We live in a world that changes faster than what we can imagine. Multiculturalism has an important place in our society nowadays. In most single countries, we can find people coming from all over the world. Maybe, then, we should ask ourselves what the importance of languages in our modern world is. Is it really that necessary to know more than one language? Or is it just a matter of personal achievements and personal knowledge?
Speaking more than one language, you undoubtably have a better chance to understand more people from different countries. If you speak their same languages that’s awesome, if not, knowing more than one language enhances the chance that you could understand and communicate with the person standing in front of you.
In addition, you have the possibility to immerge yourself in a different culture, to learn history, arts and literature of the specific language (and country) that you know. There are also cognitive benefits such as increased creativity or a better sensibility in communicating with people. Having two different language systems facilitates the spontaneous attention towards structural aspects of the respective language (words, sounds, phrases). Therefore, a major mental flexibility.
How can we define bilingualism?
Some people may think that a person is bilingual only when he/ she knows two languages perfectly (ideal bilingualism). This is not the case for everyone. In general, we can say that a bilingual person has the capability to speak fluently two languages.
Language ability can be divided in two parts, the active and the passive one.
In the active part we have the tasks of speaking and writing, while in the passive one the tasks are listening and reading.
The code-switching case study:
At this point I’m going to focus on the speaking and writing task by analysing a case study. In doing this, I will introduce the “code-switching” phenomena.
Children that grew up speaking two languages are able to “code switch”, namely the ability to alternate between two or more languages in the context of a single conversation. As the case study will show, if a bilingual speaker is talking in one language and is suddenly unsure how to verbalize a particular word, the person may say it in the other language.
The data of this study comes from approximately fourteen hours of video-tapes taken in a classroom where teachers, parents and children had a discussion. The dialogues were based on the interaction between the teacher, the parents and the respective child. All of the people involved in this project knew at least two languages (Spanish and English).
The results of this interesting case study show that almost all the members have used some kind of code-switching (either intentionally or unintentionally).
The children adopted a particular form of code-switching. All four children were Spanish dominant but they also had a knowledge of the English language. They used both languages in a free and spontaneous way as they discussed with the other members. The results show that every child was able to understand and to use the English language in an informal conversation, yet they still frequently used both languages in their responses. In the written part we still can analyse a sort of code-switching, but it has drastically reduced compared to the oral discussion.
This is an interesting phenomena that I didn’t even know had this specific name. But what I certainly know is that I used to do this all the time in my child years. During my school years in Germany I used to speak in a weird way that included jumping from a language to another in a matter of 5 seconds. I would start a phrase in Italian, then stop myself because I didn’t remember a word, then that specific word came up to my head in German. At the end of what should have been a simple phrase, I was able to switch languages at least three times. What I mean is that I started speaking a mixture between Italian and German, the so called code-switching, changing from one language to another, sometimes done in an unconscious way. I then started noticing that it was very hard for me to speak one language at a time. My Italian relatives started joking about my way of speaking since I was always mixing up words.
Although I had some minor difficulties while growing up with two languages, I would never say that it wasn’t worth it. As we can see by the results of the case study, bilingual children have absolutely no problem in learning two languages at the same time. In fact, they benefit from this by gaining a mental flexibility that nothing else can give you.
Huerta-Macìas, A., & Quintero E. (1992). Code-Switching, Bilingualism, and Biliteracy: A Case Study.
Gauthier, C. (2012). Language Development in Bilingual Children. Illinois.
Hamers, J. F., & Blanc, M. H. A. (2000). Language Development in Bilingual Children. Cambridge University Press.