Bilingualism and its Aspects


By Fatchul Mu’in


A language is used by its speaker for the sake of communication and interaction. Initially, a newborn child tries to master one language used his immediate social environment such as: family (father and mother) and surrounding people. In the age of pre-elementary school, he may have a mastery of one language; or, he may have a mastery of his mother tongue or native language. In the age level, he can be said as being a monolingual speaker. For him, to be able to use one language is sufficient.

In the next development, when he wants to go to elementary school, the new social environment ‘force’ him to learn another language until he has a mastery of the language (Indonesian language, for example). When he can be stated as having a mastery of Indonesian language, he is called as bilingual speaker.

According to Weinreich, bilingual is a person who involved in alternately using two languages. In this case, it can be said that before someone can be stated as bilingual speaker, of course, he has to master two languages. Mastering two languages enables him to use two languages alternately. That is to say that in one situation he uses one language, and in the other situation he uses the language. Therefore, he, then, can be stated as a person involved in what is called as bilingualism, the practice of alternately using two languages (Weienreich, 1968: 1).

Review on the Cncept of Blingualism

Some experts have different views on bilingualism. Let us look at William F. Mackey’s review on the term bilingualism, as follows:

The concept of bilingualism has become broader and broader since the beginning of the century. It was long regarded as the equal mastery of two languages. Bloomfield considered bilingualism as “the native-like control of two languages”. Haugen broadened this to the ability to produce “complete meaningful utterances in the other language”. Moreover, it has been now been suggested that the concept be further extended to include simply “passive-knowledge” of the written language or any “contact with possible models in a second language and the ability to use these in the environment of the native language. This broadening of the concept of bilingualism is due to realization that the point at which a speaker of a second language becomes bilingual is either arbitrary or impossible to determine. It seems obvious, therefore, that if we are to study the phenomenon of bilingualism we are forced to consider it as something relative. We must moreover include the use not only of two languages, but also of any number of languages. We shall therefore consider bilingualism as the alternate use of two or more languages by the same individual (Mackey, in Fishman, ed., 1972: 555).

Based the concepts of bilingualism above, we can see that there is a distinction between one given by Bloomfield and the other ones given by another experts. The Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as “the native-like control of two languages” implies the same fluency and accuracy as those of language use by each of its native speaker. Furthermore, Bloomfield states: “In the extreme case of foreign-language learning the speaker becomes so proficient as to be indistinguishable from the native speaker around him. This happens occasionally in adult shifts of language and frequently in the childhood shift ….. In this cases where this perfect foreign-language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native-language, it results in bilingualism, native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield, 1935:56).

Thus, based on Bloomfield’s idea, ‘native-like control of two languages’ come into being when the learner does not lose his native language. However, the use of two languages by the bilingual speaker is always influenced by socio-cultural factors underlying the two languages. If two languages are alternately used, it means that they are said to be in contact. Essentially, language contact is one of the aspects of cultural contact. Weinreich, then, states: “In a great majority of contact between groups speaking different mother tongues, the groups constitute, at the same time, distinct ethnic or cultural communities. Such contact entails biculturalism (participation in two cultures) as well as bilingualism, diffusion of cultural traits as well as of linguistic elements” (1968:5 and 89).

Based on Weinriech’s ideas above, it can be said that the alternate use of two languages, the culture and/or linguistic elements underlying the language used by the bilingual speaker may be involved in one of two languages. Istiati Soetomo (1985:2) states: “ If a bilingual speaker will send a message to his listener, he will meet two factors. First, it is the factor on the speaker’s competence of language system. In this relation, can he distinguish and select each of the language system, so that when he uses one of the languages, the other language system does not influence his speech act? If he is incompetent, while he uses one of two languages, the other one may be involved in his speech. This results in interference and/or code-switching/code-mixing. On the other side, if he is competent to separate one system from another when he uses one of two languages, it means that his speech act is in a single language; he does not make interference, code switching or code mixing. Second, it is the consideration on communication. A man as a means of communication uses a language in his effort to interact one with another. In reality, he is not free from rules of using language agreed by speech communities in which he lives and interact with the other members of the community in accordance with the values (way of life). This consideration will determine whether he will use a single-language, make interference, switch code or mix code”.

A speech act conducted by a bilingual speaker whose mastery of languages can be categorized as ”the native-like control of two languages”, will occur when he only consider his speech from the side of language use without considering non-linguistic factors, such as participants, topics, setting, and socio-cultural factors. However, non-linguistic factors often invlove in his speech act. These factors may result in deviation in language use.

Types of Bilingualism

We, then, regard to ‘the native-like control of two languages’ as a type of bilingualism. This type of bilingualism can be said as the ideal one. Another definiton of bilingualism as it is stated above refers to ‘the practice of alternately using two languages’. This kind of bilingualism does need a criterion of “equal mastery of two languages”. If someone has ability to use another language (either actively or passively), he can be called as a bilingual speaker. If he uses the two languages alternately, it means that he is involved in bilingualism.

Thus, bilingual speaker may or not have an equal mastery of two languages. If his mastery of two languages is said to be equal between one and another, he will be categorized as a compound bilingual; and if is not, coordinate or subordinate bilingual speaker. Based on the degree of languages mastery, we can say that there are compounds, coordinate and subordinate bilingualism.

As having stated above, the concept of bilingualism has become broader and broader. That is to say that it does not only refer to the mastery or use of two languages but of more than two languages. Therefore, the concept of bilingualism may imply to multilingualism. In this relation, William F. Mackey, as stated above, defines it as the alternate use of two or more languages by the same individual (Mackey, in Fishman, ed., 1972: 555).

Degree, Function, Alternation, and Interference

William F. Mackey states that bilingualism is a relative concept. Being a relative concept

1. it involves the question of degree.

How well does the individual know the languages he uses? In other words, how bilingual is he?. The discussion on the question of degree will determine whether he is a compound, coordinate, or subordinate bilingual speaker.

2. it involves the question of function.

What does he use his languages for?. What role have his languages played in his total pattern of behavior?. The discussion on the question of function is related to the uses of his languages in the speech community. For instance, a speaker will use one of his languages in his family environment; and he will use the other in the other social environments such as school, market, etc.

3. it includes the question of alternation. To what extent does he alternate between his languages? How does he change from one language to the other, and what conditions?. This discussion on the question of alternation is concerned with code-switching/code-mixing and its influencing factors such as partcipants, topics, etc.

4. it includes the question of interference. How well the bilingual keep his languages apart? To what extent does he fuse them together?. This discussion on the question of alternation will cover all kinds of linguistic deviations made a bilingual speaker as a result of his familiarity of more than one language.


Acoording to Ferguson (Wardhaugh, 1986: 87), diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by an sector of the community for ordinary conversation.

In relation to the Ferguson’s idea, Wardhaugh explains that a diglossic situation exists in a society when it has two distinct codes which show clear funtional separation; that is, one is employed in one set of circumstances and the other in an entirely different set (1986 : 87). Troike and Blackwell suggest that a diglossic situation refers to a situation in which two mor mere languages (or varieties of the same language) in a speech community are allocaed to different sosial functions and contexts. When Latin is the language of education and religious services in England, for example, English and Latin are in a diglosic relationship (56).

Furthermore, Janet Holmes discusses diglossia using two terms, namely: in norrow and broad senses. In the narrow sense, diglossia has three crucial features:

1. Two distinct variaties of the same language are used in the community, with one regarded as a high (H) variety and the other a low (L) variety.

2. Each variety is used for quite distinct functions; H and L complement each other.

3. No one uses the H variety in everyday conversarion.

The relationship between H and L varities are as follows:

1. There is a specilization of function for H and L.

2. H as a higher level of prestige than L, and is considered superior.

3. There is a literary heritage in H, but not in L.

4. There are different circumstances of acquisation; children learn L at home, and H in school.

5. The H variety is standardized, with a tradition of grammatical study and established norms and ortography (Troike and Blackwell, 1986 : 57).

6. The grammar of H variety is more complex, more highly inflected.

7. H and L varieties share the bulk of their vocabularies, but there is some complementary distribution of terms.

8. The phonology of H and L is a single complex system (Wardaugh, 1983)

A key defining characteristic of diglossia is that the two varietis are kept apart functionally. One is used in one set of circumstances and the other in an entirely different set. For instance, the H varieties are used for delivering sermons and formal lectures, especially in a parliament or legislative body, for giving political speeches, for broadcasting the news on radio and television, and for writing poetry, fine literature, and editorials in newspapers. In contrast, the L variaties are used instructions to workers in low-prestige occupations ot to household servants, in conersation with familiars, in ’soap operas’ and popular program on the radio, in captions on political cartoons in newpapers, and in ’folk literature’. On occasion, one may lecture in an H variety but answer questions about its contents or explain parts of it in an L variaety so as to ensure understanding (Wardhaugh, 1986 : 88).


Based on Mackey’s concept on bilingualism ” the alternate use of two or more languages by the same individual (Mackey, in Fishman, ed., 1972: 555), it can be said that there are, at least, two languages mastered and used by individual speaker. This speaker is said to be a bilingual. In other words, bilingual speakers are required in bilingualism.

Diglossia is a characteristic of speech communities rather than individuals. In a diglossic situation, there must be two varieties or codes of a language. In broad sense, if languages are said to be varieties of all the human languages, diglossic situation can be extended to be one where two languages are used for different functions in a speech community, especially one language is used for H functions and the other for L functions. According to Troike and Blackwell (1986), the most important thing is that in speech community, there may be (1) both bilingualism and diglossia, (2) diglossia without bilingualism, (3) bilingualism without diglossia, and (4) neither bilingualism nor diglossia.


  1. Some people feel sufficient to master one language; some others do not feel sufficient to master one language, therefore, they need to learn more than one language. Why does this happen?
  2. How can a person become a bilingual as suggested by Bloomfield? Can it be guaranteed that the ideal bilingual will not make deviations in using one of the languages? What factors are involved in bilingualism?. Elaborate your answers!
  3. Using the information provided above, tell the differences between H and L in diglossic situation.
    1. Are they distinct languages or varieties of the same language?
    2. How are they used in the community?
    3. Which is used for conversation with family and friends?
    4. Which has most prestige?

4. What is the difference between bilingualism and diglossia? Explain using an example of a given speech community in which there are two or more languages!

5. In speech community, there may be (1) both bilingualism and diglossia, (2) diglossia without bilingulingalism, (3) bilingualism without diglossia, and (4) neither bilingualism nor diglossia. Give examples of communities that are in the situation of 1, 2, 3, and 4!

1 Comment

  • agus Wj

    what do you think of language death?. Does bilingualism lead to language death?. It is a fact that Indonesian language is the biggest killer language in Indonesia, it endangers some ethnic languages, including Javanese. English is also the biggest killer in the world. Many ethnic languages in South Africa and South America have been killed and it will keep going for centuries ahead. What do you think?:))

    if speech community maintain their mastery of two or more languages, they will not kill one of their languages.

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