The monolinguals and the bilinguals

By Luciana Lessa, PhD*
Translated by Julio Soares de Carvalho

A common practice that takes place when studying bilingualism is the comparison between monolinguals and bilinguals; a comparison almost natural to us Brazilians or people from any other one-language countries, since we are more used to think about language acquisition in a monolingual mode. With the growth of bilingual acquisition, we are developing more studies towards this field and, therefore, recognizing more and more the bilingual universe.

With more information based on what happens in the process of bilingual acquisition, we must ask ourselves: to what point can or should we establish comparisons between the development of language between bilinguals and monolinguals? When we think about linguistic abilities of bilinguals, why do we still take monolinguism as a norm?

The truth is that monolingual standards of language acquisition seem to be taken as a reference for “judgements” over the bilingual’s productions. Various studies insist on differences between monolinguals and bilinguals as if they were unexpected, making monolingualism as reference, and something exceptional (CRUZ-FERREIRA, 2014). To Cruz-Ferreira (2014) a “healthy” speech doesn’t refer to the usage of a standard dialect nor to the monolingual speech.

The question is, then: Based on what standards are we evaluating bilinguals?


Mistakes (errors) are part of acquiring a language to monolinguals as much as it is to bilinguals, and are excellent reference points about the path children take in this process. However, is it suitable to compare mistakes made by monolinguals to those made by bilinguals?

It depends. If the the proposal is to detect differences between monolinguals and bilinguals with the objective to understand each one better in a different way, then yes, we have an appropriate view to the specificities of each process. This line of study brings excellent information, for example, to teachers that deal with monolingual and bilingual students in the same classroom.

But, if the proposal is to compare monolinguals and bilinguals with the objective of getting to rapid conclusions in regards to bilingualism using monolingualism as the reference, we have an example of misuse of the data.

The evaluation of the bilingual language acquisition must have  a bilingual standard as reference. It must be recognized that, due to relatively recent encouragement and valorization of bilingualism, we still lack consistent studies about bilingual acquisition standards. With Portuguese in particular, the literature about bilingual acquisition that involves this language is very scarce.

Still, it is simple to understand that bilinguals and monolinguals will make different mistakes due to the fact that they are immersed in distinct processes. According to Jackson-Maldonado (2004), the fact that these mistakes are different from those presented by monolinguals doesn’t mean that they have a language problem. The author says that many mistakes have been considered a sign of language disruption when they should be interpreted as part of the normal process of bilingual acquisition.

Actually, while accompanying the process of bilingual language acquisition, some types of mistakes must be expected. For example, the distinction of “ser (I am)/estar (I am in)” can be affected at some moment at the acquisition process due to the contact with another language that doesn’t present the same distinction (JACKSON-MALDONADO, p. 155, 2004), as in the case of bilingualism between Portuguese and English.

The general idea is that it would be “naïve” to expect that the bilingual process of acquisition and development will follow the same course as the one that monolingual children take. Yes, we need more studies and research in order to better understand the bilingual world, but already we can notice how the comparison “monolinguals vs bilinguals” should always be made with caution, seeking the understanding of characteristics of each one of these processes, always moving monolingualism away from being the norm or reference to language acquisition.


Luciana Lessa is a Doctor in Linguistics, a faculty member at Georgia State University and part of important discussion groups concerned with language acquisition. She is the author of the column “Speaking”, here at this platform, and co-director of the Study Group and Continuing Education of Educators of Portuguese as a Heritage Language.

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