Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Book Review: Introduction to Bilingualism (preface & ch. 1): Defining Bilingualsim

Introduction to Bilingualism, by German academic, linguist, and mother Charlotte Hoffmann, married to a Spaniard and teaching in England at the time of publication (1991), is part of the respected series Longman Linguistics Library and the type of tome grad students might read as part of their coursework or amateur linguists might read for fun. It assumes a general familiarity with linguistics but not bilingualism, so it really does function as the "introduction" proclaimed in its title. Hoffmann divides her work into two parts: psycholinguistic aspects of bilingualism (including salient definitions, discussions of patterns of acquisition and features of bilingual speech, contradictory research findings about brain function of bilinguals, and lists of sociocultural elements of bilingualism) and sociolinguistic aspects (like social patterns, language choice, identity, and linguistic minorities, illustrated by detailed case studies). I will review it several chapters at a time so as to avoid extremely long posts, I promise!

Hoffmann begins with a very simple description of what it's like to be a polyglot with several languages to draw from: "I use different languages depending on whom I am speaking to or what I am talking about, and I feel a different kind of cultural and emotional attachment to the languages involved" (xii). This sets up her focus on the sociocultural aspects of bilingualism as well as the exploration of theories and facts. She addresses perceived problems with bilingualism (such as the low status of bilinguals in some cultures, like for the Turkish guest workers in her native Germany) but prefers to promote the sociocultural advantages--deepens understanding of two cultures, enriches one's life, provides a "wider range of linguistic resources" (p. 5-6).

Early on the book, Hoffmann concedes that defining bilingualism is a tricky task, as we must take many factors into account (age, background, living situation, education, contact, environment, the function/s that the language fulfills for the speaker, and more) and consider that proficiency is a continuum, not a certain point that a speaker passes and suddenly becomes fluent. In the middle of this continuum is the "equilingual" or "balanced bilingual," originally defined in 1959 as someone "fully competent" in both languages (22). (See my previous book review for a more contemporary perspective of the BB.) Nowadays, being a balanced bilingual doesn't imply native-like fluency in either language, just being equally comfortable in both, according to Hoffmann.

While becoming a balanced bilingual is perhaps ideal, this is not necessarily a reasonable goal for many people who speak more than one language, as most people bilinguals are dominant in one language. (The child, Noam, described in the previous book is not a balanced bilingual by these standards because he doesn't have equal ability in his different languages--but Faingold considers him one.)

Hoffmann contrasts the balanced bilingual with the "perfect bilingual" (or "ambilingual"): someone who has equal knowledge and ability with two languages and can use either one with equal comfort and fluency in any given situation. Hoffmann points out that "true ambilingual speakers are very rare creatures. Who ever has identical linguistic input and output in both languages? And who would habitually use both languages for the same purposes, in the same contexts?" (p. 21). In my opinion, having that second language to draw from when English doesn't work as well for me is one of the thrills of being bilingual. (And yes, I regularly find myself speaking French with other Americans--it just makes sense to use French when discussing what we do when we teach French, for example.)

Moreover, when we are defining bilingualism, some researchers and linguists take into account function--what language does the speaker use for which purpose and to what degree? For example, if an immigrant can understand the second language but not write or read it, is he bilingual? Again, it's a continuum--it's all relative. After a long discussion of possible definitions of bilingualism, Hoffmann basically says that there isn't any one definition that both captures all the salient aspects and pleases academics and bilingual speakers alike. But here's the one I like the best so far, cited by Hoffmann (p. 26) from Skutnabb-Kangas' 1984 work Bilingualism or Not (p. 90):

"A bilingual speaker is someone who is able to function in two (or more) languages, either in monolingual or bilingual communities, in accordance with the sociocultural demands made of an individual's communicative and cognitive competence by these communities or by the individual herself, at the same level as native speakers, and who is able positively to identify with both (or all) language groups (and cultures) or parts of them."

One final comment: Hoffmann points out that "bilingual" does not necessarily imply "bicultural," which might be the case with me teaching French to baby Carl. (Without regular trips to France, contact with French relatives, participation in French customs and traditions, and lots of input about France, he won't "feel" French. But that's not what his parents and I am aiming for, and besides, with so many countries that speak French, it would be hard to pick which one we wanted him to identify with!)

So that's what the academics have to say, according to Hoffmann's 1991 book. Fifteen years later, I'm curious: What do the bilinguals reading this blog have to say? What is your operation definition of a bilingual? Where do you fall on the continuum? What are the most important aspects for you? Click on "comments" to post a reply! (Or, if you would like me to profile you or bilingual kids you know in greater detail, email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll do a separate post!)

Click here for part 2 of this review.

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