Bilinguals and Bilingualism

Posted on: 6 June 2022 in Posts

Bilinguals and bilingualism

By Samira Niazi

At first glance, it might seem easy to describe who a bilingual person is. Many of us believe that a bilingual is someone who can speak more than one language. That, to some extent, is true but there is more complexity to it than you might imagine. Even linguists themselves have come to change their understanding and definition of bilinguals and bilingualism during the past couple of decades. 

Traditional bilingualism: 

Traditionally, during the 20th-century, structural linguists viewed bilinguals as being two monolinguals (Garcia and Wei, 2014, p. 6-7). It means that they believed that you could look at a bilingual as if there are two monolinguals present inside. It was believed that a bilingual person has two separate and autonomous language systems in their brains for each language they know, therefore code-switching, which is using features of one language in another one, was regarded as a result of a lack of knowledge in one of the systems and therefore, should be avoided. 

Linguistic System 

L: linguistic System/ F: Linguistics Features. All figures are from Garcia and Wei, 2014, p. 14.


Common underlying proficiency:  

In the late 70s, a linguist called Cummins (1979) questioned and rejected traditional bilingualism and introduced the ‘linguistic interdependence approach', and proposed the idea of ‘common underlying proficiency (CUP). He believed that a bilingual's knowledge of the language is like a dual iceberg. On the surface, an iceberg resembles two separate entities, but deep down it is interrelated. He was trying to prove that although bilinguals have two separate language systems, these two separate language systems are in fact connected in our brains. 

linguistic System 2

Dynamic bilingualism

Garcia and Wei are two other linguists who proposed a quite different view called ‘dynamic bilingualism’ (2014, pp. 13-14). They believed that each bilingual has only one repertoire full of features belonging to both languages which are not separated but belonging to the same system that interact with each other. Speakers select different features of the languages they know depending on many different elements such as the context, the topic, the interlocutors and the interactional factors. In fact, bilinguals' linguistic practice and choice are strategic reflections of their cultural, societal, political, personal, and emotional practices in order to communicate more effectively. Therefore, what was stigmatised as code-switching started to be known as translanguaging. Garcia (2009, p. 45) stated that "for us, translanguaging has multiple discursive practices in which bilinguals engage in order to make sense of their bilingual world. Translanguaging, therefore, goes beyond what has been termed code-switching". 

Bilinguals and Bilingualism

At this point you might be wondering how all these can be related to the decolonisation of the Curriculum! 

Your answer is in my next blog called ‘Translanguaging pedagogy’.  



Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency, Linguistic Interdependence, the Optimum Age Question, and Some Other Matters’. Working Papers on Bilingualism, 19, 121- 129. 

Garcia, O. (2009). Bilingual education in 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA:    


Garcia, O., & Li Wei. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism in education. London: Palgrave Macmillan Pivot. 

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