Paweł Zieliński’s report is titled ‘Bilingualism’ and is a brief analysis of bilinguals and who they are. It also helps readers to distinguish a person who is a bilingual from one who is not. According to the Encarta Dictionary (2011), a bilingual refers to a person “able to speak two languages easily and naturally.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary also defines a bilingual as a person “able to use two languages especially with equal fluency” (Merriam-Webster, 2011).
This text aims to find the correct definition of the term ‘bilingual’, by identifying the characteristics that define a bilingual, the distinctions caused by the different times a language is learned, and whether learning a language is only about speaking the language or learning the culture from which the language comes from, as well.
Zieliński’s key argument is that a person can become bilingual only after they are able to speak the language fluently. This person must also understand the culture from which the language comes from.
He argues that a person does not have to learn a language from youth. It can be learned in adulthood, although it is much more difficult to master a language as an adult compared to learning it in childhood. Zieliński’s analysis covers his main arguments well, although he could have put more emphasis on covering opposing arguments to his opinions, as well.
The text is organized into an introduction, two key points and a conclusion. In the introduction, a bilingual person is first defines. A bilingual is a person with a command of two languages. A person that speaks more than two languages, however, is referred to as a multilingual. To what degree, however, has a person got understand a second language in order to be referred to as a bilingual?
Most people have been exposed to a foreign language at one point, perhaps during their education, and are, therefore, able to read an article or write clearly in the second language. However, is that enough for one to be labeled a bilingual?
Can a person who speaks only one language master a foreign language well enough for that person to be referred to as a bilingual, or is it necessary that the second language is only learned from birth or childhood for one to be a ‘proper’ bilingual? (Zieliński, 2011)
The final question is whether it is enough to know the grammar of a language simply, or whether it is necessary to master the culture from which the foreign language comes from too.
There are two types of bilinguals, according to Spolsky, the author of a book known as Sociolinguistics (1998). The first type, as defined by Spolsky, is a compound bilingual. This is a bilingual whose second language was learned after the first, and hence, the two languages are closely linked together. The other type is a co-ordinate bilingual. This refers to a bilingual that treats the two different languages as separate entities.
This distinction, however, is controversial, since it is not clear where the distinction lies. Do co-ordinate bilinguals, for example, put different words and objects in different compartments, and do compound bilinguals blend everything between the two languages? Finally, is it necessary to distinguish between different bilinguals?
In response as to whether it is necessary to have someone exposed to a language from the time they are young, most experts say that it is possible to acquire a decent command of a language at a relatively advanced age. It would require a larger effort from the adult, but it is certainly possible. One of the difficulties about learning a language in adulthood is attaining a language’s proper accent.
However, an accent can always be developed and perfected over time. It is, therefore, not necessary, as proposed by Spolsky, to divide bilinguals into groups. It is senseless to put a group of people in categories based on criteria that are not particularly clear in the first place.
Another noteworthy point discussed in the text is the issue of culture, and the role it plays in bilingualism. It is unclear whether or not a person’s knowledge of a language is considered incomplete if the person does not understand the culture from which the language comes from. A good example about a Polish and an English customer is given.
In Poland, if a customer has to be apologized to, the letter must be long, winded and offer several apologies and an explanation for whatever mistake was made. If the letter is not long enough, the Polish customer perceives that the letter is dishonest. A long letter to an English customer, on the other hand, portrays dishonesty. It is essential in England to be brief and precise when issuing an apology.
As long as an individual has adequate command of a second language’s grammar, speech and words, and can speak the language comfortably in a natural environment, that person may be considered bilingual. Knowledge of customs only enhances the competence of the individual. It is not an integral part of measuring a person’s bilingual ability.
The text has three main opinions expressed. First, author opposes Spolski’s idea of creating two different groups of bilinguals. The idea of having different groups of bilinguals could probably create a better understanding of this subject. However, the definitions given by the Spolski are unclear and are not mutually exclusive. In addition, they are not necessary, since they do not have any effect on the definition of a bilingual.
The second opinion expressed by the author relates to time during one’s life when languages are picked up. For one to be a true bilingual, the author believes that it is more beneficial to develop a strong command of the structure of the language, the vocabulary and possibly the traditional accent of the language.
Younger persons have the ability to pick up languages faster than older persons. However, if an older person picks up a strong command of a second language, then he/she is considered to be a bilingual.
Finally, the author has a strong opinion on the cultural context of a language. Although it is not a vital aspect in determining a person’s bilingual ability, understanding the culture of the second language enables the speaker to settle in better in a natural environment where the language is spoken.
Are the arguments convincing?
Zieliński’s argument about Spolski’s categories of bilinguals is somewhat convincing. First, Spolski’s categorization of bilinguals does not have clear-cut definitions and is not credible to use. However, Spolski is not the only author that uses these categories of bilingualism, so it is reasonable to assume that there will be further research and clearer definitions of the two categories.
Zieliński’s argument that there is no need to categorize, however, is a lot more accurate. In the context of defining bilinguals, the two groups do not make much of a difference to what bilingualism is, and what its defining characteristics are.
Zieliński’s argument that languages can be learned and mastered at about any age is a strong point. First, he explores the defining characteristics of a language, particularly describing excellence in language as mastery of vocabulary, grammar and speech. These characteristics can be picked up through constant practice and study, particularly if one places himself in a position where he can access the language effectively.
Zieliński argues this well. He also notes that it is easier for a child to learn a second language faster than an adult. Children grasp languages faster because of their unique stage in human development.
Finally, culture, as mentioned before, is a definite bonus to learning a second language. The importance of learning the culture from which a language was born is emphasized when a person has to enter that culture and interact with its people. Zieliński’s argument on this matter is valid, and his emphasis on learning the culture of a people is highly sensible.
Are the Conclusions Reasonable?
Zieliński’s first conclusion is that Spolsky’s argument regarding the categorization of bilinguals is vague and unnecessary. This argument is based on the definition Spolsky gives the different categories. They do not cut a distinct line between any groups of bilinguals.
In addition, the categorization of different types of bilinguals, particularly in such a vague manner, does not make a lot of difference to the subject of bilinguals as a whole. Therefore, Zieliński’s conclusion is valid.
Zieliński also argues that a language can be picked up and perfected in adulthood, although it is much more difficult than learning the second language at a tender age. Given children’s capability to grasp languages faster, and the challenges adults are likely to face, then he makes a valid conclusion that adults will need more time and practice in order for them to be fully bilingual.
Finally, Zieliński concludes that it is an added advantage to understand the culture of the people that speak the language, although it is not necessary for one to become a bilingual. Given that being a bilingual is more about speaking the language well than understanding culture, Zieliński’s conclusion is valid.
The overall opinion of the text is that it is well written and argued quite reasonably. It is a reasonable source of information for people looking for basic information on bilingualism. Given that there is remarkably little information and research on the subject, Zieliński’s paper is an invaluable piece material that should be added to the growing library of information related to this matter.
There are two aspects that could improve the paper. First, more research should be done on the various aspects of language that make a bilingual a master of the language.
These include elements like writing skills, prose and academic writing. Secondly, opposing arguments on the three aspects discussed in the paper should be included in the paper. This makes it wholesome and enables a reader to view both sides of the argument and make an informed decision.
Merriam-Webster. (2011). Bilingual. Retrieved from Merriam-webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bilingual
Zieliński, P. (2011). Bilingualism. Retrieved from Omniglot: http://www.omniglot.com/language/articles/bilingualism.htm