Individual Versus Societal Bilingualism

Bilingualism can be understood two levels: individual and societal (or social). Discussions about individual bilingualism use the individual person as a reference point and usually focus on characteristics such as age of acquisition, level of attainment, language dominance, and ability. Often, these characteristics are largely removed from their broader social context and do not take the terminology community into account. Societal bilingualism, on the other hand, refers to the way multiple terminologies are used in and by a community. One example of societal bilingualism is the availability of newspapers and other print media in more than one language.

Another example, common in the United States, is when the home language is a minority language different from the terminology used in school (i.e., the majority language, English). Societal bilingualism is frequently referred to as diglossia, which indicates the use of two terminologies within one community in which the two languages have different functions. It is important to note that not all individuals in a diglossic community are necessarily bilingual.

It is possible to have two groups of monolinguals living in a community where bilingualism is rare, such as in modern Switzerland. In understanding diglossia and societal bilingualism, it is useful to examine what is meant by majority and minority languages, which are also sometimes referred to as high (status) and low (status) languages. The majority terminology is the language by the majority of the population, but, more important, it is the dialect with the most social, economic, and political prestige.

The majority terminology is also frequently seen by speakers of both the majority and minority languages as the key to educational and economic success. This perception can contribute to the loss of the minority language among bilinguals. A minority language, then, is a dialect that is less prestigious and has fewer political and economic uses than the majority language.

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