Bilingual Upbringing of
  Children in the Home

Classification of Bilingualism/Multilingualism

For many people the term bilingual seems to be easy to be defined: Being 'truly' bilingual means for them, being capable of speaking two languages (e.g. the predominant language L1 of the area or country, where the person lives and an additional language L2) like a native speaker. But as there are various kinds of bilinguals and multilinguals, it is necessary to develop a clear categorization. Unfortunately, the following terms are not uniformly used within the scientific community. I tried to use what I thought is kind of mainstream.
  • Classification according to the age of an individual:
    • Early Bilingual
      This group can be further subdivided into
      • Simultaneous Bilinguals
        Both languages are acquired simultaneously
      • Sequential Bilinguals
        The second language (L2) was acquired after the first one (L1).
    • Late Bilingual
  • Classification according to skill:
    There are no clearly defined levels of bilingual skills, but it is rather a continuum, ranging from
    • Passive Bilingual
      A person who is a native speaker in one and is capable of understanding but not speaking another language.
    • Dominant Bilingual
      A person being more proficient in one of the two languages (in most cases native-like).
    • Balanced Bilingual
      Someone who is more or less equally proficient in both languages, but will not necessarily pass for a native speaker in both languages.
    • Equilingual
      If somebody passes in any situation in both languages for a native speaker, i.e. he or she is indistinguishable from a native speaker. This is the strictest kind of defining bilingualism. Unfortunately it is very often the inherent semantics some people and even some scientists bear in mind, when they talk about bilingualism.
    The four categories can be attributed by the four stages of language skills:
    • listening comprehension
      This is the minimal competence a bilingual will have in both languages. A passive bilingual is one who can only cope with this skill in the second language, whereas in his or her first language he normally manages the four of them.
    • speaking
      That is the capability you can generally expect a dominant and a balanced bilingual, as well as in an equilingual, to posses.
    • reading comprehension
      This is the threshold, where a dominant bilingual often drops out for his second language, but not inevitably.
    • writing
      That's the capability which can be expected from the balanced bilingual (maybe with a reduced proficiency) and the equilingual.
    This approach to classify and categorize bilinguals is not complete and maybe too strict in its abstraction, e.g. it doesn't take into consideration those, who are able to show a considerable proficiency in reading comprehension and in writing, but are very poor in understanding oral language and in speaking the second language.

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