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
The four categories can be attributed by the four stages of language skills:
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
That's the capability which can be expected from the balanced bilingual (maybe
with a reduced proficiency) and the equilingual.
© Copyright 2003 - 2014, Bernd Klein