Why are Bilinguals Bilingual?

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Just as important as how one becomes bilingual is why people become bilingual in the first place.  With over half the world’s population being bilingual, let’s stop and ask why are bilinguals bilingual?  Of course, research has recently shown us the wonderful cognitive and social benefits of being bilingual; yet most of the world’s bilinguals became bilingual long before these studies ever made top headlines.  In fact, the large presence of bilinguals in the world demonstrates its importance despite the many unfounded negative myths associated with bilingualism perpetuated in centuries past.

Yet, before we delve into the why, let us ask first what bilingualism actually means. The well renowned Professor of Psycho-linguistics, François Grosjean, offers his definition of Bilingualism in his book, Bilingualism, Life and Reality.  He states, “Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives.”  This idea of the daily use of more than one language trumps the old notion that to be bilingual, one is required to have complete fluency in more than one language.  Thus a person who is proficient in one and fluent in another and uses both daily would still be considered bilingual.  The emphasis is focused on the daily use of more than one language in an individual’s life.

Throughout history, bilingualism has risen out of sheer necessity and utility due to one or more of the following factors:

  • Economic  (including trade and business)
  • Geopolitical 
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Higher Learning

Cultural heritage and higher learning is a wonderful way for children to first learn a second language.  However, historically, geopolitical and economic forces tend to have the strongest influence for why one becomes bilingual and remains bilingual.  Cultures, traditions and interconnected economies shared across borders are why many who live along a shared border speak multiple languages.  Likewise, a politically or economically dominant power tends to spawn the need for other groups to adopt its language (either directly or indirectly).  Adopting the language enables those groups with less political or economic power to potentially confer some benefits associated with the dominant group.  Examples of this include 1) immigrants adopting the language of a new homeland; 2) natives adopting the language of colonial powers; and 3) adopting the languages of economic powers to increase trade opportunities such as learning Mandarin Chinese to increase trade with mainland China.  All such factors tend to generate more bilingualism.  Conversely, according to François Grosjean, the nation-states with the most monolingual population also tend to be those most isolated from other economic and political factors, such as North Korea and Cuba.

We can clearly see the results of these key factors in the overall limited diversity in global languages.  According to Ethnologue, over 7,000 languages exist worldwide; yet, 94% of the word’s population speaks 347 of these.  We need only to look at the top 10 languages spoken today to witness the impact of these geopolitical and economic forces, both past and present, on global languages used today.  From perusing several sources including Ethnologue, I found the top 10 languages spoken in 2014 to be:

  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Spanish
  • English
  • Hindi/Urdu
  • Arabic
  • Portuguese
  • Bengali
  • Russian
  • Japanese
  • Javanese & French (varies depending on source)

Today, global economic and political factors continue to influence our choices in which languages we adopt.  We see this to be evident in the increasing number of bilinguals in the United States over the past several decades.  In 1976, only 6% of the population was bilingual.  Today, approximately 20% are bilingual.  In the Austin metro area, an even greater percentage are bilingual (approximately 27%).  So as you and/or your children learn a second language, remember the key factors that facilitate bilingualism and think about how they impact daily life.  What languages do you use and how do you use them for work, for communicating with friends and family, and for engaging in society?  Why are you bilingual?