Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles

Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles


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The publication of Hugo Baetens Beardsmore’s book Bilingualism: Basic Principles by Multilingual Matters in 1982 coincided with an unprecedented upsurge of interest in bilingualism. A major reason for this was the acknowledgement that bilingualism is far more common than was previously thought, and perhaps even the norm. The number of bilinguals at the turn of the third millennium is probably greater than ever before and will continue to grow as a result of the combined forces of globalisation, automatisation, increased mobility and migration, and modernisation of foreign language teaching. The contributions in this book prove that, given the right conditions, bilingualism can confer distinct benefits like intellectual, psychological, social, cultural and economic improvement on the individual. The papers in this volume have been written by leading scholars in the field of bilingualism and deal with individual bilingualism, societal and educational phenomena, addressing issues such as bilingual usage, acquisition, teaching, and language planning and policy. The volume’s major asset lies in its diversity, not only in depth of investigation and in topical variety but also in the range of languages and geographical regions covered. Another important feature of the volume is its multidisciplinary perspective. Among the contributors are linguists, sociologists, psychologists and sociolinguists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853596261
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 03/19/2003
Series: Multilingual Matters Series , #123
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jean-Marc Dewaele obtained his PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel under the supervision of Hugo Baetens Beardsmore. He is Senior Lecturer in French Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has published widely on psychological, psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic and linguistic aspects of foreign language production.

Alex Housen obtained his PhD from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel under the supervision of Hugo Baetens Beardsmore. He is currently a Research Fellow of the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (Flanders). His research interests include bilingualism, bilingual education, second/foreign language acquisition and language education. He has worked as a consultant on bilingual education for the Soros Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme and the Belgian Ministry of Education. His publications have appeared in various collected volumes and journals.

Li Wei received his MA and PhD from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, where he is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Head of the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. His research interests include bilingualism and cross-cultural pragmatics. He is Editor of the International Journal of Bilingualism.

Read an Excerpt

Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles

Festschrift in honour of Hugo Baetens Beardsmore

By Jean-Marc Dewaele, Alex Housen, Li Wei

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2003 Jean-Marc Dewaele, Alex Housen, Li Wei and the authors of individual chapters
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85359-626-1


Who's Afraid of Bilingualism?



My reading of the literature on bilingualism and visits to different countries to lecture both formally and informally on the topic have led me to conclude that there is a deep-seated and widespread fear of bilingualism. Moreover, there is an all-pervading tendency to couple the notion of 'problems' to that of bilingualism, a connotation that never comes to mind in discussions on unilingualism. Even those positively inclined towards the phenomenon fall into this defensive position and subconsciously attribute it with a status that at best requires cautious nurturing and at worst remedial intervention. Such connotations arise from the assumption that unilingualism is the norm and that bilingualism represents some sort of deviation. Yet as Haugen (1972: 309) has stated, 'necessity is the mother of bilingualism'; the majority of people who manipulate two languages do so because to them it is a natural corollary to functioning efficiently as a human being, be it because of residence patterns, family circumstances, employment opportunities or intellectual needs. To the average bilingual his linguistic status is the norm, though he may well be made to feel that this is not so.

Given that something which is necessary and normal for many people is considered problematic and abnormal by many others requires us to examine what fears are expressed in order to dispel antagonisms. Although much research undertaken in the second half of this century has been positive both in approach and outcome yet it has failed to affect general opinions on bilingualism. Two reasons may explain this situation. First, the message from research is not getting across, partly because many of us implicitly accept the problematic connotation. Secondly, we are not sufficiently aware of the nature and extent of the fears evoked by bilingualism so that we do not know how to direct the research findings to the right adversaries. Hence we need to investigate the multiple levels of connotation so as to confront fears squarely, distinguish the rational from the unfounded, review the types of fears expressed and examine the evidence that surrounds them.

Two broad kinds of fears come to the fore, those that reflect societal preoccupations and those centring on the individual, though they are often intertwined. What is striking, however, is how few bilinguals share such fears, when compared with unilinguals. Grosjean (1982: 268) surveyed bilingual and trilingual individuals about the inconvenience of having more than one language and found that 52% of the bilinguals and 67% of the trilinguals simply replied 'no inconvenience' while not a single subject felt that there were no advantages. Further, many bilinguals feel that the apparent difference between them and unilinguals is a figment of the latters' imagination (Grosjean, 1982: 273).

Four groups of fears will be discussed here as representative of the most prevalent types encountered. Others may well come to mind but appear as less widespread or are less significant to the general debate. Two will be considered as individual in nature, namely parental and cultural fears, the two others as more societal, namely educational and politico-ideological fears, though the division is somewhat arbitrary. The discussion will focus on an analysis of the literature since the results of an enquiry designed to tap the prevalence of fears are not available at the time of going to print, though they will be presented orally as an annex to this paper.

Parental Fears

Here one must deal with a variety of apprehensions which may arise in parents who either (1) come from unilingual backgrounds and when confronted by bilingualism tend to transfer the difficulties of their own adult experience to what they suspect affects their children, or (2) although bilinguals themselves are isolated in a generally unilingually environment which pressurises them into worrying about bilingualism in their children. The very existence of the Bilingual Family Newsletter testifies to the presence of parental fears, with its regular series of readers' questions requiring advice and reassurance. De Jong's (1986) investigation into parents affected by bilingualism in their children revealed how friends, neighbours and teachers who know nothing about the subject instill worry in parents through bad advice. The folklore influence of non-specialist opinion was often decisive among parents who chose against bringing up their children bilingually when they were in a position to do so; such parents related horror stories of bilingual children who were disturbed, had problems with stuttering or were behind at school.

However, in my search for material I did not go by hearsay information and I myself have not come across any children with serious problems resulting from their bilingual home environment. (de Jong, 1986: 33)

Harding and Riley's (1986) report of 16 case studies came to the same conclusion, even in complex circumstances. Their comments on a French/Austrian couple who had lived in Brazil and France and brought up their children in Portugese, German and French, are revealing – 'the problems seem to be the parents' not the children's' (Harding & Riley, 1986: 33). I myself have never come across a child whose problems can unequivocally be attributed to bilingualism, though there are cases where bilingualism has compounded other difficulties, for example divorce by parents of mixed language backgrounds followed by remarriage with a partner using a new language leading to the introduction of a new lingua franca for family interactions.

Parents sometimes transfer their own difficulties in coping with a new language environment to their children, as illustrated by an English couple who withdrew their children from a French language school in Belgium when they appeared to make little progress in French after a few months. The parents, educators themselves, worried about their girls' withdrawal and silence in school which they attributed to lack of French; the parents themselves however, were critical of the new school's teaching practices, disciplinary codes and socialisation patterns. The parents' difficulties in adapting to their children's new educational system were interpreted in terms of language problems where these were probably only one of several causes of silence and withdrawal. The girls were removed to an English language school and never learnt French after several years in the French environment. This fact, however, was not seen as a problem.

Some parents harbour guilt feelings if their careers make them move to a new linguistic environment and ask themselves 'What have I done to my child?' The assumption is that coping with one language is simpler than living with two, that they have taken an unknown risk and put an extra burden on the child (de Jong, 1986: 33). Yet Saunders (1982) and Fantini (1985) have clearly shown how their own children had no more difficulties with two languages than with one, echoed by Cummins' (1984: 285) review of a large body of evidence. Nowhere in the specialist literature are any grounds for fears on this count to be found as long as the family background is stable, relaxed and positive towards the languages involved.

Some parents fear that bilingualism stunts the linguistic development of young children in particular. This fear fails to appreciate the developmental stages in dual language acquisition, particularly the significance of input factors. A child who receives input divided across two languages, often in unequal proportions, should not be compared with a child who receives input in one language, as is often the case, or we could be expecting the bilingual to live twice. Swain (1981) has shown that it may take a little longer for the bilingual child to acquire the equivalent competence of monolingual peers, depending on the amount of input and the particular circumstances of the bilingual experience. With time bilingual children catch up and sometimes surpass their unilingual peers in competence in one of their languages. To this end, '... the specific language of communication is much less significant than the quality and quantity of communication' (Cummins, 1984: 271).

Some parents fear that a child who does not have a single language fails to forge firm emotional ties with a given linguistic-cultural community. Lambert and Aellen (1972) compared middleclass children of mixed ethnic parentage with those from homogeneous backgrounds, noting that the former had developed a dual allegiance to the two language groups in their lives and manifested healthy personality and social characteristics. Enquiries among multilingual adolescents in the European School system (Housen & Baetens Beardsmore, 1987) revealed that the majority of subjects had no polarised stances towards the language groups they were involved with, lacked stereotyped attitudes towards members of other groups, and maintained dual or multiple language loyalty patterns.

Certain parents experience feelings of regret that their bilingual children's linguistic and cultural allegiance is not as strong as their own, particularly if the older child preferentially opts for a language group other than that of the parents. This is sometimes the case with immigrant parents whose children slip away from the values the immigrant brought with him in favour of those of the mainstream society. Tensions may arise if parents attempt to resist this tendency which may be no more than an assertion of individuality and independence expressing itself in terms of language and culture.

However widespread parental fears about bilingualism may be, the literature shows that most of them are unfounded. Such fears are never mentioned in accounts of multilingual societies where bilingualism is the norm.

Cultural Fears

These represent an area difficult to circumscribe because of the lack of consensus on what the attributes of culture are, how these are absorbed, transmitted and measured. The difficulty of distinguishing between language and culture has been shown by Miller (1983) who describes how her enquiry into the role of language in the lives of her bilingual subjects was constantly deflected onto other issues:

... my somewhat dogged insistence that my interlocutors keep to the subject of language was defeated time and time again. Only later did I realise that these speakers' evading of my questions about language in order to talk about immigration, culture, family conflict, social and political dilemmas, constituted, in fact, and significantly, answers to my questions. (Miller, 1983: 17)

Fitouri (1983: 214–15) attempted to differentiate between language and culture among Arabic–French bilinguals in Tunisia by discussing four types of individual: (1) monocultural monolinguals, (2) monocultural bilinguals, (3) bicultural monolinguals, and (4) bicultural bilinguals. The first type is irrelevant to the present discussion. The second type is typical of the adult learner of a foreign language in his home country, for example the university graduate who develops dual language abilities while retaining monocultural values and attitudes. The third category of bicultural monolinguals refers to the children of immigrants who do not use the parents' original language but who have maintained the customs, beliefs and value systems of their parents, transmitted within the home through the medium of the language of the outside community. The fourth category of bicultural bilinguals reflects the speakers who have acquired an additive form of bilingualism, who can function in either language community with ease, can appreciate the diversified cultural facets of both groups and does not engender or perceive any frictions in interacting with speakers of either language.

There is a further category which does not fit into the above breakdown, though Fitouri's book devotes considerable attention to the type in question. This involves bilinguals who undergo a form of disorientation or acculturation brought about by cultures in conflict. In Tunisia, where Arabic and French are used in education, it appears that people from upper social groups have no problems with the bicultural values implicit in Tunisia's Arabic–French education system, whereas those from lower social strata have difficulties in reconciling the two cultures embodied in the different languages:

... tant qu'on ne vise que le sommet de la pyramide sociale, le bilinguisme et le biculturalisme ne peuvent être perçus que comme un bien. Ils deviennent le mal personifié dès qu'on regarde la base de cette pyramide. (Fitouri, 1983: 282)

This 'evil personified' is explained by the fact that whereas upper level groups are orientated towards cosmopolitan values which makes bilingualism stimulating and enriching lower level groups in Tunisia are more orientated towards traditional, indigenous cultural values which makes them perceive bilingualism as a profound cultural aggression (Fitouri, 1983: 49–50. Garmadi (1972: 319) uses equally strong terms to describe cultural destabilisation brought about by bilingualism in developing nations, where he talks of linguistic and cultural mutilation. Such statements reveal that cultural fears cannot be dismissed lightly.

To avoid problems of acculturation, or as T'Sou (1985) strikingly puts it in his discussion of Anglo-Chinese bilinguals in Hong Kong, the cultural eunuch syndrome, before the second culture gets imposed: 'il faut, au préalable, être bien enraciné dans la sienne propre' (Fitouri, 1983: 285).

This conclusion coincides with that expressed with reference to lower level immigrant populations in Europe who undergo subtractive bilingualism through inadequate educational provision. Skutnabb-Kangas (1984) argues that without maintenance of the mother tongue and culture there is a risk of conflicts of identity, rootlessness, marginality and alienation. Miller's (1983) investigation of immigrant teenagers in Britain brought out similar cultural problems:

There is the presence of contradiction, duality, ambivalency, which characterises the girls' experiences and attitudes and their accounts of them. Language meant for them the things they used it for, so that relationships, cultural differences, their efforts to bridge gaps between their own age group and their families, the past, the present and the future, were easier to talk about than language in isolation. (Miller, 1983: 45)

The parallelisms between lower level groups in developing nations and similar immigrant groups in industrialised nations is striking, as is the fact that cultural questions are discussed in terms of conflicts between traditionalism and modernism, and in the last example in generation gap difficulties. It seems that the class factor plays a primary role which determines to some extent whether bilingualism is additive or substractive and which affects biculturalism. With elite bilingualism conflicting cultural pressures seem to be absent.

Paulston (1982) warns about bicultural expectations among immigrants in her example of Turkish girls from traditional villages who later grew up in Sweden:

It is difficult to see how these girls can internalize both their fathers' value system of women and that of Swedish society. In fact, they can't, and that situation casts many serious doubts on the many glib statements of biculturalism as one objective of bilingual education. (Paulston, 1982: 43)

If the bilingual's two cultures are mutually exclusive it is impossible to harmonise them, though McLaughlin (1985: 39) feels that this does not necessarily mean that immigrant children are more emotionally disturbed or have higher rates of psychopathology than do comparable groups. As Ekstrand (1981) points out, when socio-economic class variables are controlled immigrant children differ little in social and emotional adjustment from comparable indigenous children. Moreover, it is often difficult to separate the stresses caused by biculturalism from those due to urbanisation, whether in the developing world or industrial nations.

McLaughlin believes that the solution for immigrant children is to opt for one culture or the other. This assumes there is a choice, which may be the case if bilingual education is fully developed but not in the majority of circumstances where few schools provide dual language provision for immigrants that goes beyond surface features. Moreover, where bilingual education is fully developed there appear to be few problems of biculturalism, at least in industrialised nations. Bentahila (1983) examined cultural fears among Arabic–French balanced bilinguals of middle-class origins between the ages of 15 and 45 in Morocco. Results were mitigated. To the statement, 'The Moroccan bilingual is divided between two cultures (Arabic and French), and he does not seem to fully belong to either', a small majority of respondents agreed, as did a similar slight majority with the statement, 'Arabic–French bilingualism produces in Moroccans a cultural crisis and lack of identity'. On the other hand, a slight majority of respondents disagreed with the stronger statement that, 'Arabic–French bilingualism produces in Moroccans a lack of culture and originality'. In spite of the above responses there was still an overwhelming majority in favour of bilingualism, as can be seen from responses to the following two questions:

'Do you regret being bilingual?'

Yes 8.25% No 87.15% Blank 4.58% No. of respondents 109

'Are you for bilingualism or Arabization?'

For bil. 62.5% For Arab. 32.5% Blank 5% No. of respondents 120.

(Bentahila, 1983: 146–7)


Excerpted from Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles by Jean-Marc Dewaele, Alex Housen, Li Wei. Copyright © 2003 Jean-Marc Dewaele, Alex Housen, Li Wei and the authors of individual chapters. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction and Overview Jean-Marc Dewaele, Alex Housen and Li Wei,
1 Who is Afraid of Bilingualism? Hugo Baetens Beardsmore,
2 The Importance of Being Bilingual John Edwards,
3 Towards a More Language-centred Approach to Plurilingualism Michael Clyne,
4 Bilingual Education: Basic Principles Jim Cummins,
5 Bilingual Encounters in the Classroom Peter Martin,
6 Language Planning: A Grounded Approach Colin Baker,
7 Accepting Bilingualism as a Language Policy: An Unfolding Southeast Asian Story Gary M. Jones,
8 Markets, Hierarchies and Networks in Language Maintenance and Language Shift Li Wei and Lesley Milroy,
9 The Imagined Learner of Malay Anthea Fraser Gupta,
10 Code-switching and Unbalanced Bilingualism Georges Lüdi,
11 Code-switching: Evidence of Both Flexibility and Rigidity in Language Carol Myers-Scotton,
12 Rethinking Bilingual Acquisition Fred Genesee,
Laudatio: Hugo Baetens Beardsmore – No Hyphen Please! Eric Lee,

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