When bilingualism gains new meanings

My interest in bilingualism is recent. I mean, my conceptual interest is. And before I move on I think it’s necessary to clarify what I mean by bilingualism.

I’ll start with the easy (non) definition. Bilingualism may be perceived in lay terms as the ability to use two (hence the “bi”) languages (hence the “lingualism”) but this perception is deceiving. To start with, bilingualism may involve two or more languages. Additionally, what exactly does “the ability to use” a language entail? Are we talking about minimal competence? Are we talking about proficient use? Do we consider competence in all language skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) when we describe a bilingual scenario? None of these questions have easy answers.

Scholars have long noted that to define bilingualism is not an easy task. In the introductory chapter to his book Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism, Colin Baker concludes that “defining exactly who is or is not bilingual is essential elusive and ultimately impossible” (p.16). He proposes instead that we should try to understand bilingualism by its key dimensions, bilingual ability and bilingual use.

Key concepts
bilingual ability: the degree to which a bilingual is proficient in two or more languages
– bilingual use: contextual characteristics of when, where, to whom and for what purpose the languages in focus are used

In what follows I discuss how these key concepts relate to my personal and professional trajectories in bilingualism across Portuguese (my first language) and English.

My bilingual trajectory

Born in Brazil, I developed Portuguese as my first language and at age 10 started learning English at school and private language institutes. Eventually I decided to study English language and literature at university level, and later worked on my master’s in English education in the United States. I have lived in England for almost twenty years. I’ve never thought much about how my English learning has evolved. I suppose it just happens. Yes, I use the verb in the present (“happens”) because my English development is ongoing: I learn something new every day (but isn’t this what happens in your first language as well?). I’m able to use English across different levels in my everyday life, and I feel more comfortable in using English (rather than Portuguese) for academic purposes. My academic life has been predominantly in and through English. 

My children’s bilingual trajectory

Ranging from 3 to 9 when we moved to the United States, my three children learned their English more easily than I did, as expected. After about a year in the U.S. they were comfortably using the two languages in all domains of their lives, including in their interactions among each other. A little later it was their Portuguese that started to be more hesitant, but our return to Brazil for a few years before settling in England managed to rectify that. So, again, their bilingual development happened without much thinking from my part. I never looked at that professionally, I mean. 

My students’ bilingual trajectory

My English language teaching experience has predominantly happened in Brazil, where English is taught as a foreign language. I suppose the goals I’ve tried to achieve during all my years of teaching have been predominantly competence-based, preparing students for tests (Brazilian university entrance exams, TOEFL/IELTS, FCE/CAE), for work more generally or for travelling. I don’t think I’ve thought about these processes as a bilingual development – at least not until recently.

So what’s changed and why?

It was when my grandchildren were about to be born that I started feeling that to pass on some Portuguese competence to them was something I really cherished. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy: they live in England, have English mothers, and their exposure to Portuguese is limited to interactions with grandparents, one parent, uncles and the occasional friend. Conceptually, we could say that they live in an environment where English is the majority language and Portuguese is a minority language.

I’ve been trying to understand why I feel their Portuguese development is so important, and how I can help make that happen. The posts in the category “Bilingualism Matters” in this blog reflect my recent musings.

Key concepts
majority language: the language which holds higher prestige in a community, as compared to other languages.
– minority language: a language characterized by a lower social or cultural level of prestige in a community.

I’ll be writing more details about what I’ve been reading and witnessing in my grandchildren’s bilingual development, but in this introductory post I’d like to juxtapose their development with what I wrote about my own, my children’s, and my students’ bilingual developments. 

Unlike my stance towards my own and my children’s English development, my perception of their Portuguese development is not unexamined. I often try to theorise about their oral productions, I regularly try to unpick the cognitive mechanisms that guide their oral comprehension.  Unlike my previous students’ English development, my grandchildren’s Portuguese development does not have an objective competence-based goal. 

Because it’s such a new process for me, and it blurs the borders of my personal and professional relationship with Portuguese and English, I’m trying to come to grips with my own feelings and thoughts about these children’s bilingual development. Sometimes I feel it’s almost evolutionary – as if I felt the urge to pass on my knowledge of Portuguese to the new generations.  Sometimes I wonder whether this is all about affect – and that only Portuguese would allow me to have a truly loving relationship with them. 

Time will tell how this thinking evolves and how their bilingual development progresses.  For now I conclude by outlining some questions that I’ve been asking myself and that readers going through similar reflective paths might find useful to ask themselves as well:

  1. How can I describe the linguistic ability I expect to see in the minority language development I’m contributing to? 
  2. How do I characterise the linguistic use I expect to see in that development in the short (and maybe medium) term?
  3. What can I do in practical terms in order to try to achieve the type of linguistic ability I outlined in my answer to (1) and the linguistic use I outlined in (2)? 

In my next post on bilingualism matters I will share some thoughts in response to these questions, giving more details about the type of bilingual ability and bilingual use I would like to see in my grandchildren, and about what I have been doing recently in order to achieve these goals.

Leave a comment