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Taxonomy of Bilingualism: 2. Family and Societal Levels of Bilingualism

Taxonomy of Bilingualism


Having summarized bilingualism at the individual level in the first article of the series, this article continues with the family and societal levels, while the next article will cover the school level (bilingual education) and the academic level (bilingualism as a discipline in applied linguistics) in the author's formulation, which is reviewed in Chart 1 below.

Chart 1: Levels of Bilingualism

In the previous article, Chart 2 was a Taxonomy of Bilingualism in daily life, sufficiently detailed for the scope of that article, consisting of the first four levels of naturally occurring bilingual phenomena. Chart 2 in this article (see below) adds more details to the levels observed in daily life. It also adds two categories that will constitute the fifth level, the academic study of the first four levels, in the next and last article of this series. For the purposes of this article, the focus is on the second and third levels below: family and society.

Chart 2: Taxonomy of Bilingualism
Bilingualism at the Family Level

Bilingual child-raising approaches are the main concern at the family level. Many books and articles including McCarty (2010b) have been devoted to raising bilingual children. Some are based on scientific research in bilingualism or related fields. They appear in many languages including Japanese, as bilingual child-raising is a worldwide concern, with parents wanting the various advantages of bilingualism (Baker, 2007, pp. 1-5) for their children, but often finding difficulties, not linguistically but socially or psychologically in the form of common misconceptions about bilingualism (Genesee, 2008; Kandolf, 1998).

While various approaches can work, especially if applied consistently, parents should not lose sight of the most important goals and conditions: to raise happy, well-adjusted children in a stable and loving environment. Then just add frequent, sufficient, and sustained input and opportunities for authentic social interaction in two languages. Humans are born with the innate ability to acquire any languages like sponges, but if raised in one language, they gradually lose that natural ability. Research shows that babies can distinguish the sounds of all the world's languages, and that they can maintain that ability if they are raised bilingually. "By eight to ten months of age babies will focus on the sounds that are used in their own language, and the ability to recognize the sounds of other languages will fade away" (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 1999, p. 23). For example, the author's older son, who had been hearing Japanese and English from birth, went to China with fellow Ritsumeikan University students. In the Chinese language class he was praised for handling the sounds of Chinese much better than other students who had been raised monolingually. To this author it provided experiential evidence of research findings in the field of bilingualism observed by Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek (1999), among others. The theory seemed to come to life.

To summarize briefly for this taxonomy, the basic approaches to bilingual child-raising are available whenever more than one language is used in the child's environment. A number of Japanese parents, for example, where one or both parents were fluent to some extent in English, have been able to raise bilingual children, in Japan as well as abroad. The approach used most often is called one person, one language. Often in international marriages (the next topic), parents simply use their native language with their children consistently, and children become bilingual to some extent. Another approach is home language, community language. It accounts for the common situation of one dominant language in a society, and it aims for balanced bilingualism by nurturing the minority language at home. As an example, parents in Japan would speak mainly English at home, including to each other when the children are present, because there is more than enough Japanese in the rest of the environment for the children to be 100% native speakers. Another aspect of this approach is that, if the same couple moves to a native English speaking country, they should speak only Japanese at home, again for the sake of balanced bilingualism. It would be a mistake to think "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" because Japanese becomes a minority language abroad. A native language is not easily lost after early childhood, but it can get rusty if neglected (Childs, 2004). Reading in Japanese would need to be developed actively, while speaking fluency could be maintained through regular family conversations. There are other approaches, and mixing languages naturally is not normally a problem. It is recommended that parents or guardians find reliable research-based information about bilingualism and discuss what approach to balanced bilingualism would work best in their current situation.

International or intercultural marriages provide a ready-made opportunity to raise children to be bilingual, and bicultural if they are exposed enough to two cultures. Most parents want to transmit their linguistic and cultural heritage to their children, and that natural urge is enriching for children. The earlier this exposure is started, the more natural it is for the child. Problems do not arise from the acquisition of more than one language and culture, but children have other basic needs for stability, social acceptance, and so forth. At certain stages they do not want to be singled out from their peers because they are different, or even because they excel in the foreign language taught at school. Such stages are temporary, so it is important to be patient and maintain a long-term perspective, attending to the present needs of the child as well as the goals of bilingual functioning and becoming able to identify with both sides of one's heritage. Intercultural families face most of the same challenges as mainstream families, but with somewhat more complexity and excitement. For example, moving from place to place, which is common in international marriages, can be disruptive for children regardless of their parental situation. Intercultural couples should therefore try to give children a home base with old friends and minimize moving their residence. Yet if bilingual child-raising is an important aim, parents should promote frequent contact with minority language relatives and visit places associated with the second culture as much as possible.

Biliteracy or minority language reading was mentioned in connection with bilingual child-raising. It is a special problem for parents to provide reading materials and add to the study time of children. Whereas parents or guardians naturally transmit their spoken languages, reading is a more structured activity that time must be allotted for in busy modern schedules. For it to be interesting to the children and not a chore like extra homework, parents are advised to begin reading to children in infancy as a versatile stimulus for communication, transmitting their love of literature and learning to their children.

Last in the taxonomy of family bilingualism is language shift. Especially with immigration, the language use of families can change over generations. At the individual level, new languages can be added to one's repertoire over time, and languages acquired earlier may no longer be used in a new environment. At the societal level, language shift can occur with social changes or in response to global trends. For example, some African countries are changing the medium of instruction in schools from the former colonial language of French to English, which they perceive as more useful for their future economy. Similarly, some universities in Europe and Japan are offering programs in English to attract foreign students (MEXT, 2013).

As an example of language shift at the family level, the author's grandparents on one side moved from Italy to Boston and spoke only Italian there. Yet their daughters grew up as native speakers of English because of the overwhelming power of the community language. There was probably a stage in adulthood where they became receptive bilinguals, a type of bilingual discussed above at the individual level, with simply no opportunity to speak or even hear Italian. In any case, by the author's generation, Italian was completely gone, and the author added Japanese to his linguistic repertoire. But if his bilingual children marry monolingual Japanese women, his grandchildren may not acquire native English, as Italian had been lost earlier, although in the course of their lives they might learn whatever languages that prove useful to them. For better or worse, language shift continually occurs at different levels as human life changes.

Bilingualism at the Societal Level

Bilingualism at the societal level often provides a social context for linguistic and cultural phenomena at other levels such as families or schools. For instance, McCarty (2013) discussed how knowledge of the social context of education, which bilingual teachers are likely to have, informs language teaching.

Among phenomena at the societal level are cultural issues, which affect people's ways of thinking, priorities, and the choices they make at the individual, family, or school level. All modern cultures now have influences from other cultures, so it is a relative matter to classify societies or individuals as monocultural, bicultural, or multicultural. Singapore, with immigrants forming a third of the population, is relatively multicultural, while Japan, with foreigners less than 1% of the population if East Asians born and raised in Japan are not counted, is relatively monocultural. However, earlier in its history Japan welcomed Asian mainland influences and, after World War II, Japan has absorbed American and other influences. Biculturalism is clearer but still not precise in the case of children of international marriages or Japanese who have lived abroad for much of their lives. Each individual certainly presents a unique case, but direct experience of foreign cultures can make a difference in the cosmopolitanism of individuals. Culture itself is too deep and complex to isolate variables and measure scientifically, while cultural issues tend to be subject to interpretation by dominant groups in a society.

Next, government policies are sometimes stated but often have to be inferred by the way minorities are treated. If a government, for example, seeks not only national unity but sameness among citizens, standardizing one language, changing the native language of immigrant children, discouraging alternative schools by tying subsidies to one accredited curriculum, enforcing patriotic allegiance to one culture, then its unstated policy is assimilation. Such a policy is not inevitable but is a choice. Other nations have chosen to protect and preserve minority languages and cultures, such as the bicultural national policy of New Zealand with regard to Maori people, the bilingual and multicultural national policy of Canada, or the multilingual and multicultural policies of many European nations such as Sweden. In the case of Japan, through surveys and interviews supported by the Toyota Foundation, Vaipae (2001) found that immigrant children could not keep up with regular mainstream classes, Japanese as a Second Language support was insufficient, and there was no educational support in their native language, a key feature of bilingual education. Vaipae found only one official document that alluded to national policy, which stated that native language support for immigrant children was not needed. It is not a matter of wealth but rather a policy choice. Because Sweden believed that native language support for immigrant children was not only needed but also a human right, they have summoned the human and material resources to provide public educational support in 100 languages (Yukawa, 2000).

Linguistic human rights (Skutnabb-Kangas & Phillipson, 1995) of language minority children tend to be honored or not according to the societal and cultural values mentioned above, though most countries have signed the relevant United Nations agreements. Although it may seem impractical to recognize such rights, loss of a child's native language tends to be cognitively damaging, whereas there are many cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Immigrant children could grow up to be cultural ambassadors to their country of origin if their native language were maintained, benefiting their new country in areas like international trade.

Bilingualism research at the societal level could profile a country or region in terms of the groups speaking different languages or dialects. Is there a majority or dominant group in the society whose preferred language or dialect is standard or 'correct'? What minority groups and languages are there in the society, and do those languages have lower perceived value while their speakers have lower socio-economic status? Different languages in a society can be viewed as a problem, a resource, or a human right, so minority languages could be viewed at one extreme as a nuisance or threat, with negative value, a problem to be solved at all costs. On the other hand, the same languages and people could be viewed as enriching the society if multilingualism and multiculturalism are viewed positively and supported by government policies and laws. Whether minority groups are friends or enemies, beneficial or detrimental to their society, depends to a great degree upon how they are educated and treated by the majority.

Within the dominant or majority group there can be significant differences that become social phenomena. In Japan there are returnees who did not follow the national standard curriculum throughout grade school because they followed their Japanese parents abroad for a number of years. They tend to attract attention because they differ from the norm in their linguistic and cultural repertoire. If they fall behind their peers in Japanese skills, when they return the priority may be for them to readjust and catch up at the expense of losing much of the linguistic and cultural capital they gained abroad. Only kids who stay in the standard educational system can read the atmosphere of subtle cues for expected behavior, so the returnees themselves may be at pains to fit in again, especially around the awkward years of adolescence. Yet if the returnees, like children of some international marriages, can maintain another valued language like English as well as Japanese, they are sought after by prestigious private universities. English is a major subject on most entrance examinations, with a line for TOEIC scores on entry sheets for employment, even though most young people make little headway toward English fluency. Thus it is well known that English or other languages of commerce provide an advantage, but individual differences tend to be diminished under peer group pressure, while the unstated national policy toward non-mainstream languages and cultures has always been assimilation. One recent ray of light for possible change is the recognition of the need for global human resources, and cosmopolitan Japanese young people are becoming more prominent in society. Paris-born TV announcer Cristel Takigawa was recently hailed for promoting Japanese hospitality toward the 2020 Olympics. The public and government in effect accepted her as representing Japan.

Among other phenomena of bilingualism at the societal level in various countries, languages have a certain value, as mentioned above, in any given society. Some languages serve as international or regional languages, like English, Arabic, Swahili, Chinese, Spanish, French, and so forth, facilitating commerce, religious dissemination, and intercultural communication. Those languages or others may also serve as bridge languages where a native speaker of language A communicates with B in language C, which is the second language of both speakers. It eliminates the native speaker advantage, and sometimes serves as a compromise to keep the peace among competing linguistic groups, such as in India where English serves as a bridge language among many indigenous Indian languages in education and other public domains.

English has rapidly turned into a global language or lingua franca, accelerated by the Internet. Interpersonal contacts are occurring with an ever-widening range of people, often native or non-native English users, through social media such as U.S.-based Facebook and Twitter. In Japan and many other countries the standardized language proficiency tests such as TOEIC and TOEFL are widely used for educational and employment screening, with high scores serving as qualifications. Particularly for jobs needing bilingual skills, which are increasing with the demand for global human resources, standardized proficiency tests cannot be avoided until better alternatives are developed, while the widespread use of English facilitates global communication.

This article has mainly summarized the items under family and society in Chart 2 above. The next article in this series will conclude with the remaining levels, bilingualism at the school level (bilingual education) and at the disciplinary level (the academic study of bilingualism).


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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