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What is Bilingualism?

People use the term “bilingualism” in different ways. For some, it means an equal ability to communicate in two languages. For others, it simply means the ability to communicate in two languages, but with greater skills in one language. In fact,it is more common for bilingual people, even those who have been bilingual since birth, to be somewhat "dominant" in one language.

The following three types of bilingualism are usually used by researchers to describe bilingual children:

  1. Simultaneous bilingualism: Learning two languages as "first languages". That is, a person who is a simultaneous bilingual goes from speaking no languages at all directly to speaking two languages. Infants who are exposed to two languages from birth will become simultaneous bilinguals.

  2. Receptive bilingualism: Being able to understand two languages but express oneself in only one. Children who had high exposure to a second language throughout their lives, but have had little opportunity to use the language would fall in this category. For example, many children in Chinese or Mexican immigrant households hear English on TV, in stores and so on, but use their home language (Chinese or Spanish) in everyday communication. When they enter preschool or kindergarten, these children are likely to make rapid progress in English because their receptive language skills in English has been developed.

  3. Sequential bilingualism: Learning one language after already established a first language. This is the situation for all those who become bilingual as adults, as well as for many who became bilingual earlier in life.