What is bilingualism? The importance of speaking languages

It is easy to recognize that the phenomenon which gives the title to this text is in vogue. These days we don’t talk about any kind of bilingualism, Of course.

Small prehistoric tribes who, precisely because of their small size, needed to understand with their neighbors in order to negotiate, until now the koine from ancient Greece, the ability to speak several languages ​​has always been present and was an indispensable characteristic of the most primitive societies.

What is bilingualism?

The bilingualism in which we live today is that of a massively globalized world, with a clearly dominant lingua franca (English) and minority languages ​​but which, to a greater or lesser extent, are exhibited throughout the world. The possibility of being bilingual today means the virtual possibility of knowing any language that currently exists anywhere on the planet..

And all because at some point in human evolution the brain has become so complex and malleable that it has become capable of laying the foundations for a language system, all of its possible variants, and the ability to learn them. How is this explained?

A priori, almost all definitions of bilingualism include that among bilingual people there is a mother tongue or dominant, and a second language (speaking less rigorously, we can understand that this can also happen when there is more a “secondary” language, or to speak of multilingualism), and it is very rare that this hierarchical distinction between languages ​​is neglected by simply remaining in the definition of bilingualism as the ability to master two languages. Bilingual or equilingual characters are practically non-existent. Consequently, in the vast majority of cases, the bilingual person will have one. primary language (L1) and at least one secondary language (L2).

However, we have not yet come up with a full definition. Indeed, the very conceptualization of bilingualism is a controversial issue. Just as some authors may argue that this only happens when a person controls the grammatical structures of L1 and L2, there are also definitions of bilingualism such as the ability to have minimal fluency in speech, comprehension, reading and writing a language. maternal.

Types of bilingualism

It is useful to know the distinction between additive bilingualism I extractive bilingualism.

This classification responds to cases in which one language complements the other (the first category) and to those in which one language tends to replace the other. This substitution mechanism could be explained from the habits, customs and contexts linked to the use of languages ​​that a single person masters, rather than from the biological structures common to all human beings. If one language is valued more than another, has more prestige, is heard more, or simply does not have communication situations in which one of the languages ​​can be used, fluency in one of the languages ​​will end. by decreasing. This process is therefore not explained by neuropsychological bases, but it still exists.

Another important distinction is that of simultaneous bilingualism I successive bilingualism.

The former is the result of exposure to different languages ​​during the very early stages of growth, even in the pre-linguistic stages of the first months of life. In the second, a language is learned when there is already a well-established primary language. These are constructions made to explain the differences in the domain of L1 compared to L2, these being most evident in the cases of successive bilingualism.

The development of bilingualism

The match between the main language and the secondary language is made from the first exposure to speech. The first thing that comes up is a phonology between languages: That is to say a phonology which uses a repertoire of almost identical phonemes in the two languages. Then there would be a parallel development in terms of phonetics, morphology and syntax, and finally the awareness of the bilingual ability (and therefore the ability to translate deliberately).

In the later stages, learning the contextual use of different languages, the language is linked to specific attitudes, ailments, situations, etc. unconsciously. In other words, it becomes a contextual tool. This is why, for example, some people still speak Catalan in academic contexts, even if there is no written or unwritten rule that requires it. We must not forget that the acquisition and production of a language is dictated by the environment, and it is in a given context that a language is used.

The scientifically proven benefits of speaking multiple languages

There is a scientific consensus on this subject at an earlier age there is more brain plasticityIn other words, the brain is more sensitive to external stimuli that produce changes in the nervous system. This plasticity makes it possible to learn new languages ​​with relative ease (we even speak of critical periods, fixing a time limit in which any language can be learned quickly), and this learning in turn has many other advantages. The main advantage of these young learners is not only in the speed with which they can start speaking in another language: their ability to accurately pronounce the phonemes of the secondary language compared to successive bilinguals is also significant.

This goes hand in hand with the “unlimited range of phonemes” available to newborns. As a general rule, the closer in time to the birth and learning of a new language, the less likely it is that the ability to differentiate and produce certain phonemes used in that language have been lost.

In contrast, adults, when learning a language, have resources that young children cannot. The most obvious is cognitive ability, but also the possibility of self-motivation, deliberate learning, etc. However, beyond developmental psychology, what makes learning multiple languages ​​possible is need. In this way, simultaneous and successive bilinguals use languages ​​in response to a given context.

There are many criteria for explaining and predicting the bilingual development of people. From a more positivist perspective, the variable “exposure to a language” is measured as a function of the time during which the subject is subjected to each language seems valid to us. The same goes for the variable “language to which you have already been exposed”. However, going further, we could also consider variables such as how the child feels about the speaker of each language (in his closest environment, of course), the context in which he uses each language and therefore the need related to the use of each language. . However, such a qualitative analysis escapes the pretensions of most lines of research, which are more focused on a work or an academic field defined by asepsis and the unidimensionality of human relations.

In context

The ability of the human mind to learn more than one language can be understood as both an advantage and a limitation. There is no doubt that this is an advantage as long as it allows the emergence of new ways of thinking, Feel and even solve problems. There is even talk of benefits for the brain beyond the linguistic domain. However, the ability to master languages ​​is also a limitation in a world where knowledge and skills have become characteristics, Features that help you position yourself in a competitive world always requiring new and more skills.

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