Bilingual people normally use their languages, either separately or together, because of different reasons, in different domains of life and with different people. It is not quite clear how well the languages need to be known for counting as bilingual and there exist several types of bilinguals. There are many factors which have to be taken into account when describing bilingualism – these are factors such as age, context, relationship between sign and meaning, order and consequence of bilingual language acquisition, competence or level of proficiency, function or use and attitudes (cf. Hoffmann 1991: 18f).


Multilingual and bilingual speakers can communicate in more than one language. There are distinct groups of people speaking more than one language. Wei (2008: 4) distinguishes between early and late bilinguals. People have become bilingual through different experiences. Early bilinguals have acquired two or more first languages since birth while late bilinguals have acquired and maintained one language during childhood and learned other languages later in life. In bilingualism research, the distinction between early and late bilingualism is a crucial one. The most common way to become bilingual is being born into a bilingual family. There are, however, many other reasons like personal, social or cultural reasons why individuals become bilingual. It has to be distinguished between bilinguals who started their speaking years as monolinguals and bilinguals who acquired two languages simultaneously as young children. When the languages are acquired one after the other, the researchers speak of a first language L1, the language that is acquired first as a child, and a second language L2 which is acquired later, either as a child or adult (cf. Myers-Scotton 2006: 2). One central aspect is the critical age hypothesis which


presents the notion that all children easily acquire any language to which they are exposed up until about the age of puberty; after that, acquiring a language becomes more arduous and more of a conscious procedure. (Myers-Scotton 2006: 36)


This hypothesis is attributed to Lenneberg (1967) and was discussed by many researchers. During the critical period the ability to acquire language reaches its peak, thereafter, the ability declines. There is a lot of disagreement over the critical age hypothesis. Researchers, however, do agree that “late learners are much less successful in language learning than young children” (Myers-Scotton 2006: 350). Language learning after a certain age is effortful and foreign accents are usual. Late acquisition generally means less proficiency. The study of second language acquisition (SLA) is separately an entire field of research, but also an aspect of the broad concept of bilingualism.


The two languages may have been learned either in a fused context or in separate contexts, i.e. it has to be differentiated between both parents using both languages to the child or the one-parent-one-language principle. The distinction can also be made between the two languages spoken in the same locality or one language is learnt in one country and the other in a different one (cf. Hoffmann 1991: 18f).


Another important aspect is the order of bilingual language acquisition and the consequences which may arise.


Qualitative, as well as quantitative, judgement is expressed by the terms ‘additive bilingualism’ and ‘subtractive bilingualism’ […]. The former implies that the addition of a second language to a person’s first can result in enriched, or at least complementary, social, cognitive and linguistic abilities, whereas the latter suggests that the L2 is learnt at the expense of the L1. […] This means that, although they are becoming more proficient in the L2, they are losing skills in the L1; therefore, as the latter is not being maintained, it is actually being ‘subtracted’ from their bilingual proficiency. (Hoffmann 1991: 21)


The processes of language maintenance and language shift are possible consequences of becoming bilingual. An interesting aspect is what happens to the L1 of speakers when they become bilingual. One possibility is that the L1 is maintained and the L2 is learned as an additional language. Language shift means that bilingual speakers shift to the new L2 as their main language.


But in most cases, it takes an entirely different generation for the shift to the L2 to go to any sort of completion. In fact, shift to an L2 generally doesn’t happen until the third generation, with the second generation bilingual in both languages. (Myers-Scotton 2006: 68)


As for the purpose of this thesis, the focus is mainly on immigrant communities. There are many factors which influence maintenance or shift of L1.[1] Myers-Scotton classifies maintenance and shift within a bilingual community by means of a continuum: those bilinguals “who use only the L1 at one end to those who use only the L2 at the other end” (2006: 89). Regarding language shift, an interesting aspect is the younger generation. “[E]specially in immigrant communities, shift by the third generation is almost a foregone conclusion” (2006: 100). Further research on that aspect will be presented in chapter 11 of section IV, Case Study on Russian-German Code-switching.


The question of how proficient a bilingual person has to be in both languages for counting as a bilingual is connected to the notion of relativism and the degree of bilingual competence. In literature there is made a distinction between the two poles of the continuum, the maximalist and minimalist view of bilingual competence. With respect to the maximalist view of bilingual competence, linguists speak of perfect bilinguals. The minimalist view of bilingual competence, however, considers a person who has only a minimal competence in one of the four language skills, listening, reading, speaking and writing in a language different from his or her mother tongue, as bilingual as well (cf. Hamers 2005: 34). Somewhere in the middle of the continuum there can be situated the notion of balanced bilingualism. According to Hoffmann (1991: 22) most bilinguals tend to be more fluent or proficient in one language which can be considered as the dominant one, i.e. they have a stronger or preferred language and a weaker one.


Bilinguals talking to each other have to decide which language or languages they want to use. Most bilinguals, however, seem to know which language is the most adequate in a certain situation. Bilinguals can communicate with each other either using the one or the other language. Many bilingual speakers, however, tend to switch between the languages when they are talking to other bilinguals which are also able to speak the same languages. This linguistic phenomenon, which arises because of the fact that the structures of two languages are in contact, is known as code-switching. Code-switching is one of the most studied topics in language contact phenomena