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LECTURER : Dede Oetomo, Ph.D

Eko Kurniawan Aryadi 8212712022

Magister in TEFL Widya Mandala Catholic University 2012

Bilingualism and Monolingualism

Bilingualism in its simplest definition is the equal ability to communicate in two languages. However, it is problematic to further define bilingualism due to the fact that there are various classifications of bilingualism. Some may describe a bilingual as having the ability of speaking in another language other than its own, even if it is in the lowest level of proficiency. While a person having a more advanced level of proficiency, with the ability to speak and write in a near native like manner in both languages is even more so regarded as being bilingual. The importance of fluency is reflected in the definitions proposed by a number of linguists. Bloomfield (1933) in Grosjean suggests that: In the extreme case of foreing language learning, the speaker becomes so proficient as to be distinguishable from the native speakers round him... In the cases where this perfect foreign language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native language, it results in bilingualism, (the) native-like control of two languages. (pp. 55-56, italics added) Saying that an individual is bilingual entails a range of proficiencies and contexts. Some may not even realize that they are bilingual. Such is the example of Javanese born individuals who can speak both Indonesian and Javanese fluently. In contrast to bilingualism is the term monolingualism, which can be defined as having the ability to communicate in a single language only. The possibility exists that an individual may know one or two phrases of another language, but without having suffice knowledge or communication skills in the other language to make that individual regarded as bilingual. In this essay, the intention is not to discuss the difference between bilingualism and monolingualism, but rather on the distinction between the way bilinguals think from monolinguals. As there are different classifications

on the level of bilingualism, the discussion focuses more on the so called coordinate bilingualism of Indonesian-English bilinguals and how, if ever, they think differently from monolinguals who only speak Indonesian.

Thoughts of a Bilingual From the definition stated above, bilinguals have the ability to speak in two different languages. The question then arises as to how many different types of bilinguals there are. According to Weinreich (1968) in Grosjean (1982) there are three types of bilingualism namely; compound, coordinate, and sub-coordinate. It is further explained that: basically, the way one learns a language is said to have an impact on how concepts are encoded and stored in the brain. Compound bilingualism stands for an individual who learns the language in the same context and situation, so that two words (one in each language) have one common meaning and representation in the brain, thus creating an interdependence of the two languages. In contrast, coordinate bilinguaslim state an independency between the two languages: The individual learns the two languages in different contexts, so that each word has its own specific meaning. The third type of bilingualism is the sub-coordinate. In this case, one language is stronger and faster than the other one, which results in establishing one meaning, namely the one of the language which has been acquired first. Whenever the second, weaker language (WL) is used, the representation recalled will be that of the stronger language (SL). The term bilingual is dependant upon linguistic proficiency and purpose. Thus, to a certain extent, a person does not have to speak both languages with equal fluency to be bilingual. It is believed that most bilinguals acquired their languages at various points during their lives and are rarely equally fluent in them, which in the previous definition may be in equivalence to compound bilingualism. In order to maintain simplicity, I would like to use the term bilingual to refer to the coordinate bilingual type of person, which in a lay persons point of

view may be regarded as the level of bilingualism having the highest level of proficiency in both languages. The main point of the discussion lies in the question of whether a bilingual thinks differently from a monolingual seen from a linguistics point of view. To ask an even more fundamental question would be to wonder what language does a bilingual think in. In the case of an Indonesian-English bilingual, it would be interesting to know which language does a certain individual think in under certain circumstances, as opposed to a monolingual who undoubtedly thinks only in a singular language. The question at hand may seem to be simple, but the attempt in search of the answer is otherwise quite difficult. In terms of resources, I have limited options as to finding out which language a bilingual thinks in. Conducting a small survey among my fellow classmates, I discovered that all of them answered in unison. Most of the time, they think in Indonesian, with the exception of being in circumstances where English is the spoken language of the environment. Only during classroom lectures are they forced to think in English. Even so, when I further pursued the question of whether they really produced English sentences in their minds or do they actually produce verbal English with an Indonesian frame of mind when such conditions require them to. Some would answer honestly, by altering their previous statements, confessing that their linguistic frame of mind is indeed constructed of Indonesian sentences. This is in accordance to the fact that the sentence production of my fellow classmates does sound like an Indonesian sentence translated into English, both in the spoken and written form. Meaning that the sentence construction does not appear to be similar to the type of constructed sentences that a native speaker of English would produce. I consider the students of my MPBI batch to be proficiently bilingual, in the sense that speaking verbally takes a much faster time compared to other individuals I know who are less proficient in English. Having said that, I believe that on a very basic level my previous question has been answered. Although

regarded as proficiently bilingual, it appears that their mother tounge is much more significant than their English. In reflection to my previous findings, I then have the option of taking a close look at myself. Considering myself as also being bilingual, I contemplated deeply on the question of whether I think in Indonesian or in English. In search of the answer, I began to think of the various circumstances that I am under on a daily basis. In an effort to constantly improve my English, I surround myself in as much English influence as possible. I watch DVDs and English movies on TV as much as possible, not to mention the books and ebooks that I read are mostly in English, apart from the daily newspaper that I subscribe to. I consistently speak to my parents who I live with in English. Im also currently studying in an English department. I do, however, work in an office with a complete Indonesian speaking environment. With all those different circumstances, I started to observe myself by paying close attention to my thoughts, and discovered that most of the time I do think in Indonesian. I spend 8 hours of the day conversing in Indonesian. It is only when I arrive at my university and start to listen to lectures and read textbooks do I think in English. Doing assignments also force me to engulf myself in English sentences. Interestingly enough, I can also say that when Im alone with my thoughts, whether its riding my motorbike to go to places or moments before I go to sleep, I actually think in English. I can also embarassingly confess that I talk to myself a lot in English. This realization does in itself answer my basic question, meaning that as a bilingual I lean more on the tendency of having an English constructed frame of mind, as Black (1959) in Stubbs (1997) explains that: ...the forms of a persons thoughts are controlled inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. (p.252) A Bilingual Experience

A bilingual has the ability, or rather the option to think in one of the two languages that they master. In a simplified conclusion, the mother tongue is the significant language used in a bilinguals day-to-day thoughts and communication, however, there are also other aspects to consider. From a sociolinguistic point of view we might ask whether a bilinguals perceptions, cognitive experience , and basic reasoning differ from that of a monolingual. How language shapes thoughts, experience and ways to mediate the experience differs from one individual to another. As Stubbs (1997) suggests that: It is observed that languages differ, and it is concluded that the thought of their speakers also differs. But what is the evidence that their thought differs? Well, the language that they use! Other than the fact that a bilingual has another set of language system, it can also be inferred that a bilingual has a different personality in regard to that other language system. An individual acquires a new cultural norm as he learns to speak the language of another culture. Learning English makes an individual learn American culture or British culture for example, depending on the conscious choice of which influence to follow. This in turn makes the individual assume the cultural role expected of the English speaking environment he is currently blending in. Upon returning to the environment where the mother tongue is spoken, the same individual assumes personality of the originating culture he is used to. The change in language affects the cultural roles and expectations. To be more precise, the change of language leads to the change of attitudes and behaviours. An Indonesian who speaks fluent English has learned that there are certain conversational rules in the English society that are not as strictly followed by the Indonesian speaking society, such as not interrupting a conversation is a good example . A bilingual knows and is more readily to adapt to these rules than monolinguals do.

A bilingual also has various advantages that a monolingual doesnt, such as the opportunity to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds, having more job opportunities, and the ability to read and write another language. Having access to certain advantages over others, makes a bilingual more diverse in the sense that his mind is more open. Furthermore, a bilingual also understands that any given language is just one form of communication, a media to convey a message or reach a result, while also at the same time pays closer attention to language than a monolingual does. As an effect of being more conscious towards language, an IndonesianEnglish bilingual possesses a time related awareness that doesnt exist in an Indonesian monolingual due to the known fact that the Indonesian language does not recognize tense markers in its verbs. A bilingual speaks more carefully in the sense that his sentences are thoughtfully constructed in relation to the recollection of memories his internal mind is using at the precise moment of speaking. From this perspective alone, we can detect the level of proficiency a bilingual has just by paying attention to the sentence production in regards to the English language tense system. To give an example, a colleague of mine who happens to be an English teacher would often produce sentences such as Do you bring an umbrella? in an attempt to ask whether the person he is speaking to remembered to bring an umbrella on an unusually rainy day. Here I could conclude that he has somehow missed the proper usage of the simple past tense and generalizing this question as being appropriately used in the simple present tense. Being reminded of the presupposition that is implied when using that form of question, my friend defensively gave an argument that an umbrella could be brought at any day, apparently not realizing that it is however still a mistake. I further explained that the conscious choice of carrying an umbrella to work occured in the past, especially since the question was asked on a day that was not likely to be in the middle of a rainy season. What he should have asked was the question Did you bring an umbrella?. Only then did he acknowledge the flaw of his sentence.

When examining bilingualism, the most important thing to consider is that every person has entirely different situations, which has led them to different levels of bilingualism. No two cases of bilingualism are ever alike. Not only differing are the languages that people speak, but also how and when they acquired them, how frequently they use each of their two languages, how they realize the importance of each language, as well as a myriad of other decisive factors. In the attempt to answer whether bilinguals thinks differently compared to monolinguals, in this case comparing English speaking Indonesians to other Indonesians that dont speak English, I could conclusively say that they do based on the aspects that I have discussed previously. Indeed it is hard to determine the languages used by bilinguals in their mental activities or how bilinguals react when under stress or in an emotional situation. Although having said that, I believe that some mental operations are language specific. Giving a simple example, I would usually count and pray in the language in which I learned these behaviors, but when I am extremely upset I would curse and express my anger in English, even when Im alone. On a final note, as opposed to monolinguals, bilinguals have the conscious choice of using a language according to the situation that they face, the person they are speaking to, and also the topic and the intent of the conversations. A wonderful choice to be had, because by simply changing a language, Indonesian-English bilinguals have the opportunity to switch personalities by leaving the old Indonesian mask behind, and putting a brilliantly surreal English speaking mask on, metaphorically speaking.


Grosjean, F. (1982). Life With Two Languages. Harvard university Press. Stubbs, M. (1997). Language and the Mediation of Experience: Linguistic Representation and Cognitive Orientation. In F. Coulmas, The Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 358-373). Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.