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What Does it Mean to be Bilingual? - July 2009

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What does it mean to be bilingual?

By: Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Bilingualism is the norm worldwide. The United States in many ways is a bilingual country with Hispanics and Latinos comprising 15.1% of the total U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007). Despite the fact that nearly one in five individuals (17.9%, U.S., Census Bureau, 2007) speaks another language other than English in the home; many misperceptions exist regarding the nature of bilingualism and working with bilingual clients. We present some common misconceptions here and will discuss some of these issues in further detail in future articles. Five common myths regarding bilingualism are presented.

Myth One. Learning a second language takes little time and effort.

Truth. Studies have shown that even in a bilingual setting, learning a second language may take from 2-3 years for oral language skills and 4-6 years or 5-7 years or even longer for academic language skills (Collier, 1987; Hakuta, 1986). Thomas and Collier (2002) found in their extensive longitudinal study of four U.S. states (i.e., with 210,054 student cases analyzed) that students who received five to six years of bilingual instruction attained English levels comparable to their monolingual English peers by their 5th or 6th year in U.S. schools. Maintaining a first and second language takes effort as noted by evidence that native languages can be lost and also that second language learners can fossilize (i.e., stop growing) in their learning English (Roseberry-McKibbin, 1995). In other words, if students do not receive practice and use both their languages, then their languages are subject to either being lost or not developing fully.

Myth Two. Exposure to the second language is sufficient for L2 learning.

Truth: From a clinical and practical perspective as speech-language pathologists working with children and adults with language impairments (e.g., language learning disabilities, autism, CVAs, etc.), the authors can state that the mere exposure is insufficient for students and clients with disabilities or disorders to acquire English.

Wong-Fillmore (1992) stated that four conditions must exist for learners to acquire English: (a) The student/client must have a need to communicate; (b) She/he must have access to English speakers; and © He/she needs to interact, receive support, and receive feedback from the English speakers; and (d) The student/client must be given time to learn English.

Myth 3. Parents should speak more English at home and abandon the native language in order for their children to become English proficient.

Truth: This practice has grave consequences in that children can become semi-lingual (not proficient in any language ; Skutnabb-Kangas, 1981). The parents may lose their ability to effectively communicate with their children and unless the parents are fully English proficient the English model provided may not be adequate. The child may consequently be deprived of a language-rich home environment. In addition, the child may not be able to benefit from transferring their native language skills and abilities to English if the home language is not maintained. Beyond the linguistic aspects of this practice, cultural implications are also present. If the native language is not used in the home, the child’s ability to communicate with her/his grandparents and other relatives is often limited.

Myth 4. Code switching is a sign of a disorder.

Truth: Code switching (changing from one language to another at the sentence level) and code mixing (mixing both languages within a sentence) are normal and natural occurrences for bilingual speakers (Brice & Brice, 2009). Code switching/mixing is a communicative strategy. Monolingual speakers also code switch and mix, but may do so at a dialect or register level. For example, a student may say to a friend. “It’s ‘bout ready to pour” and say to a teacher. “It looks like it is going to pour raining.” It should be noted that we all code switch in English and code switching/mixing with two languages is no different and can be beneficial in acquiring English language skills. Remember, that use of two languages is a tool.

Myth 5. A Bilingual speaking student is the sum of their two monolingual abilities.

Fact: Being bilingual means that one is not the sum of two monolingual abilities (Grosjean, 1989). A bilingual speaker’s abilities to use two languages means that the two languages are constantly in contact and interaction with each other even when the bilingual speaker is in monolingual mode. Instead of viewing a bilingual speaker as a Spanish speaker, or an English speaker; we need to view the bilingual speaker as a Spanish-English speaker capable of speaking in Spanish, English, or both simultaneously (code switching, and code mixing). That said, we should not expect language abilities to be exactly the same across languages. Often students learn vocabulary associated with a particular topic in one language but not the other. This is important to keep in mind during assessment.


Learning a second language has yielded many misconceptions. Second-language learning is a complex and multifaceted task. Therefore, it is hoped that SLPs approach working with their bilingual students and/or clients in an informed manner.


Brice, A. & Brice, R. (2009). (Ed.s). Language development: Monolingual and bilingualacquisition. Old Tappan, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Collier, V. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic
purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 21(4), 617-641.

Grosjean, F. (1989). Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two
monolinguals in one person. Brain and Language, 36(1), 3-15.

Hakuta, K. (1986). Mirror of language. The debate on bilingualism. New York, NY:
Basic Books.

Roseberry-McKibbin, C. (1995). Multicultural students with special language needs.
Oceanside, CA: Academic Communication Associates.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1981). Bilingualism or not: The education of minorities
Clevendon, Avon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. P. (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for
language minority students’ long-term academic achievement.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 475048).

Wong-Fillmore, L.W. (1992). When does 1 + 1 = < 2? Paper presented at Bilingualism/Bilingüismo: A Clinical Forum, Miami, FL. U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). State and county quickfacts. Retrieved July 5, 2008, from

This Month's Featured Authors:
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of Central Florida
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.

Many thanks to Dr. Alejandro E. Brice for providing this article for this months newsletter

Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients.

Dr. Roanne G. Brice is the Assistant to the Chair for the Department of Child, Family and Community Sciences at the University of Central Florida. Her research interests have focused on language and beginning literacy skills in bilingual children and students with disorders/disabilities. In addition to teaching at the university level, Dr. Brice has been an itinerant and self-contained classroom speech-language pathologist as well as a general education classroom teacher. She may be reached at

Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor's degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at

Tags: July 2009 Newsletter SLP Bilingualism Article