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ability to use two languages. Fluency in a second language requires skills in listening comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing, although in practice some of those skills are often considerably less developed than others. Few bilinguals are equally proficient in both languages. However, even when one language is dominant (see language acquisitionlanguage acquisition,
the process of learning a native or a second language. The acquisition of native languages is studied primarily by developmental psychologists and psycholinguists.
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), performance in the other language may be superior in certain situations—e.g., someone generally stronger in Russian than in English may find it easier to talk about baseball in English. Native speakers of two languages are sometimes called equilingual, or ambilingual, if their mastery of both languages is equal. Some bilinguals are persons who were reared by parents who each spoke a different language or who spoke a language different from the one used in school. In some countries, especially those with two or more official languages, schools encourage bilinguilism by requiring intensive study of a second language. Bilinguals sometimes exhibit code-switching, or switching from one language to the other in the middle of a conversation or even the same sentence; it may be triggered by the use of a word that is similar in both languages.


See G. Saunders, Bilingual Children (1988); K. Hyltenstam and L. K. Obler, ed., Bilingualism Across the Lifespan (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one person’s or group’s fluent command of and ability to use two different languages or two dialects of one language (for example, a local dialect and the literary language). Mass bilingualism occurs in history as the result of conquests, peaceful migration of peoples, and contacts between neighboring groups speaking different languages.

In bilingualism, the degree of fluency in each language, the ways in which the various spheres of communication are distributed between the languages, and the attitudes of the speakers to them depend on many factors in the social, economic, political, and cultural life of the group concerned. When there is a conflict between two languages, one may completely supplant the other (as, for example, Spanish and Portuguese “have replaced the Indian languages in Latin America), or a new mixed language may be created (for example, French, which developed from Latin and local Celtic dialects), or both languages may undergo certain changes in various aspects of the language structure. Phonetically there may be changes in the characteristics of pronunciation—for example, Ossetic, which belongs to the Iranian group of languages, has borrowed phonetic characteristics from the Dagestanian languages spoken around it. Grammatical phenomena may be borrowed or copied—for example, Russian has borrowed the participial construction of the old Slavonic language Yaroslav. Especially in terms of vocabulary, words are borrowed and copied—English, for example, borrowed French vocabulary when French was the official language in England.


Shcherba, L. “Ocherednye problemy iazykovedeniia.” In his book Izbrannye raboty po iazykoznaniiu ifonetike, vol. 1. Leningrad, 1958.
Bloomfield, L. lazyk. Moscow, 1968. (Translated from English.)
Vendryés, G. lazyk. Moscow, 1937. (Translated from French.)
Weinreich, U. Languages in Contact. New York, 1953.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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