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Understanding Different Types of Bilingualism

Updated: Apr 19

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What does it mean to be bilingual?

What does it mean to be bilingual? If you're raising a bilingual baby/ toddler/ child, read this post to understand different types of bilingualism
What does it mean to be bilingual? If you're raising a bilingual baby/ toddler/ child, read this post to understand different types of bilingualism

On the most fundamental level, bilingualism simply refers to the ability to speak and understand two languages fluently.

However, there are many ways to be bilingual – in this article, let’s explore different types of bilingualism in more detail.


1. Simultaneous Bilingualism

Simultaneous bilingualism occurs when a person learns two languages from birth or early infancy.

This often happens in households where parents speak different languages or in regions with multiple official languages.

Children exposed to simultaneous bilingualism typically develop proficiency in both languages simultaneously, often without a distinct preference for one over the other.

If you’re raising your child to be bilingual from a young age, this is probably the form of bilingualism you have in mind.


2. Sequential Bilingualism

Unlike simultaneous bilingualism, sequential bilingualism occurs when an individual learns a second language after already having acquired proficiency in their first language.

This could happen due to immigration, relocation, or formal language instruction later in childhood or adulthood.

Sequential bilinguals may have varying degrees of proficiency in each language, depending on factors such as age of acquisition, exposure, and language learning environment.

For example, my husband and I consider ourselves to fall into this category—we both became fluent in English as a second language after we had already become fluent in our respective mother tongues.


3. Receptive Bilingualism

Receptive bilingualism refers to the ability to understand and comprehend two languages proficiently, but receptive bilinguals may struggle with producing speech in one of the languages.

This type of bilingualism is common among individuals who grow up in multilingual environments where they primarily listen to and understand multiple languages but may not actively speak all of them.

As I discussed in some of my previous and in my book as well, this is a very common phenomenon and is not necessarily a “problem” to be fixed.

However, if you do want to help your child become an active speaker of your target language, definitely check out my video or read my book to find out more about a technique I developed specifically to tackle this issue.


4. Productive Bilingualism

In contrast to "receptive bilingualism", productive bilingualism refers to the ability to actively speak and produce language in two different languages.

Productive bilingualism often requires a higher level of linguistic competence and may involve code-switching or using elements from both languages within the same conversation.

If you want to learn more about code-switching and code-mixing, check out my blog post and video on this topic.


5. Balanced Bilingualism

Balanced bilinguals have roughly equal proficiency in both of their languages.

They can seamlessly switch between languages depending on the context or the person with whom they are conversing, and they may exhibit native-like fluency in both languages.

Achieving balanced bilingualism often requires consistent exposure to and practice in both languages from an early age.


6. Dominant Bilingualism

In some cases, an individual may have a dominant language, meaning they are more proficient in or feel more comfortable using one language over the other.

Dominant bilinguals may use their dominant language more frequently in various settings, such as work or social interactions, while still maintaining proficiency in their second language.

My kids are a case in point: while they can understand and speak English, Mandarin and Russian, their preferred and dominant language is, at this stage, English.

No "One-Size-Fit-All" When It Comes to Being Bilingual

One important point to bear in mind is that these categories are not mutually exclusive, as they focus on different aspects of bilingualism.


A hypothetical example

For example, imagine someone (let’s call her Amy) who was raised in Germany by a German mother and a Chinese father.

She was raised in both German and Chinese from birth, which makes her fall into the “simultaneous bilingualism” category.

However, due to her linguistic environment, her dominant language has always been German, which makes her fall into the “dominant bilingualism” category.  


In conclusion, bilingualism is a multifaceted phenomenon that encompasses various types and degrees of language proficiency.

There isn’t one “right” or “wrong” way to be bilingual – your child is unique, as are your family’s circumstances.

And remember – bilingualism in any form, regardless of one’s proficiency, can confer numerous benefits and advantages. Check out my blog post and video to explore some of these amazing benefits.

So, start your bilingual journey today!


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