Who Is a Bilingual?

Document Type : Research Paper


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The question of who is and who is not a bilingual is more difficult to answer than it first appears. Bilingualism was long regarded as the equal mastery of two languages, a definition that still prevails in certain glossaries of linguistics. However, today's complex world requires a more exact definition and analysis of the competencies that community members require to interact with speakers of other languages. As Weir (2000) points out, it is now recognized that a bilingual or multilingual speaker uses different languages for different purposes, in different contexts, with various degrees of proficiency to communicate with other interlocutors. It seems obvious, therefore, that if we are to study the phenomenon of bilingualism, according to Mackey (1959, cited in Mackey, 2000), we are forced to consider it as something entirely relative. Grosjean (1985) suggests that native-like proficiency in both languages, referred to as true bilingualism, is rare. Therefore, as Baker (2006) points out “defining exactly who is or is not bilingual is essentially elusive and ultimately impossible” (p. 16).