Bilingualism in Holistic Perspective

Worldwide, most people speak two or more languages, simply because multiple languages are used in their environments. Researchers and educators in the field of bilingualism and bilingual education have been interested in defining what bilingual means and how a bilingual person's competences can be measured.

Among the several views of bilingualism, two have predominated in the field: the fractional and the holistic perspectives. The fractional view describes bilinguals as being the equivalent of two monolinguals in one person. This view considers bilinguals as developing parallel linguistic competence in both languages simultaneously, and studies following this perspective often compare bilinguals with monolinguals.

The holistic view, proposed by François Grosjean, argues that each bilingual is a unique individual who integrates knowledge of and from both languages to create something more than two languages that function independently of each other. This view holds that the total of the two languages is greater than their sum, because the two languages interact with each other to increase the functionality of each.

Both perspectives describe as ideal the development of balanced bilingual competence in speaking, thinking, reading, and writing, meaning equivalent fluency in the two languages.

Balanced bilingualism is a concept that is not easily achievable; instead, bilingualism must be understood as a continuum in which language ability changes constantly in relation to the individual's social, educational, and linguistic contexts. In addition, bilingualism may be described as simultaneous or sequential. Simultaneous bilinguals grow up learning two languages in their environments from infancy.

Sequential bilinguals develop mastery, or at least some proficiency, in their native languages before acquiring a second language. Bilingualism emerges when two different language communities come into sustained contact. Language contact in different communities creates a variety of bilingual discourses that meet the needs of the members of those specific communities. Bilingualism is more valuable when some members of each language group are not bilingual.

Logically, if everyone in a particular space were bilingual, there would no longer be a need for anyone to know both languages purely for communicative purposes. Some communities and countries have a policy of official acceptance of bilingualism, and, consequently, both languages are taught and have fairly equal status in society. For example, Belgium has an official policy of bilingualism in French and Flemish, not only on paper but also in practice.

Thus, in the school and community, people receive training and motivation to learn both languages and use them in the public sphere. In some countries, majority language speakers generally associate their language with nationalism and label the widespread use of other languages as a problem rather than an asset. An example of this dynamic in the United States is the so-called English-only laws that restrict the use of languages other than English in public schools.

As critics have pointed out, such laws are motivated by political and ideological considerations rather than sound pedagogical theory or societal benefit. They have little if anything to do with what constitutes a good education or an adequate linguistic preparation for the future.

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