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Bilingualism – Some Related Terms

Billingual written with wooden blocks
By stoatphoto/ Shutterstock
By stoatphoto/ Shutterstock

I am a bilingual – so what exactly am I?

Owing to the wide number of languages spoken in India, a lot 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 very simple, regular and common thing, but 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 stuffs we, bilingual, do.

  • Terms: Bilingualism and multilingualism both more or less mean the same – one who is capable of using more than one language. However there is no word like Polylingualism; it is, rather, Polyglotism which refers to the ability to use or the state of using more than one language. So, we are Polyglots.
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  • Types:  
  1. 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.
  2. Co-ordinate Bilingualism is when a person acquires two or more languages simultaneously because of being exposed to the languages in her/his primary years.

Bilingualism does not necessarily mean that a person has to be utterly competent in both the 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 seep in one language into the other because of either habit or to fill up something which we cannot readily access from the main language. Those who do not know any of the languages totally and use words or expressions from the both to complement the other, also belong to this category. Some also call them semilinguals.

  • Code mixing and switching Vs. borrowing: Many of us probably know about borrowed or loan words – words of a foreign language which 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 change. For example, when the topic of conversation becomes academic, I automatically shift to English and also I find it very hard to have an argument in Bengali, I tend to use English. Some people find it easier to summarize an English text in English even in, say, a Hindi speaking community.


This however is looked down upon in some places thinking that this way a person loses his/her competence in mother tongue; thinking that it is the primary stage if subtractive bilingualism where a person gradually loses the first language like in attrition. Though it may be true in some cases but mostly, it is complementary.

  • Accents, dialects and varieties: Lastly, when we are talking about varieties in the same language, some people use ‘accent’ and ‘dialect’ interchangeably. Actually, a dialect is a variety of a language which can be distinguished from the rest due to some peculiarities, one of which is accent i.e. the peculiarity in pronunciation. But due to the sentiments of speakers related to their dialect and the debates related to ‘standard dialect’, linguists prefer to call it ‘variety’ instead.
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