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Bilingualism and Language Teaching Series: 2. How Bilingualism Informs Language Teaching

Bilingualism and Language Teaching Series


Bilingualism provides a perspective on linguistic and cultural diversity. The value of becoming bilingual or multilingual extends to intercultural communication and confers the ability to make peace.

The first article in this series explained the various meanings referred to when people use the word "bilingualism," then showed how a realistic meaning of bilingualism should be considered the goal of learning a second or foreign language. Bilingualism was shown to be a stance, a developmental state, a field of study, an educational goal, and the means to achieve it in a balanced way through bilingual education. Learning is a process of organic growth, and each person has a unique developmental path. The goal was therefore identified as bilingual functioning to a useful extent according to the needs of the individual.

This second article will apply the bilingual perspective to language teaching. It discusses the difference in perspective between a monolingual and a bilingual language teacher. It finds support for the bilingual perspective in first language acquisition studies and the distinction between natural acquisition and deliberate learning. It presents a taxonomy of types of language acquisition informed by bilingualism and its types such as simultaneous bilingualism from age zero. Having two native languages from early infancy is shown to be qualitatively different from learning one language after another, with bilingual acquisition characterizing children in intercultural families when their parents aim for bilingualism. This paper shows how bilingualism clarifies the effectiveness of language teaching approaches, bilingual development at different ages, the viewpoint of students, the societal context of language teaching, and language acquisition.

The next series on bilingualism will present a taxonomy of the various phenomena of bilingualism, in the context of Japan but similar elsewhere, in terms of the levels of bilingualism briefly introduced in the first chart below, including the disciplinary level in applied linguistics where languages in contact are studied.

The Bilingual Perspective on Language Teaching

After recent presentations at both regional and international conferences, participants asked about the possibly different perspective on language teaching when teachers themselves are bilingual. The author answered that a monolingual foreign language teacher tells you in effect to 'go where I have not gone,' whereas a bilingual teacher tells you with his or her example, 'come to the state of functioning that I represent.'

The context here is foreign language teaching, and teachers are held to high standards among educators themselves. Monolingual teachers refer to native speakers of the target language who must rely on the students to speak their L2 of necessity, which can be an advantage in some situations. Bilingual teachers refer mainly to native speakers of the target language who know the students' L1 and C1 (native language and culture) well. Non-native professional teachers are usually bilingual to some extent, so some of the strengths of the bilingual perspective apply to them as well. There will always be exceptions, such as monolingual teachers who have a broad perspective, and bilingual teachers who have a narrow perspective on language teaching. Bilingualism in this paper refers not only to being bilingual to some extent but also to having some knowledge of the field of bilingualism. As explained in previous articles, bilingualism is a matter of degree, and there are varieties of bilinguals who are not balanced in the two languages. This discussion is about pedagogy, how being bilingual as well as studying the academic discipline of bilingualism can widen the usual perspectives on language teaching.

Bilingual teachers tend to be more tolerant of first language use in the foreign language classroom, because they see students developmentally. Their linguistic repertoire grows from one to two valued languages through which they can express themselves and interact with wider social circles. People cannot leave an essential part of themselves at the door, so to prohibit or denigrate the native language of students may not be constructive toward their bilingual identity formation. Bilingual teachers also have direct experience of learning another language and, up to the intermediate level at least, understanding second language vocabulary in terms of their first language. They may therefore be tolerant of students with little experience abroad using the strategies they choose such as bilingual dictionaries.

Bilingual teachers may use both languages in class strategically. By mixing the two languages at certain times, they can lighten the cognitive load on students while modeling the goal of bilingual functioning. In effective immersion approaches, languages may not be alternated in the same period. What is ideal or optimal depends on various factors such as the motivation and willingness of students to communicate, which may differ considerably among individuals. The bilingual teacher always has the language choice available, or the option of using both languages. Students will notice at the very least that the goal of bilingualism is attainable, and may be inspired by the teacher as a model of their own goal.

A bilingual method of teaching can save time by explaining how to do activities in the native language of the students (L1), which leaves more class time for them to use the target language (L2), or by translating difficult words. Often the most difficult part of class for students is to understand what they are supposed to do, or what the native-speaking teacher is saying. A teacher may talk about "asthma" and then try to explain in other English words what it means. They may need body language, writhing and choking, leaving students still puzzled if not worried. Japanese students might hear it as Azuma, a surname, but they can easily understand the Japanese translation zensoku.

In preparing for classes, a monolingual or monocultural teacher may be focusing on how to have students master certain lexical or grammatical items, or functional communication strategies in target language situations in the teacher's culture. Whereas, a teacher who knows the students' language can also access a much wider context including the students' cultural background. Bilingual teachers can therefore gauge how receptive their students might be to certain topics or pedagogical approaches.

Not only focusing on target language items and functions, the bilingual teacher can consider pedagogical issues on many levels. Although the chart below will be detailed in the next article, with specific phenomena listed under each level, it provides an image of the bigger picture that can be applied to teaching. The puzzle illustrates how, although the categories overlap, various factors have shaped the students in class today. For example, government policies and societal attitudes toward foreign languages have affected the institutional culture of schools in ways that new teachers from other countries cannot readily discern. Those levels plus the family background of students can help explain why, for example, students have made limited progress toward becoming bilingual, because of starting too late, actively using L2 infrequently, passive education based on grammar and translation, and not internalizing other languages for cultural reasons. The chart below illustrates that, compared to a focus on target language patterns, a bilingual perspective provides a multidimensional view of language teaching.

Bilingualism Levels (1)-001.JPG
Bilingualism and Language Acquisition

What is taught is not the same as what is learned, which raises questions such as what approaches or methods lead to more effective language acquisition. Much of the literature in applied linguistics is devoted to second language acquisition research, and yet the basic theories are still contested and findings remain inconclusive. To simplify for the purposes of this paper, second language acquisition means new language components that become part of an individual's linguistic repertoire while remaining intelligible in terms of the original language. In an educational context it is sometimes useful to distinguish between foreign language (FL) learning, where the surrounding society does not generally use the L2, and second language (SL) learning, where the L2 is the majority language of the surrounding society. Thus English learned in Japan is EFL, which is more difficult to learn than when the learner is immersed in an English native-speaking society (ESL).

A more important distinction for bilingualism, utilized in the chart below, is sometimes drawn between learning and acquisition. In this view (e.g., Krashen, 1988), learning is a conscious process that builds a mental system about the second language and its rules, whereas acquisition more importantly builds a system subconsciously, similar to the native language acquisition process, through natural communication, focusing not on the features of a target language but rather on the present content or action. Some other applied linguists, particularly second language acquisition researchers, reject the distinction between second and foreign language, calling both of them second language or L2 (Ellis, 1997, p. 3). They also either reject the distinction between acquisition and learning, or call both of them acquisition and then debate what that means (Ellis, 1997, p. 11).

For the purposes of this paper, however, the FL-SL distinction is useful in terms of the need for frequent or sufficient exposure to both languages. Weekly foreign language lessons are thus ineffective, while some types of bilingual education such as immersion and dual language education are shown by research to be effective (Baker, 2006, pp. 268-274). The learning-acquisition distinction is similarly useful to show the ineffectiveness of most foreign language teaching systems and the need for authentic communication. This theory of acquisition explains the effectiveness of content-based language education (Baker, 2006, p. 217; Lightbown & Spada, 2006, pp. 193-194), where part of the regular curriculum is taught in the target language, or stronger forms of bilingual education such as immersion (Baker, 2006, pp. 228-250).

L2 education is a huge industry that often reaches learners too late. There is not much attention in the field to first language acquisition (Clark, 2009; Lust & Foley, 2004), and limited scope for such an industry to develop. With L1 acquisition a stark contrast between acquisition and learning becomes clear, as the idea of L1 learning with intentionality, teaching or study from age zero is developmentally impossible. First or native languages grow purely by natural acquisition in the earliest stage, with listening most essential. Native language acquisition theory is relevant to family bilingualism, and it can also inform second language education (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000, pp. 182-194). The acquisition of languages after childhood still works effectively by natural acquisition, with listening essential, in addition to deliberate learning. Learning without acquisition in this sense is ineffective, because a language has too many details and possible patterns to develop consciously in memory at any age. This theory may explain much of what is misguided in L2 education and point the way to more effective approaches that lead to bilingual acquisition.

Among the types of bilingualism, one important dimension is the age of the individual, with differences in possible acquisition, maintenance, attrition or loss of language according to the stage of life (Hyltenstam & Obler, 1989). A key issue is when two languages are started, which affects, for instance, how easily a child can become bilingual (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000, pp. 194-196; Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 186). Generally, to gain native-like fluency, the earlier children start, the better. Some educational approaches may be exceptional and children starting L2 at elementary school age are able to catch up (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, pp. 186-187). Languages are more volatile at younger ages, easily learned and easily forgotten. Particularly the weaker language needs to be maintained regularly for balanced bilingualism. In case studies, Japanese children who had lived abroad for several years were rusty or appeared to forget their native language, yet it was reactivated when they returned to Japan, where they were observed to be fully bilingual (Childs, 2006). There was another case study of a three-year-old Japanese boy in Toronto who was exposed to Japanese at home and English at school. He would speak English to the teacher and switch to Japanese when he turned to his mother (Ritchie, 2006), showing that he was a balanced bilingual. These examples show what is possible when two languages are started at an early age, and the language acquisition capacity that all children have. Sufficient input and interaction in each language just needs to be maintained and developed in daily life.

Types of Language Acquisition
Revised_Types_of_LA (1)-001.JPG

To connect bilingualism with language acquisition more precisely, consider the above chart of types of language acquisition. In terms of the levels of bilingualism illustrated in the first chart, this second chart is about the individual level of language development. In the title of this chart, acquisition refers in the broadest sense to internalized contents and patterns that form an individual's linguistic repertoire. The italicized terms in the subtitles of the types refer more specifically to the distinction between acquisition and learning introduced in the previous section. Each of the four types of language acquisition will next be discussed briefly in connection with bilingualism and applied to language teaching.

1. First or native acquisition of one language refers to natural acquisition from regular interactions in a language used by parents, siblings, playmates, and others close to the family. From age zero to three the basic grammar and usage of native languages are acquired, except for the pronunciation of sounds that are physically difficult to form (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000, pp. 137-138). So what is thought of as native-speaking pronunciation, even for monolinguals, is actually achieved completely around age eight.

For the purposes of this article, knowledge of L1 acquisition informs language teaching by encouraging approaches that are natural in ways such as the order of acquisition of grammatical functions and skills, with listening first and most fundamental. Visible objects, illustrations, gestures, and clear contexts of conversation scaffold the acquisition of new language by making what is heard understandable. Knowledge of L1 acquisition also points to the need for language teaching approaches that are natural in terms of authentic communication, with passive viewing of media ineffective compared to interaction with people in meaningful situations. Infants or learners also have to speak, to hear their own voice and to get feedback, in order to make adjustments in their pronunciation and usage toward a target model, by engaging in authentic conversations. During the "period of development [from two to three years old, infants] listen carefully to what they hear and constantly adjust their own speech until they get it right" (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000, p. 182). What infants do naturally could serve just as well as advice for second or foreign language learning.

2. Another type is second or foreign language learning, generally involving formal education in school after early childhood or informal self-study. L2 learning is what people usually have in mind as the receiving end or counterpart of language teaching, yet what is ultimately acquired is not the same as what is taught. Individuals build their own language systems largely subconsciously with the language they acquire and learn according to their own unique developmental path.

In terms of types of bilingualism, L2 learning is consecutive or sequential, with L2 started after acquisition of a native language. L2 education in most of the world tends to be ineffective, if the goal is for students to become bilingual. It constitutes a weak form of bilingual education (Baker, 2006, pp. 223-224) at best, since L2 education tends to be too little, too infrequent, and started too late, developmentally. This article shows some ways that L2 education could be more effective by applying findings from the field of bilingualism.

First and second language acquisition were also discussed in the previous section. The main purpose of this chart is to expand the usual parameters to cover a more complete range of possible scenarios, characteristics of language acquisition, and applications to language teaching. The focus of this paper is on how bilingualism can inform language acquisition and teaching.

3. A third type is multilingual learning, which is qualitatively similar to L2 learning in that languages are generally learned one after another. But because of the cognitive skills sharpened in learning L2, L3 becomes easier to learn than L2 was, and so on with further languages.

This third type also includes multilingual acquisition, which will be better understood after discussing the fourth type, bilingual acquisition. Multilingual acquisition from early childhood tends to be rare except where communities are multilingual, as a child would need regular exposure to three or more languages in daily life. If a child often moves abroad with parents, previously acquired languages may be forgotten unless parents value multilingualism and apply a strategy to keep the child using all the languages. They would mainly need to bolster any languages that are not used in the current community, and not just passively through media but actively through natural conversations.

4. Bilingual acquisition is also called bilingual first language acquisition (De Houwer, 2009, p. 2), but using the word "first" is awkward, and research increasingly shows that two different language systems form in the brain. The two languages have been called La and Lb, but it is still difficult to counteract the common assumption that one language is primary. Thus the idea of two native languages is presented here to describe bilingual acquisition in a way that does not privilege one language over the other. Even if the two languages are not balanced, there can be two native languages if there is enough input in both languages during the period of innate aptitude for native language acquisition from age zero to three or, given enough input and interaction, possibly later.

For example, in an international marriage, parents should speak mostly their native language to their children from birth, and try to lift up the weaker language for balanced bilingualism. However, it often happens that a child needs to speak only one of the two languages, and thus appears to be monolingual, because speaking a language is confused with its acquisition. In this case, when such children go abroad or are placed in situations where they need to use the other language, they quickly start to speak it with satisfactory pronunciation and fluency. This shows that they were receptive bilinguals all along, a type of bilingual. If they were able to understand and respond to most of what they heard in the weaker language, it shows that they had invisibly built up a vast structure in the brain for that language, which could then be activated when needed.

Most people in relatively monolingual societies like Japan do not even realize that a person can have two native languages or more. But in international marriages, both parents rightly desire to transmit their native languages to their children, the language that carries their full range of ideas and emotions. Besides active or receptive bilingualism, another type of bilingualism is defined by when the two languages are started. In contrast with consecutive or sequential bilingualism, when two languages are acquired in infancy, whether actively spoken or receptive, it is called simultaneous bilingualism. Even parents who are both Japanese, for example, who speak English or another language at a high intermediate or advanced level, can take advantage of the inborn language acquisition ability of infants and raise them bilingually. Their children can have two native languages, actively or receptively, with no sacrifice of Japanese fluency, if the parents systematically create an environment where the other language is used frequently and meaningfully, for play, bedtime stories, and so forth. A parent or guardian could set certain times of the week, for example announcing "Now it's English time" and take out related toys, music, and enjoyable materials to create an environment for the infant to naturally acquire that language.

The family situation of two parents with different native languages is where bilingualism is an apt term, which also includes multilingualism. Two native languages are qualitatively different from learning languages one after another; they are naturally acquired rather than learned, and simultaneous from early childhood rather than consecutive. Parents should by all means start two languages from age zero, since babies have the innate language acquisition ability and, within a few years, naturally separate the languages into two systems, which they access according to the languages others use.

Multilingual acquisition is less common because children usually have two parents or guardians at most. Cases of multilingual acquisition would be qualitatively similar to bilingual acquisition in terms of natural acquisition, with three or more native languages rather than two. Children can become multilingual at any age, but it is not common in most countries for parents to be linguists, to utilize an effective strategy toward a clear goal of multilingualism, or to move around different language communities in such a way that children naturally acquire and maintain several languages.

How Biculturalism informs Language Teaching

As shown in the first chart above, culture is part of the societal level of bilingualism, so this perspective sheds light on bilingual identity as well as cultural factors that may support or confound bilingual development and language teaching outcomes. The bilingualism field thus provides teachers with the expertise to advise students and stakeholders in society on the option of biculturalism as well as bilingualism. In an acculturation process that goes along with language acquisition or learning, second or third cultural acquisition, C2 or C3, can accompany L2 and L3, resulting in biculturalism or multiculturalism at the individual level.

Like bilingualism and multilingualism, biculturalism and multiculturalism do not in themselves cause confusion to individuals, but monolingual and monocultural people around them can cause trouble in their social life, for instance by asking which culture they belong to, because of mistaken assumptions such as believing that a person can have only one cultural allegiance, or believing that by becoming fluent in a second language a person automatically 'crosses over' to the other culture, as noted in cultural anthropology. But the confusion is actually on the part of the monolingual monoculturalists, whereas bilingual and bicultural people are more broad-minded.

However, if the option of biculturalism still seems threatening in certain societies, they can be advised that learners may remain monocultural but still become bilingual if they prefer, by simply using L2 as a tool. This distinction can be seen in two types of motivation, where instrumental motivation is utilitarian and does not affect cultural identity, leading to a linguistic and cultural repertoire of L1+C1+L2, whereas integrative motivation, where the individual desires to be an active part of both linguistic communities, naturally leads to a repertoire of L1+C1+L2+C2. For language teaching it is also informative that integrative motivation tends to result in more effective L2 acquisition.

If the language teacher is bicultural to some extent in the culture of the students, then everyday teaching decisions can be more culturally appropriate. Moreover, the bilingual and bicultural teacher may gain more credibility in the institutions of the host society, challenging various stereotypes of the foreigner as the 'other' beyond an insuperable wall.

How Bilingualism informs Language Teaching

The previous sections have already shown some ways in which a developmental bilingual perspective and types of language acquisition inform language teaching as well as bilingual child-raising. This conclusion summarizes some of the specific ways that bilingualism informs language teaching.

  • Bilingualism constitutes the goal of language learning as well as, through bilingual education, the means of becoming bilingual, thus providing an overall orientation to language teaching.
  • Bilingualism sheds light on identity issues involved in becoming bilingual, so learners can be given guidance on the option of biculturalism.
  • Bilingualism clarifies the standpoint of students socially and developmentally, so language teachers can grasp the levers of group dynamics and motivation.
  • Knowing the types of bilinguals, critical periods (ages after which language features are no longer smoothly acquired), and thus what to expect when L2 learning is started too late, language teachers can advise the public and policy makers on when and how to start exposing children to plural languages.
  • The focus in bilingualism on bilingual child-raising from age zero calls attention to some ways that first language acquisition applies to second language learning or the acquisition of two or more languages, such as the primacy and need for much listening.
  • The common mistake, even by researchers, of measuring acquisition by speaking , can be avoided with the knowledge that children or learners understand much more than they express. Acquisition is demonstrated in the extent of understanding what is heard.
  • Receptive bilinguals, who hardly say anything in their weaker language, are still recognized as a type of bilingual. Their bilingualism comes out when they go abroad or are placed in an environment where they need to speak the weaker language. Often within weeks of immersion they speak the language with some fluency. This knowledge is applicable also to second and foreign language teaching, supporting the confidence that learners understand more than they say, but would speak much more if they studied abroad or were immersed in an environment where L2 communication was needed.
  • Bilingualism counters many misconceptions held in monolingual and monocultural societies about languages in contact in individuals and communities, so language teachers can help learners overcome barriers to becoming bilingual and bicultural.
  • Bilingualism clarifies the societal context of language education, cultural attitudes regarding the value of languages, and unstated government policies, so language teachers can adjust their expectations and navigate educational institutions in the host society.
  • Bilingualism clarifies the different domains and purposes affecting language choice and use. Actually no one knows or needs to know all the words in their languages. A person can be a balanced bilingual without mastering both languages, because different languages are used for different purposes in different domains of life.
  • Bilingualism research findings show the harmlessness of mixing languages. Infants separate the languages within two or three years and associate the languages with their native speakers appropriately. Code-switching by bilinguals is strategic and creative rather than a problem in their language use. Language teachers can suffer less frustration and misunderstanding by realizing that learners' mixing of languages is a developmental stage on the way to fuller bilingualism.
  • Since the bilingual teacher is a model for the goal of students to develop into users of two languages, this recognition supports the teacher using the students' native language strategically when it would be futile to explain things in the target language. While monolingual teachers are more liable to strictly enforce L2 use, it is frustrating to a learner or a child to hear something that is too difficult, so L1 support can be part of their overall language development.
  • Bilingual education, focusing on the medium of instruction, clarifies the effectiveness of content-based language teaching and other methods, so language teachers can evaluate educational options such as mainstream, ethnic, international, or bilingual schools.
  • Finally, bilingualism sheds light on language acquisition, how research on first language acquisition, bilingual acquisition, and bilingual education informs L2 teaching. Seeing the whole picture from a bilingual perspective, from the societal to the individual level, informs one's approach to teaching and communication. Reflecting on these and other insights from bilingualism can make a difference in everyday decisions in practice as well as in cultivating theories to undergird one's language teaching.

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  • Krashen, S. (1988). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall International.
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  • Ritchie, M. (2006). Integrating children who speak a foreign language into English nursery schools in Toronto, Canada. Tokyo: Child Research Net. Retrieved from
  • Vaipae, S.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.

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 online library of publications:
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