I am bilingual – so what exactly am I?
Owing to the vast number of languages spoken in India, many of us are bilinguals. Technology, English for higher education, job opportunities, etc., have given an elegant status to bilingualism.
We may think of it as a straightforward, regular, and expected thing. Still, the cognitive advantages of bilingualism are huge – it has been found that bilinguals are better at analytical and logical skills.
Let’s check out the technical names for some cool stuff we, bilingual, do.
Bilingualism and multilingualism both more or less mean the same – one capable of using more than one language. However, there is no word like Polylingualism; instead, Polyglotism refers to the ability to use or the state of using more than one language. So, we are Polyglots.
- Additive (or Sequential) Bilingualism is the most common type wherein one learns the later languages(s) after acquiring the first language or the mother tongue.
- Co-ordinate Bilingualism is when a person acquires two or more languages simultaneously because of being exposed to the languages in their primary years.
Bilingualism does not necessarily mean that a person must be utterly competent in both languages. Here is where a lot of us come in. There is something called complementary bilingualism.
Whether or not we can speak both or all the languages fluently, we tend to step one language into the other because of either habit or to fill up something which we cannot readily accessible from the primary language.
Those who do not know any of the languages totally and use words or expressions from both to complement the other also belong to this category. Some also call them semifinals.
2. Code Mixing and Switching vs. Borrowing
Many of us probably know about borrowed or loan words – words of a foreign language that find a place in our dictionary because we use that word to that extent. All the technical words are generally borrowed words. But when we talk, we tuck in more than just the loan words like ‘pen hai kya? ‘, ‘hum class k baad sharp 4 o’clock niklenge’. Such ‘mixing’ of foreign words or expressions in daily speech is called code (i.e., language) mixing.
In the same way, when instead of putting in words, we temporarily or permanently shift to another language, it is called code-switching. This often happens due to mood or context changes. For example, when the topic of conversation becomes academic, I automatically shift to English and also find it very hard to argue Bengali; I tend to use English. Some people find it easier to summarize an English text in English, even in a Hindi-speaking community.
This, however, is looked down upon in some places thinking that this way, a person loses their competence in the mother tongue; thinking that it is the primary stage of subtractive bilingualism where a person gradually loses the first language like in attrition. Though it may be true in some cases mostly, it is complementary.
3. Accents, Dialects, and Varieties
Lastly, when talking about varieties in the same language, some people use ‘accent’ and ‘dialect’ interchangeably. A dialect is a variety of languages that can be distinguished from the rest due to some peculiarities, one of which is accent i.e., the peculiarity in pronunciation. But due to speakers’ sentiments related to their dialect and the debates related to ‘standard dialect,’ linguists prefer to call it ‘variety’ instead.