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Bilingualism - General

  • Common myth: bilingualism is a rare phenomenon.
    • Reality: half of the world’s inhabitants speak more than one language, every day. Bilingualism is a phenomenon existing all over the world, on all continents and in most countries of the world. In fact, only ten per cent of the world’s (approximately) 220 countries or states can be considered unilingual. For example, these relatively rare monolingual countries include Barbados, Cuba, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The country with the largest number of languages is the island of New Guinea (with 830 languages). Canada has 76 different languages, counting all the First Nations languages and the two official languages. In countries where two or more languages are spoken, it is very rare that these languages have the same population, social or legal status. Also, their geographical distribution is often different. (see La diversité des langues dans le monde, available in French only)
  • Why do we become bilingual? Because we were born into a family where the parents speak two different languages, because we live in a bilingual society where a foreign language does not correspond to the language that is spoken at home, because we immigrated to another country, or because it is a requirement for certain professions (e.g. translation, journalism abroad), etc.
  • What are the advantages of bilingualism?
    • It often provides the ability to communicate with different people of different cultures.
    • Bilingual people (particularly those who became bilingual in childhood) have more open, flexible and creative thinking. This is what is called divergent thinking; it produces original and less conventional solutions. The studies that have established this start with the assumption that having two systems of mental representation** increases flexibility and originality of thought. **By “mental representation systems", we mean that a bilingual person has two words for a single object or a single thought, which in turn means that they have a broader semantic repertoire (Abdelilah-Bauer, Le défi des enfants bilingues ).
    • Bilingualism incorporates proven cognitive advantages. Compared to monolingual children, bilingual children can concentrate with greater ease and not be distracted as much. In adults, bilingualism helps to reduce the effects of aging on the brain. (Parlez-vous français? The Advantages of Bilingualism in Canada)
    • In Canada, bilingualism has economic advantages. The employment rate for bilingual people with the two official languages is higher than that for those who speak only one official language. In addition, personal income for bilingual people may be higher. (Parlez-vous français? The Advantages of Bilingualism in Canada)

To find out more...

  • La diversité des langues dans le monde | Webpage from the Treasury of French Language in Québec at Université Laval including: 1) a census of the languages spoken in the world; 2) the distribution of languages by continent; 3) the populational, geographical and legal inequality of languages (available in French only).
  • Bilingual. Life and Reality. (François Grosjean), Harvard University Press, 2010, 276p. | Book by a renowned specialist in bilingualism, himself the son of an Anglophone mother and a Francophone father. Demonstrating that bilingualism is not a sign of intelligence, cultural alienation or political disloyalty, Grosjean presents the strategies used by parents to raise bilingual children, and addresses various issues such as the level of mastery of the languages spoken by a bilingual person, code switching, the age at which one can become bilingual, and many other topics.
  • Le défi des enfants bilingues. (Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer), Éditions La Découverte, 2008, 207 p. |The first two chapters of this book deal with bilingualism in general, including what it means to be bilingual.
  • Parlez-vous français? The Advantages of Bilingualism in Canada | Ten-page booklet from the Canadian Council on Learning that describes the benefits of bilingualism in both official languages.