Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Everyone Is Bilingual



It’s commonly said that the majority of people in the world are bilingual This means that they know two or more natural languages. (For the purpose of this post we will call the spoken and written languages like English the natural languages.)


It used to be that only people who had learnt their languages very young and had a native-speaker mastery of them could be considered true bilinguals. In recent times, however, it has been allowed that people who only know a second language imperfectly or can only use it in limited contexts can also be classed as bilinguals. The progressive widening can be followed in the early pages of Grandjean (see Sources below).


Now we propose a further widening. It is to include non-natural  languages whose speakers, writers and signers add up to a vast number. So many that the number of bilinguals surpasses a majority and approaches a totality.


We hypothesize that the cognitive mechanisms of the natural languages and our additions are the same; the same not only in the operation of each language but also in the higher-level monitoring and switching apparatus. At least there is no evidence to the contrary.


Sign languages

We can dispose of  sign languages for the deaf quickly. It is now generally agreed that they are languages in their own right and not merely re-encodings of spoken languages. They are much more complex than the ‘finger spelling’ idea that many people still have of them. There are people, typically relatives of deaf parents or siblings, who use both a sign language and a spoken language. Those people are unquestionably bilingual. There are also a few people who know more than one sign language, for example Canadian Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language. However, the sign/voice bilinguals only constitute a fringe of the deaf communities and are therefore not numerous in the overall picture.



Quite the opposite is the class of mathematical bilinguals and multilinguals, who are very numerous throughout the world. Infants start to learn to count speaking words: one, two, three, etc., or the equivalents in their language. Then they go to school and learn to write the numbers in the universal notation: 1, 2, 3, etc. – the so-called Arabic numerals – along with the basic operators: +,-, =, etc. From then on they are numerically bilingual, for they are also capable of writing one, to, three, etc. They may  even be multilingual: paradoxically Arabic itself not only uses what we call Arabic numerals but it also has a native set of characters of its own.


However, numerical bilingualism does not stop at the graphical level. Many of us have grown up with different counting systems that led to a need for conversion between them. Conversion from traditional weights and measures to decimal ones required a good deal of mental effort for Canadians. And the French number words from 70 to 99 (soixante-dix to quatre-vingt-dix-neuf) may come easily to native French speakers but not to second-language learners, who have to switch consciously between a base-10 system and a base-20 one.


But is numerical notation a language? Whichever definition is used, a language contains the following components:

  • There must be a vocabulary of words or symbols.
  • Meaning must be attached to the words or symbols.
  • A language employs grammar, which is a set of rules that outline how vocabulary is used.
  • syntax organizes symbols into linear structures or propositions.
  • narrative or discourse consists of strings of syntactic propositions.
  • There must be (or have been) a group of people who use and understand the symbols.

Mathematics meets all of these requirements. 

In short, educated people throughout the world are numerically bilingual, and there are a lot of them.



Music has features in common with translating. It starts in infancy and develops through amateur singing or playing till it reaches the expert and perhaps professional level. Singer often means someone who sings at the expert level just as translator often means someone who translates at the expert level. And both music and translation have notations. In the case of translation they are the natural languages; in the case of music it is a notation that is far from natural, on the contrary is very complex and must be learnt.


But is musical notation a language? A prior question is whether music is a language. According to DiFrancesco and Wells it is (see Sources). If so, then its notation is a language.


As with maths notation, there are unexpected complexities. For example, the simultaneous transposition of the notation that players of certain instruments like the oboe must practice. And, as with maths, most people learn only the basics; even Pavarotti said he could read a melody but not a full score. However, it is now admitted that bilinguals are not necessarily expert in their two languages.


The above examples are far from exhaustive – there are in addition, for example, the many computer coding languages -- but they are enough to show that there are many more bilinguals and even multilinguals than those who are counted on the basis of the natural languages.



François Grandjean. Life With Two Languages, Harvard University Press, 1984.


Anne Marie Helmenstine. Why mathematics is a language. ThoughtCo, 27 June 2019. or click [HERE].


Jenna DiFrancesco and Tasha Wells. Is music a language?  SlideShare, 2011. or click [HERE].



Ventajas del bilingüismo para el cerebro. Source:

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