When we hear the word “bilingual,” what often comes to mind is the “balanced bilingual,” someone who has complete and/or native-like control over two languages. But when we take a class in applied linguistics, we realize that there are so many bilinguals in the world beyond this narrow definition. However, after taking a class in applied linguistics, I (the author) came back to the question: “OK, balanced bilingualism isn’t common, but does it exist, or is it a myth?” Five years later, as an Assistant Professor of applied linguistics, I believe the answer depends on how we define “balanced bilingual.” There are at least 3 ways, which leads us into the work of, and debates between, Li Wei/Ofelia García, Jeff MacSwan, and Jim Cummins. This post is my reflection on this work.
As I explain in another post, terms like “plurilingualism” and “translanguaging” reject a traditional definition of bilingualism as involving complete or native-like knowledge of two or more languages. That is, you do not need to be this kind of bi/multilingual to call yourself a bi/multilingual. As translanguaging became well recognized in educational research due to the work of Ofelia García (García & Li, 2014), her close collaborator Li Wei wrote against a ”balanced” definition of bi/multilingualism (Li, 2007):
Li’s argument goes with my post on emergentism and the multi/plural turn, a new way of conceptualizing language acquisition. However, I still keep coming back to the question of whether, indeed, there are people with complete, native-like control over two or more languages, or whether this is just a mythological ideal. My answer as an Assistant Professor in applied linguistics—at least right now—is that it depends on how you define “balanced bilingual,” and there are at least three ways of doing so. The first step in teasing them apart is to see “complete” and “native-like” as two different things.
First possible definition: “A balanced bilingual has ‘complete’ proficiency in two languages.” Can this exist?
Answer according to this definition: YES, but first let’s define “complete.”
The word “complete” is very imprecise, so I will replace it here with the sentence: “A balanced bi/multilingual has Level C2 proficiency, according to the Common European Framework of Reference, in multiple languages.”
Here’s a concise description of C2, the highest level of six (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2):
- Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
- Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
- Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
It is not hard to find many people who have these abilities in two or more languages, for example where I work (the University of Hong Kong). Therefore, the definition of balanced bilingualism as “C2 proficiency in multiple languages” has people who fulfill it; it exists.
Where is this definition limited?
The first and second points state: “Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read” and “Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.” Thus, textual literacy is seen as part of language proficiency (and language teachers often see the four language skills as being Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing). Yet the assumption that reading/writing is a measure of language proficiency is a distinctly Eurocentric and Asian way of looking at things, but it is not really correct to confuse language (our inborn ability for everyday conversation) with literacy (any use of language that has to be learned and taught, such as creating rap, using Morse Code, writing timed essays on standardized tests, or reciting the words of ancestors), as Jeff MacSwan has pointed out in a critique of Jim Cummins. According to one of Cummins’ early articles (Cummins, 1976), he feared that students might end up “semilingual” if they failed to develop traditional academic reading/writing skills in both home and school languages, but MacSwan (2001) pointed out that a person who leaves school at a young age may not have academic reading/writing skills, but still could have developed sophisticated literacies, e.g., as a farmer or seafarer, and this person still would have at least one fully developed first language; hence, there is no such thing as “semilingualism.”
Going back to CEFR C2 proficiency in a language or languages beyond one’s first, this can be attained in adulthood, and does not depend on the “critical period” of language learning in childhood… but what it does depend on, to a great degree, is educational preparation and privilege. Note that the measures of language at the C2 level are actually middle-class academic literacies; it is implied that they can be measured by doing a timed essay on a standardized test that synthesizes a bunch of readings, not by creating rap, using Morse Code, or reciting the words of ancestors. This is what makes the CEFR benchmarks class- and culture-specific, and they conflate (i.e., confuse by throwing together) (i) language development and (ii) development of school-based literacies… a Western/Eurocentric way of looking at things that also exists in Asia.
On the other hand, none of this means that the bi/multilingual with C2 proficiency in multiple languages has a “native-like” accent or an intuitive sense of the correct grammar across all the languages. Which brings us to the second definition of “balanced bilingual.”
Second possible definition: “A balanced bilingual has native-like command of both languages.” Can this exist?
Answer according to this definition: YES
This is what is called “psycholinguistic code-switching,” one of the types of code-switching that I define in this post on code-switching. Since the 1960s, linguists like William Labov have studied children growing up in bilingual communities, such as English/Spanish bilingual communities in the U.S. These children had early childhood immersion in two languages, and have been shown to be able to form mixed language utterances without breaking the grammatical rules of either language, somehow reconciling them through a “magical” ability that can only be acquired through early immersion in both languages. They can also take a word from Language A and conjugate it correctly according to the rules of Language B, without really having to think about how, not that they could really explain how. (A native speaker’s knowledge is intuitive, implicit, and instantaneous, but not explicit… and that is why not all native speakers of a language can teach it.)
Such research shows that bilingual children who mix two languages are not deficient in either language; in fact, there is something phenomenal in their systematic two-grammar juggling act (MacSwan, 2017).
Where is this definition limited?
This is all well and good in early childhood, but the languages eventually become imbalanced by late elementary school, because one (the dominant societal language) is used extensively in both school literacy and peer group out-of-class literacy practices, while the other is not. If you only measure the grammatical competence of bilingual six-year-olds using decontextualized sentences with no requisite background knowledge to process correctly, you will indeed see these children performing in native-like ways in Language A on its own, in Language B on its own, and in Languages A and B together… because they have enough input in both languages and at an early age. In fact, even mixed language input from grown-ups around them leads to nativelike bilingual development in the children, because the mixed language input they get, from the community that can do psycholinguistic code-switching, reconciles the grammar properties of both languages.
So, if you tested me (the author) on intuitive knowledge of English, Filipino, and French grammar in decontextualized everyday sentences, you would find me a balanced bilingual of English and Filipino. However, if you tested my CEFR level in the three languages, you would find me C2 in English and halfway up the ladder in the other two (but with more advanced receptive reading skills in French and more fluent in everyday conversation in Filipino). Once you get to sentence structures that are not found in everyday spoken language, like academic sentence structures (a form of literacy), or rap in the language, or any other form of literacy, you will not find the person a balanced bilingual past the age where they start learning language beyond everyday spoken language.
Third possible definition: “Everything a balanced bi/multilingual knows in Language A, they know in Language B (and C, D, etc.). Can this exist?”
Answer according to this definition: NO
This definition of balanced bilingualism simply does not exist. It is what is critiqued in Ofelia García’s writings on translanguaging. García points out that bi/multilingualism in nature is not like a bicycle or tricycle but an all-terrain vehicle.
In “subtractive” bilingual education, language minority students lose their home languages to only speak the dominant societal language. In additive bilingual education, a programmatic effort is made in schools to make children and youth “fully developed” in both languages separately, able to perform well on monolingual standardized tests in both languages, which can have a very negative effect on their academic attainment and experience of schooling, as shown by the work of García’s colleague Kate Menken, which I summarize here (among other research on translanguaging). Put yourself in these students’ shoes: it wouldn’t be fun, or very effective, to only be able to use part of your language repertoire at any given time to make meaning in class, just because it is the right period for one language and the wrong period for another. These youth are also positioned as “lacking” in both languages, because with each passing grade, they become more and more challenged in using each language on its own when academic literacy practices rather than just everyday spoken language is demanded of them. (This of course does not mean they are lacking in language skills or intelligence; it is what you get when monolingual language use and middle-class literacy practices are privileged in schools.)
[Side note: This need for bilingual communities to use all their funds of knowledge together in academic work is a different issue from creating “target language only” learning zones for endangered languages. In the case of Latinx students in the U.S. studied by Menken and García, we are talking about languages with a lot of living vitality, but used together. The distinction between translanguaging in bi/multilingual communities and translanguaging with endangered languages is addressed in this post on whether translanguaging is compatible with indigenous language revitalization… I argue that it depends on the vitality of the indigenous language, i.e., whether it is alive and well but unrecognized because of language-mixing, or genuinely threatened.]
Where is this definition limited?
Using the or bicycle/tricycle as the definition for “balanced” bi/multilingualism and the all-terrain vehicle as the definition of “real” bi/multilingualism suggests that because balanced bi/multilingualism doesn’t exist (according to this definition), it is a misguided topic of inquiry AND oppresses people with monolingual, middle-class standards for language use that we should fight against. (Of course, people in a certain situation do experience such oppression, and of course we should continue to fight it.)
However, according to the first two definitions, balanced bi/multilingualism is commonplace enough… and it is a reasonable line of scholarly and professional inquiry to investigate how people attain the above-average CEFR Levels B2, C1, and C2 in adulthood, or how bilingual communities are adept jugglers of two native languages. Like the all-terrain vehicle view of bi/multilingualism, these other two lines of inquiry also highlight the linguistic assets of people (e.g., writers of academic English as an additional language, and language minority children and youth) who otherwise would be seen from a point of view of language lack.
All definitions of bi/multilingualism are ideological, and each one promotes certain values and ways of using language over others—whether it be white-collar academic and professional literacies (definition 1), native-like grammar usage (definition 2), or a particular theory of bi/multilingualism from the U.S. and U.K. (definition 3).
Which definition should we embrace? All of them, and others… as long as they help us to see people from an asset-based perspective, not one of language lack.
Cummins, J. (1976). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive growth: A synthesis of research findings and explanatory hypotheses. Working Papers on Bilingualism, 9, 1-43.
García, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism, and education. Palgrave Macmillan.
Li Wei. (Ed.). (2007). The bilingualism reader 2nd ed. Routledge.
MacSwan, J. (2000). The threshold hypothesis, semilingualism, and other contributions to a deficit view of linguistic minorities. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 22(1), 3-45. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739986300221001