including the language spoken by and to the parents, in the home, in the street, at school, etc,
- Language and nationality
- Degree of bilingualism over the years
- How bilingualism is maintained in the adult (radio, reading-material, etc)
- Description of adult bilingualism (in what language does one count, swear, etc)
- Linguistic performance
- Transition from one language to the other
- Bilingualism and conference interpreting
The detailed analysis of the replies can be read elsewhere (Thiery, 1975). MAIN CONCLUSIONS
I – The true bilingual has two mother tongues
All the replies indicate that the subject acquired both languages by “immersion”. In 29 cases out of 34 both English and French were spoken in the home (not necessarily by the parents) up to the age of 18. In 1 case up to the age of 16, and 1 up to the age of 14. A mixed home environment, however, is not enough. The vast majority of subjects indicated that the family had moved, during schooling years, from one language community to another. A minority stayed in the same place, but went to a “foreign” school (e.g. French Lycee in London).
In pre-school years the child is subjected to two linguistic forces: the home and the street (including radio, television, advertising, etc). Once schooling begins, there are three forces: school, street and home. The first two become more and more powerful as the child gets older, and there were only two cases where monolingual parents were able to hold out against the combined forces of street and school. In the majority of cases, however, the parents made no special effort to make their child a “true” bilingual.
This finding is consistent with the fact that it appears to be impossible to produce true bilingualism artificially, deliberately. Children react negatively to any artificial situation. Very few of the true bilinguals questioned were even attempting to make their own children bilingual. In our series it is perfectly clear that true bilingualism in the child is the fruit of circumstance, not of deliberate effort. In most cases the following conditions are met: a bilingual environment in the home; a move from one language community to another during schooling; a change in school language.
II – True bilingualism is acquired before or at puberty
29 subjects answered specific questions relating to the age at which they be· came true bilinguals. The age given was 14 or under in 26 cases, 16 in one case, and between 20 and 30 in one case.
Subjects were asked to indicate for each age column (there were 9 columns from 2 to 18 and one column for 20 to 30):
- the language(s) they spoke so as to be indistinguishable from a native speaker of the same age
- the language(s) they understood perfectly for their age without however being taken for a native speaker when using it (or them)
- the language(s) in which their father/mother/brothers and sisters/servants addressed them
- the language(s) in which they answered.
They were also asked:
– 3.1.1 Were you a true bilingual as a child?
– 3.1.2. If so, did you remain one?
– 3.1.3 Did you cease to be a true bilingual at any time?
– 3.1.4 If you were not a true bilingual as a child, when did you become
one? In what circumstances?”
, Without going into a detailed consideration of the exceptions analysis of the results suggested that as a rule true bilingualism is acquired by puberty or not at all. This is another way of saying that the ability to acquire a language by immersion, without tuition via a “first” language, is lost at about the age of puberty. This finding is consistent with work by Sperry (1951), Penfield and Roberts (1959),
Guttman (1942), Lenneberg (1967), Piaget (1972), Vygotsky (1962) and many others_ It may be wrong, however, to conclude (as Penfield and Roberts do) that foreign languages should necessarily be taught at a very early age. Immersion, even· for limited periods, will certainly be more beneficial in younger children, but it is unlikely that the very different mental processes involved in learning a second language via a first one, by tuition, will be effective much before the onset of Piaget’s “formal operations” stage or Vygotsky’s · · “concept formation” stage, which both are around puberty.
ill – True bilingualism does not have an adverse effect on school performance
Out of 34 replies, school progress was normal in 16 cases, advanced in 14 cases, retarded in 4 cases. Retarded progress was only temporary, and was due to a change of school from one country (and language) to another. In other words, in the few cases where there were school problems they were caused not by bilingualism, but by the lack of bilingualism. This finding is consistent with the observation that school problems in so-called bilingual frontier areas (like Alsace) are not due to the children’s being bilingual, hut to the fact that they are not bilingual.
Having been brought up in the home to speak one language, or dialect, they are then sent to a school where everything is taught in what to them is a foreign language. Little wonder that they should need a little time to catch up. ( cf. work by Lambert, 1976; Gaarder, 1965; Fishman, 1965).
IV – True bilingualism in adults is the result of a conscious effort
The combination of circumstances that produces true bilingualism in children is somewhat exceptional, but occurs sufficiently frequently for there to be a fair number of truly bilingual children, particularly in diplomatic circles. Very few of these children retain their true bilingualism in adult life. The reason is that in most cases there is neither reason nor opportunity to do so.
Our enquiry has shown:
a) that none of the subjects had been required to be true bilinguals in any profession (many had belonged to several), other than conference interpreting;
b) that all took deliberate steps to create and maintain a bilingual environment (radio, reading, etc);
c) that all showed a degree of awareness of language problems that is unusual among monolinguals.
The importance attached to poetry is of interest: a third of the subjects still learn poems by heart in both languages, which is remarkable in view of the mean age of the series (48. 2 years), and two thirds actually write poetry (half in one language only, half in both). It appears clearly that our true bilinguals make a deliberate effort to maintain their bilingualism; that such an effort is based on the professional motivation of conference interpreting with the A-A classification; that conference interpreting provides ample opportunity for such efforts to be successful.
It is therefore understandable that true bilinguals are few and far between outside conference interpreting, at any rate in the author’s experience – which seems to be borne out by the very small number of actual cases of true bilingualism described in the literature. It would be interesting to find out, in Canada for instance, if there are many adult true bilinguals, and if so what kind of professional motivation they have.
V -True bilingualism does not imply written bilingualism, and vice versa
The replies to the questionnaire do not reflect any particular aptitudes as far as writing is concerned, in either language. All subjects belong to a sociocultural category in which everyone can read and write in their mother tongue, and having two they can read and write in both languages, but without showing any particular talent, and not without spelling mistakes in a fair number of cases (12 for French, 5 for English).
This is to be expected, since language in the oral sense, in which it has been used all along in this enquiry is innate in human beings, like walking. Reading and writing are not, and have to be learned. And what has to be learned, can be inadequately learned. There is no particular reason that a true bilingual should have any particular mastery over either or both of his written languages, anymore than anyone else. The mental processes that come into play when pen is put to paper are certainly not identical to those which produce speech. The two forms of communication are very different. The writer has time, time to search for the best way of expressing his thought. And that is why it is by no means necessary to be a true bilingual to achieve complete mastery of a second written language. Joseph Conrad is an obvious example. True bilingualism is an oral phenomenon, and fundamentally has nothing to do with how well a completely different medium – the written language — is mastered.
VI -True bilingualism, linguistic relativity and non-verbal thought
Several questions concern the degree to which the same idea can be expressed in different languages. Here we should recall that all the subjects are conference interpreters whose activity is geared not to words, but to meaning. A Ianguage is not a mere code; conference interpreting is not transcoding. The interpreter’s role is to receive a message, adapt it and then utter it as if it were his own. The fact that the utterance is in another language is incidental and in no way affects the basic mental processes involved. In training interpreters much stress is placed on the need to get away from the words used in order to extract the essence of the message. This doubtless explains why the gist of the replies is that everything can be expressed in all languages (at least in the two we are dealing with) but not necessarily with the same (or corresponding) words, nor even with the same number of words.
It is axiomatic that all communities develop ways of expressing every meaning they want to express. Some things they choose to express in a particularly concise manner. Such things differ from country to country: when the English say that someone is “considerate”, or the French use the word “net” (of a person) they are using a concise form for an idea that needs a fairly lengthy explanation in the other language, with quite different words. The message can be got across, but the effect on the person one is talking to will be different, thereby altering the communication relationship.
The difficulty that all those who use two languages are aware of, but that true bilinguals feel particularly keenly as a dilemma, is that while one is talking in one language ideas come into one’s mind that have found concise expression in the other language. As the choice of what to express concisely reflects the way the language is used as a medium for all the person to person relationships which make up society, one can say that the true bilingual, in attempting to convey an idea which has not found concise formulation in the language he is using will in fact be giving his audience some insight into the structure of the other society. Much can be learned by observing how people ask each other for the time in the street in London, Paris, or Dublin. Everything is different: choice of words, voice, posture, distance between speakers and so on.
The true bilingual’s dilemma leads us to another interesting point: the fact that an idea comes to mind in a language other than the one one is speaking indicates the presence of a non-verbal stage in speech. In the middle of the constant shuttle between the non-verbal meaning seeking expression and the innumerable forms offered for use another idea intrudes. The curious point is that it is able to intrude precisely because it is highly verbalized, having been given concise formulation in another language. All conference interpreters have at least once had the experience of giving a consecutive interpretation in the same language as the original, which again points to the fact that the message is stored in a non-verbal form. This point is developed at length by Seleskovitch (1975).
VII – True bilingualism and second-language learning
It has been seen that the true bilinguals in our series all have two mother tongues, acquired before puberty, by immersion. The acquisition of both languages is direct, not via a “first” language. Indeed the very notion of “first”, or “dominant” languages is alien to the concept of true bilingualism. As the replies indicate, there are certain areas of knowledge which our subjects are more familiar with in one language than in the other, but that does not make one language dominant in relation to the other. Nor is there any distinct pattern as far as counting, swearing, or answering the telephone is concerned. The adult second-language learner, however proficient he may become, may well have an impressive vocabulary, clever syntax and careful phonology, but the process he has gone through in learning a second language is so different from the way a child absorbs language that it is hardly surprising that the result can never be quite the same.
Linguistic competence, we are told is innate, and is the foundation on which is built the acquisition of the mother tongue(s) (i.e. linguistic performance). It is in the mother tongue(s) that the child produces phrases that he has never heard and complies with syntactic rules that no one ever taught him. It is in the mother tongue that any speaker can detect a phrase that is wrong, even if it is apparently grammatically correct. It is in one’s mother tongue that one can recognize garbled phrases over a faulty loud-speaker, merely by their outline, just like a face can be recognized by a glimpse even from an unusual angle. The adult second-language learner never achieves such an instinctive, creative relationship with his second language, and the reason may be that his painstaking performance has not been built on the appropriate linguistic competence, but on cognitive structures established for another language, his mother tongue.
This study bears on people, not on language. Interference between the two languages, transfers, switching, etc. have not been analyzed in detail, and indeed the method of enquiry chosen would not have permitted such an exercise. It is clear, however, that our true bilinguals can mix their languages and sometimes do so for fun, but in the normal way make a deliberate effort not to. The effort is generally successful.
This short paper attempts to summarize the main conclusions of a more detailed study which was designed to draw attention to the need to define “bilingualism”. What we term “true bilingualism” is an extreme form of bilingualism, but which has the merit of being identifiable pragmatically.
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