TOP > Papers & Essays > Language Development & Education > Understanding Bilingualism 2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints

Papers & Essays

Understanding Bilingualism 2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints

This article presents several approaches to understanding bilingualism concepts. One approach is learning through experience, including academic activities, an intercultural family, and becoming bilingual. Bilingualism is the study of languages in contact at various levels. Therefore another approach to understanding bilingualism is to view situations in terms of four levels: the individual, family, society, or schools (bilingual education). Since the best conditions for language acquisition depend on the situation, this article aims to clarify viewpoints from which to understand bilingualism concepts.

Key words:
bilingualism, Japan, levels, situations, minorities

Understanding Bilingualism 
 1: What it Means to Be Bicultural
 2: Bilingualism Concepts and Viewpoints (This paper)
 3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan 


This article presents several approaches to understanding bilingualism, placing concepts in the context of various real-life situations, and sharpening the focus on viewpoints that clarify the concepts. One approach is learning through experience, from study, research and further academic activities to teaching related courses, raising an intercultural family, and becoming bilingual oneself. Another approach to understanding languages in contact is to clarify the level of bilingualism that is being discussed, whether it is a matter of 1) individual bilingual development, 2) family communication patterns, 3) languages used in the community or society, or 4) bilingual education.

The rest of this article will take the approach of clarifying the viewpoints from which to understand some important concepts in bilingualism. For instance, first or second languages should be seen from the viewpoint of the child or learner, whereas majority or minority languages are designated according to the social environment. By sharpening the focus on viewpoints from which to observe different situations of languages in contact, bilingualism concepts can be understood more precisely. The viewpoints can also be correlated, from government policy to the individual level, clarifying different scenarios of language development and which alternatives are more cognitively beneficial for language learners.

Bilingualism as a branch of Applied Linguistics

irst of all, to locate bilingualism as an academic field logically, linguistics is divided into theoretical and applied disciplines. Applied linguistics includes many areas such as foreign language teaching and bilingualism. Bilingualism can then be divided into different areas, among which bilingual education refers to the school level. Thus bilingual education is one subset of bilingualism, which can be further subdivided into types of bilingual education (Baker, 2006, pp. 213-225). Those types in turn can be analyzed as weak forms, because students do not become bilingual as a result of such education, or as strong forms, which tend to be more effective for the bilingual development of students.

Learning by Experience: Teaching Bilingual Education in Japan

There is much to study in bilingualism as an academic discipline, but learning by experience can also be vital in such a field. For this author, teaching Bilingual Education as an English for Professional Purposes course to upper division college students for four years until 2009 constituted a learning experience. This series thus emphasizes concepts that proved to be important in teaching bilingualism and bilingual education in Japan.

There are several ways that learning from experience can be a valuable addition to academic study in a field such as bilingual education. Teaching the subject helps consolidate a researcher's knowledge of the field, making one responsible to fill in gaps not previously investigated. Students' classroom responses and final papers also show to what extent pedagogical approaches have been effective, particularly in overcoming many common misconceptions about bilingualism (Genesee, n.d.; Kandolf, 1998).

Similarly, volunteering for an academic society places a researcher in the position to exchange more information, to attend regular meetings, to give presentations, and to write or edit publications. Leading a research-based organization, like designing and teaching a course, promotes a sense of responsibility to cover the field more fully in order to respond to various questions and needs of members. Maintaining a Website for an academic association, moreover, places one in charge of mapping the work of the organization.

Yet another dimension of experience relevant to teaching and researching bilingualism is to raise children in an intercultural marriage. In this role one can witness some of the challenges and eventual advantages of exposing children to two languages from birth. Yet ultimately, it was the experience of studying Japanese, moving to Japan, becoming bilingual and, to some extent, bicultural that made all the other experiences possible. This is bilingualism at the individual level, the development of one's linguistic repertoire and cultural identity. In the above ways, academic study has been reinforced by learning from experience.

Levels of Bilingualism

In teaching bilingual education courses it was found helpful to check students' understanding of what kind or level of bilingualism was being discussed. The author therefore often wrote a square grid on the board with the following levels of bilingualism in the four boxes: 1) individual, 2) family, 3) societal, and 4) education (technical terms in the field of bilingualism will be italicized from here on when first introduced). Similarly, a new content-based English as a Foreign Language course from 2009 on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education with a human rights focus for second year students is introduced in the Osaka Jogakuin College syllabus in part as follows:

Bilingualism includes the individual level, such as your own bilingual and bicultural development; the family level, such as bilingual child-raising; the level of society, such as language minorities and government policies; bilingual education, such as international schools; and human rights, such as the right to choose languages for children's education or your own cultural identity.

Thus, for example, in discussing the overly idealized image of the bilingual in Japan, which sounds boastful to attribute to oneself, students can be referred to the square grid to focus on the individual level of bilingual development and how it is a matter of degree. Family bilingualism often involves analyzing what languages are spoken among members of an international family. Another article in this series, on bilingual child-raising, discusses how to aim for balanced input and opportunities for interaction in the two languages. Societal bilingualism can be of relevance to families in terms of the surrounding community or society, while taking up broader issues such as the percentage of speakers of different languages in a country or region.

The level of education refers to schools, which may be international or bilingual in the medium of instruction, that is, the language in which courses are taught. There are many types of bilingual education in the world (Baker, 2006, pp. 213-225), and among the more effective types, immersion is where 50% or more of the curriculum is taught in the students' second language (Bostwick, 2005). The author has developed a method for students to analyze the type of bilingual education evident in various educational situations in Japan and abroad. The above-mentioned new course also touches upon linguistic human rights (Skutnabb-Kangas & Phillipson, 1995). As a case in point, although native languages of children of immigrants to Japan are not supported by government policies, Japanese parents may rightly expect such support from other countries when they are transferred abroad.

Concepts and Viewpoints in Bilingualism and Bilingual Education

Seeing bilingualism on different levels is just one way to focus on the appropriate aspect of bilingualism as it occurs in diverse situations. Many specialized concepts are also needed to develop theories to account for complex worldwide research findings. It will also be seen that, in order to analyze languages in contact, bilingualism issues need to be seen from a number of different viewpoints. Note that not all viewpoints and possible scenarios of language development, such as in South Africa, can be covered in their full complexity, but many basic issues in Japan are relevant to other countries as well.

Concepts in bilingualism stem from a number of dimensions, such as the age of a person using two languages, which provide viewpoints on bilingualism. From the standpoint of when a person, on the individual level, starts being exposed to more than one language regularly, it is called simultaneous bilingualism when a person acquires two or more languages from birth or infancy. Because of differences in individuals and circumstances, there is no exact age or critical period after which a person cannot be fully bilingual, but after adolescence it becomes more a matter of deliberate learning than natural acquisition. If native-like pronunciation of the L2 (one's second language) is considered important, then the earlier the child starts, the better. Generally, when L2 is started after L1 (one's native language) is established, and because high bilingual proficiency is still possible, the use of two languages by such persons is called consecutive or sequential bilingualism.

Another viewpoint is the majority or mainstream language(s) of the society in relation to the native language(s) of the child or language learner. L1 or L2 should be understood from the point of view of the child or student, whereas from the standpoint of society, the child has a majority or minority language. The situation in the classroom for a language minority student, who is often the child of immigrants, needs particular consideration. While it is important for such a child to cope with the mainstream language of the society, it is not a positive form of bilingualism or bilingual education if the child's L1 is lost or not supported. Children of immigrants interviewed by Vaipae (2001) were not catching up to their grade level in Japanese public schools, so neither their L2 nor their L1 enjoyed adequate support. Language majority students, on the other hand, generally enjoy only benefits of L2 learning, which is called additive bilingualism. It is the language minority students who are in danger of subtractive bilingualism, where their L2 (the majority language of the society) replaces their L1. This difference in viewpoint can mean the difference between cognitive impairment and cognitive benefits. Thus it is only humane to meet such children's need for minority language development along with L2 support, in other words to provide suitable forms of bilingual education.

To view the issue from a different perspective, additive or subtractive bilingualism is the kind of bilingualism in individuals that tends to result from a different social status of languages. Children sense when a language is not useful or valued, so they are liable to lose or not acquire such a language unless people around them demonstrate that the two languages are equal in value or more useful than one. This applies to the L1 of language minority students, who may lose it, as well as to the L2 of language majority students, who may not gain bilingual fluency. The relative social status of the languages affects everything from educational policy to individual motivation.

The status of languages is decided by the majority society, while two types of bilingualism are distinguished according to the socio-economic status of the family or ethnic group. Immigrants or linguistic minorities are often in the position of folk or circumstantial bilingualism, where the child or family has little or no choice about the languages they use for daily life or learning. Whereas when native speakers of the majority language choose to learn other languages, it is called elite or elective bilingualism. This divide tends to parallel subtractive and additive bilingualism unless minority languages are valued in the society or a strong form of bilingual education is available to language minority students.

From the viewpoint of language policy, there are government policies that affect minority language education, which may not be written but are shown by what the government does or does not provide for language minority children. Two very different ways of thinking are to welcome or to discourage linguistic and cultural diversity, which may reflect a relatively open or closed society. An often implicit policy is the assimilation of minorities into the mainstream culture. On the other hand, Canada, Europe and some other regions have explicit national policies of bilingualism, multilingualism or multiculturalism. These policies or practices often follow from whether leaders of the society view minority languages as a problem, a resource, or a human rights issue (Baker, 2006, pp. 382-392). Languages can be regarded as a source of disunity, conflicts, or difficulties for authorities. Yet many languages must be recognized as economic resources, for international trade, tourism, and so forth. Then some governments go so far as to recognize the maintenance of native languages as a human right. Languages can be all those things, but conflicts actually stem from cultural causes or social circumstances rather than from linguistic differences, so it is a matter of values or priorities. Sweden has supported a hundred native languages of immigrant children (Yukawa, 2000, p. 47), so it is not economic constraints that prevent other developed countries from doing so. In this light, how minorities are treated is a measure of how conscientious the society is.

Furthermore, as a result of government policies and societal attitudes being oriented toward assimilation or diversity, the aims (Baker, 2006, p. 214) and practices of programs called bilingual education can be very different. From the viewpoint of the educational approach decided by the government or school, an explicit or implicit goal of assimilating minorities into the mainstream society commonly manifests as transitional bilingual education (Baker, 2006, p. 213). This transition tends to involve changing the language used by the student from the home language to the majority language of the society. Transitional approaches are also called mainstreaming or submersion (Baker, 2006, p. 215). If there is no school support for the child's native language, then the child may be bilingual for some time, but the education is decidedly monolingual. Such children can see that their native language and home culture are not valued, so they may have conflicts or communication problems with family members, reject their cultural heritage, and suffer negative cognitive effects of their L1 being replaced by L2 (subtractive bilingualism).

Whereas if the aim of language education is not assimilation but rather to respect or gain value from different languages, then very different approaches are possible. For language majority students, even relatively closed societies offer education in languages that are valued as resources, and it is L2 enrichment even if most students do not become bilingual, because their L1 is not diminished at all. For language minority students, L1 maintenance or continued development along with their L2 education in the majority language is crucial. The educational approach for all students, whether majority or minority, should aim for bilingual or multilingual development.

It is possible to further examine the educational approach at the level of the school philosophy or curriculum, but the proof lies in how the education affects students, linguistically and culturally. When examining programs called bilingual education, the first place to look is the medium of instruction or languages that are used to teach content courses. Even an international school is not bilingual education if classes are nearly all taught in one language. The results of the curriculum are reflected in the linguistic repertoire and cultural identity of its graduates, along the following spectrum. If students remain monolingual and monocultural, it is not bilingual education. If the bilingual proficiency of students is limited, it is a weak form of bilingual education or else the school language is simply different from the L1 or home language of students. If the result is bilingualism and biliteracy (reading and writing in two languages to some extent), then it is a strong form of bilingual education. If a school truly values linguistic and cultural diversity in practice, its students may also become multilingual, bicultural or multicultural.

In order to gauge the results of a school in terms of student profiles, interviews or observations of behavior (traveling abroad, for example) might provide better indicators than a proficiency test in the weaker language according to certain native speaker norms. Also important is the willingness to communicate with people from another culture. The medium of instruction is just one case of language choice, which in a given situation is an honest indication of priorities or an accommodation of differences. While bilingual adults and children can use their L1 or L2 according to the native language of the other person, among bilinguals it is common to enrich their discourse by code-switching, changing from one language to the other and back to express nuances with double the amount of resources. Insofar as people have that choice, they are bilingual.

Scenarios of Language Use and Language Development

From the viewpoint of language use changing over time, the concept of language shift may be helpful to clarify bilingualism as a dynamic state. Language shift, over generations or within a generation, occurs naturally as people move across cultural borders. Migrating groups or individuals who travel extensively can shift the languages they start or stop using, according to the linguistic environment, their needs or aspirations. In a typical scenario, immigrants move to another country and do not master its language, but their children do, yet they grow up as receptive bilinguals, with listening comprehension but not actively speaking the native language of their parents. Then they in turn have children who do not understand their grandparents' language at all. In such cases, bilingualism may be just a transitional stage while languages are completely changed in two generations. This is a folk bilingualism scenario, whereas people with access to language education can elect to maintain heritage languages or to add further languages that they believe will be useful.

Thus the main scenarios of language development outlined above are that individuals will 1) remain monolingual in L1 and not make much progress in foreign languages, 2) shift from L1 to L2, bilingual for some time but then monolingual again, 3) add L2 to L1 and become bilingual to some extent, 4) have two native languages, for example because their parents or caregivers usually speak different languages to them, either as 4a) balanced bilinguals, or as 4b) receptive bilinguals who understand but do not need to speak the minority language, or 5) become multilingual to some degree.


By focusing on viewpoints and contextualizing bilingualism concepts in their corresponding situations, particularly of vulnerable language learners, a clear pattern emerged from the societal to the individual level that could predict whether or not bilingualism was actually the intended result. While the development of more than one language is generally beneficial for society as well as the individual, non-linguistic factors such as a majority group protective of its power have inhibited the acceptance of linguistic diversity in some societies prominent in the world today. Nevertheless, for individuals in each society, the richer the linguistic repertoire and cultural identity, the more choices are available, and therefore the more freedom the person has in life.


Baker, C. (2006). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Bostwick, M. (2005). What is Immersion? Retrieved October 12, 2009, from

Genesee, F. (n.d.). Bilingual Acquisition. Early Childhood News. Retrieved October 12, 2009, from

Kandolf, C. (1998). Myths about Bilingualism. Norway: Bilingual Families Web Page. Retrieved October 12, 2009, from

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. & Phillipson, R. (Eds.) (1995). Linguistic Human Rights. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Vaipae, S. (2001). Language minority students in Japanese public schools. In M.G. Noguchi & S. Fotos (Eds.), Studies in Japanese Bilingualism, pp. 184-233. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Yukawa, E. (2000). Bilingual Education in Sweden. In S. Ryan (Ed.), The Best of Bilingual Japan, pp. 45-47.

Next - Understanding Bilingualism 3: Bilingual Child-Raising Possibilities in Japan


Steve McCarty

Steve McCarty is a Professor at Osaka Jogakuin College and University in Japan. He is also President of the World Association for Online Education (WAOE). He was born in Boston and studied Asia at the University of Hawaii, specializing in Japan in graduate school. He teaches content-based EFL courses such as topic discussion, research paper writing, intercultural communication, language acquisition, and bilingualism. He regularly lectures to foreign officials on "Japanese People and Society" for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). He also advises Worldwide Kids English for Benesse Corporation in Tokyo. He and his Japanese wife have raised two happy sons.

See his homepage of online publications in English/Japanese
-English would link to
-Japanese would link to
Write a comment

*CRN reserves the right to post only those comments that abide by the terms of use of the website.


About CRN

About Child Science


Japan Today

Honorary Director's Blog