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Let's explore "semilingualism" and why this term is no longer used.

language acquisition linguistics Mar 02, 2021
semilingualism is an outdated term

Let's talk about the damaging and redundant term 'semilingualism' that has cropped up around social media recently.

You might have heard it? Sounds a bit scary. Semi = half. Half-lingual? It's not a term that researchers use now, and it is quite misleading about how our brains work too.

The term originated in Sweden in the late 1960s as 'Halvspråkighet' referring to Finnish-Swedish bilinguals (see Hansegård N. E. (1968). Tvåspråkighet Eller Halvspråkighet? Stockholm: Aldus series 253, with thanks to Thomas Bak for the reference).

If we carelessly throw terms like semilingual or balanced bilingual around, without defining them carefully, they are really just individuals' 'statements of value rather than statements of fact' (Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Multilinguals are...? https://www.beingmultilingual.com/Books_files/Multilinguals%20are-FullText.pdf p10).

And they're also quite unkind, no? What if we referred to each other as semi-beautiful? Or semi-intelligent? Sounds pretty judgemental.

Plus, the conceptualisation of language acquisition as filling up a vessel is flawed, since as we have seen in a previous post, our brains are not a chest of drawers with things competing for space in a 'limited resources' model.

We have infinite capacity for knowledge to accumulate in networks.

What IS important is that children learning to speak one or more languages have adequate input in those languages.

Monolinguals can also be 'semilingual' if they have not had adequate language input to acquire a language at a level appropriate for their age.

Listen to Dr Kat Draper on the Language Revolution podcast talking about how we acquire speech in episode 4, and Eowyn Crisfield talking about 'semilingualism' in episode 20.

Have you heard the term used to talk about raising bilingual kids? We'd love to hear about your experiences - feel free to chat about this over in our community.