EAL – What is Bilingualism?

Put simply, bilingualism is the ability to use two languages. However, defining bilingualism is problematic since individuals with varying bilingual characteristics may be classified as bilingual. Definitions of bilingualism range from a minimal proficiency in two languages, to an advanced level of proficiency which allows the speaker to function and appear as a native-like speaker of two languages. A person may describe themselves as bilingual but may mean only the ability to converse and communicate orally. Others may be proficient in reading in two or more languages (or bi-literate). A person may be bilingual by virtue of having grown up learning and using two languages simultaneously (simultaneous bilingualism). Or they may become bilingual by learning a second language sometime after their first language. This is known as sequential bilingualism. To be bilingual means different things to different people.

Bilingualism encompasses a range of proficiencies and contexts. A young child entering school may be called bilingual but it may be that she uses her first or home language for domestic and familial purposes and that English is her preferred language for communication outside the home. Or she may be largely monolingual in her first language only when she starts school. A child who has recently arrived in England from overseas may have a good level of literacy in English but may be unable to converse or use spoken English in the classroom context. On the other hand, many pupils described as bilingual routinely use three languages or more and thus ‘plurilingual’ would be a better description. In terms of competence, a bilingual may have very high levels of proficiency in both languages or may have only limited proficiency in one and be far more proficient in the other.

For more information: