Active bilingualism does not happen automatically when objectively favourable conditions are present and unfavourable conditions subdued. Nonetheless, positive actions at various levels have been put forward by research, which can help to develop and maintain the individual active bilingualism throughout a lifetime. We hereby invite you to reach for further publications to learn more on this topic, which enjoys growing attention.
Defining active bilingualism
The concept of bilingualism has been changing throughout history and its current content varies across scientific domains. Examining it through the lenses of sociolinguistics, bilingualism is not a mere linguistic competence, it is a life-long social process that shows linguistic ups and downs in the languages involved. It is rooted in social interactions influenced by a mix of various psychological and social factors (Bhatia, 2017). Foremost, active bilingualism should not be seen as a state once reached; rather, it represents bilingual social interactions that stretch over one’s lifetime. When talking about active bilingualism, we leave aside bilingualism as a political or social constellation, and we focus on individual bilingualism or the way a person, particularly in the early childhood, becomes bilingual.
Active bilingualism should also be distinguished from receptive bilingualism; the first describing a productive use of two languages, the second a mere passive understanding of another language (García & Beardsmore, 2009). Valdés (2001) intelligibly described the way the concept of (active) bilingualism, based on competency assessment, has been developing over time, shifting from the ‘mythical bilingual’, idealized, fully balanced bilingual in any situations, through the concepts discussing different levels of competences in the two languages dedicated to different situations, to the concepts taking into account the changing individual proficiency in the two languages over one’s lifetime.
The contemporary research, based on holistic (Cenoz & Gorter, 2011) or ecological approach (Haugen, 1972, as cited in Schwarz & Verschik, 2013), often shifts its concern from the competence assessment to the performance analysis, focusing on how bilinguals use the language in their real life. Rejecting what is called a monolingual bias (Cenoz & Gorter, 2011), bilingualism is then studied as a process of translanguaging, i.e. how an individual uses their whole linguistic repertoire, without regards to any politically set structure of language characteristics. Otheguy (2015) argues that bilingualism is a special skill independent of the general language proficiency in a single standardized named language and, as such, it shall be understood and studied. While we try to understand and describe the translanguaging within an individual set of language skills, unique individual idiolect skills (Otheguy et al., 2015), we approach it from the point of view of the individual, not from a perspective of one or the other named and standardized language (García & Beadsmore, 2009).
Linguistic structure of active bilingualism
Although the traditional delimitation of speaking versus writing lost its role in everyday communication thanks to the multimodality of multimedia technologies (Cenoz & Gorter, 2011), all four base linguistic skills should still be taken into consideration when we want to talk about active bilingualism. We speak about reading and writing as literacy skills; listening and speaking as oracy skills; for deaf alternated attending and producing as signacy skills (García & Beardsmore, 2009). Indeed, active bilingualism expects the full biliteracy, using and practising, and also writing, in both the named languages, even if one of the languages was dedicated to being used only in privacy at home and in a community (Hornberger, 2003, citing also Fishman).
Conditions that can lead to active bilingualism represent a whole range of psychological, social and linguistic aspects, creating the context in which the learning process is happening, stretching from macro-social, political and economic factors to personal motivations of individuals (Dewaele, 2003). The way they are grouped in theories and research varies a lot. In the psychosocial framework, Ellis (1995, as cited in Baker & García, 1997) described the conditions as situational factors, attitude, motivation, learning strategy and personality. Spolsky (2004, as cited in Curdt-Christiansen, 2009) categorized the conditions in the broadest sociocultural approach to four groups of contexts – socio-linguistic, socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-political, seeing those as sources for various ideologies.
If we were extremely strict, we could skip all the outer conditions next – considering the family as an intimacy unit which can resist all wider social de-motivation. Schwartz (2010, 2013), building up theoretically on the already classic Fishman’s work, points out the uppermost importance of the family in the development of early childhood bilingualism: ‘Association with intimacy and privacy makes the family particularly resistant to outside competition and substitution.’ (Schwartz, 2010, p. 172). Nonetheless, at least language ideologies also play a salient role in the complexity of family language planning, and as a ‘driving force behind’ what languages are used and taught at home (King, Fogle & Logan-Terry, 2008, as cited in Kirsch 2012). Parents often link their teaching efforts to their self-estimation and self-presentation as ‘good parents’, perceiving potential minority language loss as their personal loss (Curdt-Christiansen, 2009; Schwarz, 2010). It seems that whatever strategy parents adopt to achieve active bilingualism of their child, even if the decision is unexpressed or unconscious, ideologies are always behind.
The natural language input occurs in community interactions. The parents get supported by them in their efforts as well when they seek an external control for their language strategies. Therefore, the density of community group, events and language resources like a community library service or a community school, alternatively neighbourhood meetings and plays, cultural events, all that supports the development of active bilingualism, esp. if the child lives in a monolingual profiled society (Kirsch, 2012; Schwartz, 2010). Sometimes, religious institutions bear the community function of language maintenance (Schwartz, 2010, pp. 182-183).
Another everyday interaction happens at school. Teachers’ attitudes towards minority languages and multilingualism mirror in the class practices. To guide them, multilingual pedagogies should respect two basic principles. The principle of social justice (equal rights for participation and development of every child) and of social practice (quality interactions, both contextual and abstract language use, collaborative learning and high relevance of content for the children) (García & Flores, 2012, pp. 242-243). To promote bilingualism, teachers should encourage children to use their minority languages as funds of knowledge and create an environment that demands immediate use of more languages, listen to them and respect them, give them responsibility and independence in the learning process (Kirsch, 2006; Hornberger, 2007; García et al., 2011).
The processes that lead to active bilingualism have their context sources at the macrosocial level of human interactions. Geographical, demographical, historical, socio-economic and political environments create the base for all the shared and individual ideologies that either inhibit or incite bilingualism. Living at state borders will typically stimulate a natural bilingualism by vital economic exchanges and mixed marriages. The level of international social mobility and the number of languages demanded in the labour market, also stimulate or inhibit a desire for bilingualism (Curdt-Christiansen, 2009). Nowadays, we also have to consider the global (and often virtual) socio-economical and socio-cultural processes creating transnational spaces that are, thanks to their character, difficult to control or manage (Hornberger, 2007).
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Written by Veronika Lovritš – Communication Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and a student of the Master Program in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She holds an MA in Law and Legal Science and a BA in Sociology from the Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. She speaks Czech, English, German, French and Luxembourgish.