Monday, April 29, 2013

Perspectives on Bilingualism

(Originally submitted April 14, 2010)
The scenarios in the extract from Hoffmann (1991) you read in A1 present a
range of degrees of bilingualism which fall along the minimalist to maximalist
continuum. Using the 15 situations presented by Hoffmann as stimuli, ask
participants to rate each case from (1)„definitely not bilingual ‟to (5)
„definitely bilingual ‟.This kind of scale is called a Likert scale, and looks like
Definitely not bilingual---------------------------------------- Definitely bilingual

The scenarios are reiterated below)
(1) the two-year-old who is beginning to talk, speaking English to one parent and Welsh to the other

(2) the four-year-old whose home language is Bengali and who has been attending an English playgroup for some time

(3) the schoolchild from an Italian immigrant family living in the United States who increasingly uses English both at home and outside but whose older relatives address him in Italian only

(4) the Canadian child from Montréal who comes from an English-speaking background and attends an immersion programme which consists of virtually all school subjects being taught through the medium of French

(5) the young graduate who has studied French for eleven years

(6) the sixty-year-old scholar who has spent a considerable part of her life working with manuscripts and documents written in Latin

(7) the technical translator

(8) the personal interpreter of an important public figure

(9) the Portuguese chemist who can read specialist literature in his subject written in English

(10) the Japanese airline pilot who uses English for most of his professional communication

(11) the Turkish immigrant worker in Austria who speaks Turkish at home and with his friends and work colleagues, but who can communicate in German, in both the written and the oral forms, with his superiors and the authorities

(12) the wife of the latter, who is able to get by in spoken German but cannot read or write it

(13) the Danish immigrant in New Zealand who has had no contact with Danish for the last forty years

(14) the Belgian government employee who lives in bilingual Brussels, whose friends and relatives are mainly Flemish speakers but who works in an entirely French-speaking environment and whose colleagues in the office (whether they are Flemish or not) use French as well

(15) the fervent Catalanist who at home and at work uses Catalan only, but who is exposed to Castilian Spanish from the media and in the street and has no linguistic difficulty in the latter language.

(Hoffmann 1991: 17)
For this assignment you should collect data from your participants in a short
face-to-face interview in which you will ask them to comment on the
bilinguality of each of these scenarios using the scale provided (we suggest
you give your participants a copy of the scenario, but do the questionnaire
with them, orally. Once you have completed all the questionnaires, go
through the items question by question and note the answers. If you have 10
questionnaires, you should have 10 answers for each item.
You can use a spreadsheet program such as Excel to enter the data, in which
case you should be able to generate graphs and provide summary data from
the information you input.
Collect all your responses and summarise them. Your assignment should
include the results of your survey, together with a 1000 word commentary
discussing the results of your survey. You may find the following questions
*Which scenario did your participants find was the “most bilingual ”?
*Which was the “least bilingual ”?
*Do you agree?
*Which responses did you find had the most variable answers?
*Why do you think this was?
Discuss your findings using the different descriptors discussed in chapter A1
(context, age, domain, socio-economic status and level of competence) as
guiding parameters.

After conducting 14 different interviews with participants from 8 different countries, it was interesting to see how widely perspectives on bilingualism differed from person to person.

Because most of my social contacts in Australia consist of other international students, my interview participants represented a wide range of nationalities. I had 2 Australians, 2 Canadians, 2 Americans, 1 Iranian, 2 Pakistanis, 1 Indian, 2 Malaysians, and 2 Chinese students.

With such a wide variety of participants, it was interesting to note the difference attitudes towards test. To begin with, it was soon evident that the test has a Western bias in terms of the culture situations it describes.

The Australian, Canadian and American participants had no trouble with the cultural situations described, but the Iranian, Pakistani, Indian, Malaysian and Chinese participants to a person all needed to have the Belgian and Catalonian culture in questions 14 and 15 explained. Also to a person, the same participants were confused about whether young graduate in number 5 was a native French speaker or not. The participants from English speaking countries all assumed that the young graduate was studying French as a foreign language.

However all the participants, regardless of background, expressed frustration with how vaguely the questions were written.

Rightly or wrongly, I interpreted the vagueness as being part of Hoffmann’s test design, and I did not further explain any of the questions, other than to explain the cultural situations to non-Western students (see above). When a participant asked for more details, I told them to just use their imagination.

It would be an interesting idea for a further study to do a questionnaire with scenarios that are much more explicit in detail, and see if this produces more uniformity among the participants. I believe the difference in interpretation is responsible for much of the variation between participants.

However the information the participants requested, and often complained about not having, in and of itself tell us something about what descriptors participants considered important.

In number 13, for example, most of the participants wanted to know at what age the Danish immigrant had arrived in New Zealand, and claimed that their answers would vary depending on this factor.

Clearly the importance participants attached to age tells us that this is considered a very important descriptor, although sometimes for different reasons. Some participants were concerned about the ideal age for language acquisition, while others viewed the same question and were more concerned about age as a factor in native language attrition.

Context was another descriptor participants frequently requested more information on, especially with scenarios 2 and 11.

And for scenarios 4 and 5, participants speculated on the motivation of the individual described (which would perhaps fall under social orientation descriptors ( Ng Bee chin and Gillian Wigglesworth p.16)).

The most bilingual scenario was number 8 with a mean of 4.92. Almost every participant ranked it as a 5. The lone exception gave it a 4, and cited a reluctance to call anyone completely bilingual as a reason for not ranking it higher.

The least bilingual was number 12, with a mean of 2.43.

This surprised me somewhat, because I would have thought that other numbers (like 2, 6, or 13) would have ranked lower. But I think scenario 12 clearly suffers from the order effect. The wife is being unfavorable compared to her husband in number 11, and even the participants who ranked her generously felt it necessary to put her at least one peg below number 11.

Also in their answers many of the participants said that writing and reading a language were an important part of fluency. This was especially true among the 4 participants who spoke Mandarin Chinese as a first language, and their low marks for number 11 brought the average down significantly (1,1,2,3). The emphasis on writing as part of Chinese culture may have influenced their answers.

However, even among the participants who felt literacy was not an essential part of bilingualism, there was some speculation as to the meaning of “able to get by”. Some interpreted this phase as meaning the bare minimum of language necessary, and gave the scenario low marks accordingly.

The scenario with the most variability (measured in terms of standard deviation) was number 6, which had a standard deviation of 1.5. Here again, cultural differences may be a factor. The four Mandarin speakers all gave number 6 high marks (5,5,5,4). They claimed that to work with the literature of a language is to fully understand all literary devices and idioms used in that language, and thus denotes fluency.

The Participants from traditionally Muslim countries compared it to their own use of ancient Arabic, although interestingly this route led them to quite different conclusions. Two of them, claiming they didn’t consider themselves bilingual in Arabic, marked it as 1. The third, however, gave it as a 5.

Many of the other participants also varied widely. Even the native English speakers varied widely among themselves on this response.

Despite my own assumptions that many of these scenarios were clear cut, surprisingly most scenarios showed a lot of variability. There were a few exceptions where participants uniformly agreed that a particular scenario was high. Scenarios 7, 8, 11, 14, and 15 all contained responses ranging only from 3 to 5. However there was no scenario that participants uniformly identified as low. For every participant who gave a scenario a 1, there was invariably another participant who gave the same scenario a 4 or 5.

This indicates that there is more agreement on the definition of bilingualism at the higher end of the scale, but not at the lower. Or, put another way, participants seem to agree on what bilingualism is, but disagree on what it is not.

This was surprising to me, since I had assumed that for the average person the word “bilingualism” met native like control of two languages, and that more minimalist definitions such as Mackey, Weinreich, and Haugen (p.5) were contained to the academic world only. However from doing this survey, it is clear that this is not the case

Without any prompting from me, several of the participants identified the four skills of speaking, reading, writing, and listening as being important in their rating systems. This of course corresponds to Macnamara (1969) (p.6), but was readily identified by participants who had never formally studied linguistics. The fact that the participants stated the 4 skills as one unit of knowledge (rather than arriving at this conclusion by counting up the skills) indicates it was already part of their knowledge base. It is possible Macnamara’s idea could have seeped into the larger public, or it could be construed as just general common sense. Particularly with participants who have studied other languages, they may be used to having their own language skills assessed by these 4 categories.

Because of the similar questions and comments made by participants, it is clear many of them are using the same descriptors to gauge bilingualism. However based on their differing answers, it is also clear that within these descriptors their standards of measurement vary widely.

BibliographyAll page number references from
Chin, Ng Bee and Gillian Wigglesworth Bilingualism: an Advanced Resource Book. London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.


14 Participants
1: Mean average 3.79
Mode: 5
Standard deviation 1.37
Range: 1-5

2. Mean average: 2.71
Mode: 3
Standard deviation: 0.73
Range: 1-4

3. Mean average: 4
Mode: 5
Standard deviation: 1.11
Range: 2-5

4. Mean average: 3.79
Mode: 5
Standard deviation: 0.89
Range: 2-5

5. Mean average: 3.71
Mode: 4
Standard deviation: 0.91
Range: 2-5

6. Mean average: 3.57
Mode: 4
Standard deviation: 1.50
Range: 1-5

7. Mean average: 4.21
Mode: 5
Standard deviation: 0.80
Range: 3-5

8. Mean average: 4.92
Mode: 5
Standard deviation: 0.27
Range: 4-5

9. Mean average 3.5
Mode: 3
Standard deviation: 1.16
Range: 2-5

10 Mean average: 3.57
Mode: 5
Standard deviation: 1.22
Range: 2-5

11. Mean average: 4.42
Mode: 5
Standard deviation: 0.65
Range: 3-5

12: Mean average: 2.43
Mode: 2
Standard deviation: 0.94
Range: 1-4

13. Mean average: 2.93
Mode: 3
Standard deviation: 1.27
Range: 1-5

14. Mean average: 4.5
Mode: 5
Standard deviation0.65
Range: 3-5

15: Mean average: 4.32
Mode: 5
Standard deviation 0.77

Comments and Grade: you made a number of really interesting and perceptive comments with supporting evidence from your data and the literature. However, the presentation of these ideas was not very systematic and the essay read like a spoken reflection rather than an academic report. The presentation of ideas needs to be organized in the form of academic paper, preferably with headings, such as lit review, methodology (including participants, data collection procedures) results, discussion (which refers back to the literature) and conclusion. I look forward to reading your next assignment presented in a more structured way.


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