Bilingual refers to a person or community that speaks or understands two languages. While some are confronted with two languages from birth (simultaneous bilingualism), others learn their second language only later in life (successive bilingualism). Bilingualism is the most common form of multilingualism.
It is often assumed that bilingual people must master two languages equally well. Bilingualism, however, consists in the ability to use the respective language when the situation of action requires it. So it is quite possible that some people can express themselves better in one language or have better writing and reading skills in that language. This is due to the different contexts in which a language is acquired, e.g. the frequency of use.
Raising children bilingually
Many children in Germany grow up with more than one language, so they are either bilingual or multilingual. More and more parents are attaching importance to bilingual education. This is often found in families where the parents speak different mother tongues. It can also happen that the language of the parents differs from the surrounding language, for example in the case of migration. However, bilingualism can also have other reasons: learning the second language at school or through social contacts.
Forms of bilingualism
There are two different forms of bilingualism. These are explained in more detail below.
Simultaneous bilinguals are children who are already confronted with two languages during the first three years of life. In bilingual education, the recommended method is to divide the languages by parent, so that the child uses, for example, language A only with the mother and language B primarily to communicate with the father.
When children first internalise one language and later learn another, this is called successive bilingualism. Successive language acquisition takes place from the age of about three years.
Advantages of bilingualism
Children who grow up bilingual benefit first and foremost from this education. Bilingualism supports children’s cognitive development, improves analytical skills and memory. Multilingual individuals are usually more open-minded and empathetic towards other people and cultures. Mastering two or more languages can also have economic advantages by opening up further professional opportunities.
Disadvantages of bilingualism
In bilingual education, children may mix both languages in the first years of life. This has less to do with the parents’ upbringing than with the child’s development and usually regulates itself by the time the child starts school at the latest. Bilingualism is not seen as a risk for a language development disorder.
Bilingualism exists all over the world. Countries such as Canada, Finland, Cyprus, Israel and Belgium are officially bilingual. Taking individuals as a starting point, more than half of Europeans (56%) are bilingual.
FAQ: More questions about bilingualism
What does bilingual mean?
Those who are bilingual can communicate in two languages. The second language may be acquired in parallel with the first language or only later in childhood or adolescence.
What is bilingualism?
Bilingualism refers to the ability to speak or understand two languages. There are often differences in the degree of mastery.
Which countries are bilingual?
Countries such as Canada, Finland, Cyprus, Israel and Belgium describe themselves as bilingual.
How do I educate my child bilingually?
There are different methods to educate a child bilingually. A widespread strategy is that one parent speaks one language with the child at a time. It can also be useful to create an environment with lots of language stimuli for the child, for example through books, music or films.
What are the advantages of bilingualism?
Those who raise their children bilingually can observe both learning and social benefits. Thus, bilingualism increases neural connections in the brain, improves analytical skills and strengthens empathy for other cultures.
How many people are bilingual?
At least half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual. It is estimated that 56 per cent of Europeans speak two or more languages.
When is someone considered bilingual?
Bilingual is someone who speaks two languages. While some children are confronted with two languages from birth, others learn their second language later in life.
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