October 3, 2007

Understanding Bilingualism

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning at 8: 46 pm by MK

I just finished an interesting article, “Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Professionwide Responses to a New Challenge,” by Guadalupe Valdes. In it, she seeks to define the bilingual individual and place an emphasis on the need for more research conducted specifically on second-language writing. She divides bilingual individuals into two categories: elective and circumstantial. Electives are those English speakers who have sought out foreign language classes such as Spanish or French, and have even gone to live or study abroad in another country. However, the intent of an elective is not to necessarily move to said country or fully adopt the foreign language. Most electives are middle class: learning another language is a luxury of sorts. Circumstantials, on the other hand, are forced to relocate to a new country and must learn the new language for survival. Yes, I’m kind of an elective (although I never became fluent, I did attempt to learn Spanish and study abroad) and A. & K. are circumstantials. Funny, when you compare myself to A. & K. it’s easy to see how drastically different electives and circumstantials can be.

When Valdes breaks down the circumstantials, she notes some interesting particulars. The child learner will enter a “functional” stage of learning after about two years of being in a new country. This means that he/she will be basically fluent and able to function in all aspects of life with needed written and oral language skills. Interestingly, when the child has reached this stage, he/she will begin to avoid using his/her native language. However, this native language will still be present in the way he/she both speaks and writes. Adult learners will most likely not enter the functional stage until they have been in the new country for 10 years. They will also remain native language preferrent.

Obviously the 2 and 10 year markers are averages. What can impact and change these estimates is the amount of time the second-language learner is surrounded by speakers of the new language. Z. & G. may learn much more quickly because they are in school five days a week surrounded by English speakers. A. has a good chance of lessening that 10 year marker because most likely he will soon get some form of employment and be exposed to English speakers on a daily basis. K., unfortunately, will probably take longer to hit the functional mark. Culturally, the expectation for her is to stay home and raise the children, especially with such young children. As the Burmese community is quite large in our area, she will most likely be surrounded by Burmese speakers on a daily basis. As my grandmother grew up being her mother’s Italian translator (my great grandmother never came close to hitting the functional stage), I can easily see Z. & G. assuming that role for ther parents.

Valdes argues that much of the research conducted on second-language learners has focused on oral learning, with the assumption that oral conclusions automatically apply to writing skills and learning. After living in Madrid for six months, I could speak Spanish well. However, my writing skills definitely did not match the oral. (I could only write in present tense!) And when we think of the composition classroom, it seems instructors need to be aware that simply because their bilingual student may speak clearly, they will still have special needs in terms of writing instruction.

For me, Valdes offers a clear analysis and understanding of the bilingual student. Obviously, each student is an individual and experiences can change dramatically but at least this is a place to start, to begin an understanding.



  1. Thanks for leaving a post on my blog. It looks like you’ve got some very thoughtful posts here…


  2. Evelyn said,

    Maria, Thanks for your comments on my blog. Yours looks fascinating and relevant to my interests. I’ll check back here from time to time. I come from an anthropology background and have research interests in language acquisition (but no time or energy currently to carry out investigations). I haven’t read the Valdes article (can it be accessed online?), but intuitively, her argument makes sense to me. Speaking a foreign language well definitely does not automatically turn you into a good writer. I imagine that writing might come from a different part of the brain even…. I’m basically an ‘elective.’ However, when I was doing fieldwork in Congo, especially the first time, I was a ‘circumstantial’ – becoming functional in Lingala was essential and quite stressful.

  3. sandrar said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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