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Being bilingual

During the development and trialling of this resource, one year 7 student said, “I feel lucky to be bilingual.” 

Being bilingual in this context means to be able to speak English and another language (your heritage language).

Important educational advantages to being bilingual exist. The more your bilingual students can use both their languages in curriculum learning, the better. The two languages support each other and are interdependent, and bilingual speakers have some cognitive advantages over those who know only one language.

Bilingual people use their languages in a variety of ways and for many different purposes. Even young children know how to use the two languages in different places, with different people, and for different purposes. They also know how to purposefully switch back and forth between the two languages in the course of a single activity or interaction. This is called "code switching".

This section discusses ways of recognising and including students’ language ability in the mainstream classroom, even when the teacher does not personally know the language(s) concerned.

What does it mean to be bilingual?

Being bilingual is a complex cognitive and linguistic phenomenon, which may vary widely among individuals. It may even differ within individuals with respect to their competence in the languages concerned.

A bilingual person may be able to speak, read, and write:

  • fluently in two languages – that is, they are biliterate
  • in one language, but only speak another
  • in one language, but understand to some extent what is said in another language – that is, they can understand what a speaker of their second language is saying, even though they may not be confident about speaking that language.

Clearly, finding out about how the person is bilingual is essential. In order to do this, ask three key questions.

  • How did the person learn the language(s)?
  • Does the person have opportunities to listen, speak, read, and/or write in the language(s)?
  • In what contexts does the person use the language(s)?

How did the person learn the language(s)?

Many bilingual speakers have learned their two languages at the same time, usually in early childhood and as a result of interactions with family. These people are called simultaneous bilinguals.

Bilingual people who have learned one language later than the other – perhaps as the result of living in a new country or formally learning a second language at a school or university – are called sequential bilinguals or consecutive bilinguals.

Usually, simultaneous bilinguals have a more "native-like" accent in both languages, although older language learners may have greater knowledge about language, which can help them in the language-learning process.

Does the person opportunities to listen, speak, read, and/or write in the language(s)?

The degree of proficiency that bilingual speakers achieve in their two languages depends largely on the opportunities they have to use each of them. If they are able to speak both languages extensively, then they will become fluent in both. However, if they have less opportunity to speak one language, their level of fluency in that language may be less.

As described above, bilingual people may also have different levels of proficiency in the key language modes of listening, speaking, reading, and writing for each language. It is common for Pasifika students in New Zealand to be able to speak a Pasifika language and to read and write only in English because their education has been in that language.

Examples of different bilingual skills

Some Pasifika examples of different kinds of bilingual skills and the language domains in which they are used follows.

Example 1
Malia, who speaks mainly English with her parents and friends, speaks to her grandmother in Sāmoan. She has learned to read and write in English at school, but she cannot read and write in Sāmoan to the same extent.

Example 2
Tavita speaks Tongan with his family and at church and community functions. He reads in Tongan at church, and he reads and writes in Tongan at home. At school, he speaks Tongan with his friends in the playground, but in class he speaks, reads, and writes only in English.

Example 3
When he plays with his cousins from Rarotonga, Daniel uses a mixture of Cook Islands Māori and English, yet generally, he speaks English. He cannot read or write in Cook Islands Māori.

Example 4
Mere grew up in New Zealand, so she tends to use English rather than Sāmoan for her university assignments. However, she and her whole family can read, write, and speak in both Sāmoan and English.

In what contexts does the person use the language(s)?

Language use – that is, where, or in what contexts, bilingual people use their languages – is often dependent on wider societal attitudes to the particular languages they speak.

If both of the languages that bilingual people speak are valued in the wider society, then it is likely they will use both their languages in a wide variety of contexts (for example, in the home, church, community, and school). As a result, these people are more likely to become balanced bilinguals. They are able to use both of their languages easily and fully in any context.

Many bilingual people have different skills in their two languages and use them for different purposes. Even if they have comparable levels of fluency, they may use one language more than the other, or they may use one language in certain contexts or with certain people, and the other language in other contexts or with other people.

For example, a bilingual person may speak one language with their immediate family and another language with their friends or at school.

Language domains

The different contexts of language use are called language domains.  (See the video  Language domains.)  Importantly, this variation in language use is often influenced by wider societal attitudes towards the particular languages.

Exploring your practice

What is bilingualism?

If you understand your Pasifika (and other bilingual) students’ language proficiencies and patterns of language use (that is, their prior knowledge of language), you will understand these students better and have a better basis for supporting their language development. This two-part investigation can help you develop these understandings.

Part 1

Design a small set of questions to ask Pasifika (and other bilingual) students about their experiences of bilingualism. Address the following questions, using language that is appropriate for your students:

  • How many of you see yourselves as bilingual?
  • What languages do you speak?
  • When did they begin learning the language(s)?
  • In what contexts do you use the language(s) (for example, talking with friends, talking with parents, at church, or at school)?
  • In what modes (listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, presenting) can you do for each language(s)?

Encourage the students to ask each other these questions about their language use, and use the results as the basis for a whole-class discussion.

This activity can also be useful for helping the monolingual students in the class to find out more about bilingualism.

Part 2

View the video Language domains. Identify the students’ language use in terms of "where", "when", "who with", and "what for". Consider what other questions you might ask the students to gain a fuller picture of their language use.

Part 3

Find out from your students the contexts and activities outside school in which they read and write in a Pasifika (or other) language, and those in which they read and write in English.

You could divide these contexts into the categories shown below (and related examples), with students identifying which activities they conduct in a Pasifika (or other) language and which they conduct in English.

Where? What activity? Who with / who to? About what? Which language?
Home Reading stories Younger sister Story books English and Sāmoan
Home Reading a letter Relative Events Sāmoan
Home Reading a magazine Friends Music English
Church Sunday school Pastor/class Bible Sāmoan

Once this has been completed, ask the students to form small groups to discuss their reading and writing activities in these contexts. They might also explore these questions:

  • How often or how regularly do these activities happen?
  • Who decides what language to use in each of the activities?
  • Could they imagine doing one of the activities in a different language?
  • How can they encourage other family members to read and write in their Pasifika (or other) language and in English?

Have the students report back to the class. In reporting back, ensure that the class considers any issues that discourage the use of Pasifika (or other) languages. Encourage the students to talk with their families about the importance of events that make use of literacy in Pasifika (or other) languages, as well as in English.

Set the students work involving the texts that they have identified engaging with in non-school contexts (for example, a letter from a relative, a favourite family book, a religious text, or lyrics from a popular song).

Have the students discuss and write about these particular texts.

If the texts are in a Pasifika (or other) language, the students could explain what the texts are in English as part of their school work. This kind of activity affirms literacy for bilingual students in both languages (where possible) and also enhances their metalinguistic awareness

Code switching – "switching" languages

When people know two or more languages, they commonly switch between the languages according to:

  • the context or language domain (for example, family, religion, education, employment)
  • the person they are speaking with\
  • the topic
  • other factors, such as the formality of the situation.

It’s also common for bilinguals to switch between languages in a single sentence or conversation – this is termed code switching. Bilingual speakers use code switching for a wide range of purposes. These include:

  • emphasising or clarifying a particular point
  • reinforcing a request
  • substituting a word
  • expressing a concept that does not have a direct equivalent in the other language.

Examples of code switching

These examples of code switching using Sāmoan and English illustrate the various purposes described above.

  • Emphasising or clarifying a point: “Don’t do that, tamaitiiti ulavale.” [naughty child]
  • Reinforcing a request: “Please sit down everyone; nofo i lalo fa‘amolemole.”
  • Substituting a more familiar word: “Suga, let’s go to the fale‘oloa and get some lole.” “Oka, ese lou bossy!” [“Hey you (to a female), let’s go to the shop and get some lollies.” “Man, you’re so bossy!”]
  • Expressing a concept with no direct equivalent: “O a mai oe? How are you?” “O lea tata le vae matua!” [Literally, “The big toe is tapping!” – indicating that one is very well.]

Other reasons for code switching

Code switching can also be used for wider sociolinguistic reasons such as to indicate solidarity with another speaker, for humour, to signal a change of attitude or relationship, or to include or exclude someone from the conversation. 

Changing languages according to the context often gives bilingual speakers:

  • a heightened awareness of language appropriateness (what languages are appropriate in what context, and with what speaker)
  • a greater communicative sensitivity, both in relation to the wider features of the language context and the communicative needs of those with whom they are speaking.

Exploring your practice

How do bilingual speakers "switch" languages?

Part 1

Ask your Pasifika (and other bilingual) students for a set of key words in their language(s) in connection with a particular context (for example, kinship relations) or a particular activity.

Compare and contrast the meanings of these words with the meanings of their equivalents in English. What differences emerge? Are there any words that do not have direct equivalents in English?

Part 2

Make a conscious effort to observe and note down code switching in the interaction of two Pasifika students in the course of a particular activity, either in or out of class. You may find it easier to record the conversation of these students (with their prior permission) and analyse/review it later.

After you have had a chance to review the activity, ask the students to help you work out what they said when the code switching occurred and the possible reasons for their use of code switching at these points.

Attitudes to being bilingual


While Pasifika languages may continue to be spoken within families, the community, and at church, they are much less commonly used in New Zealand schools. In fact, some teachers actively discourage the use of Pasifika languages in schools, fearing that this will impede or delay the students’ acquisition of English.

This widely-held perception may also extend to Pasifika parents and families, and to Pasifika students themselves. Some of these attitudes are discussed in the video Parents and bilingual learning.

The benefits of additive bilingual environments

In fact, Pasifika (and other) bilingual students learn most effectively in additive bilingual environments where their bilingual skills are recognised, valued, and used in the teaching and learning process. This is because the existing language knowledge and skills of Pasifika students, like any prior knowledge, provide the starting point for learning more, not only in a Pasifika language but also in English.

Crucially, what happens at school can help or hinder this process. 

By recognising, valuing, and using the Pasifika languages of our students, even in mainstream contexts, we can significantly enhance their learning and the likelihood of their long-term educational success. 

Exploring your practice

Attitudes to bilingualism

Discuss attitudes towards bilingualism with your students.

  • Do your students regard bilingualism as an advantage?
  • Do your bilingual students and your monolingual students differ in their attitudes towards bilingualism?
  • What attitudes towards the use of Pasifika (or other) languages have your students encountered?

Bilingualism and successful learning

Potential advantages of bilingualism exists, but the key to securing those advantages for bilingual students is to build effectively on the linguistic knowledge they already have. This relates to the principle of language interdependence – the fact that knowledge of one language helps students to learn another.

The challenge for teachers, particularly in mainstream classrooms, is to work out how to support students’ ongoing bilingual development and its positive effects, even if they don’t know the languages concerned.

Key research points

Baker (2006) summarises the CUP model of bilingualism in six points.

One integrated source of thought

Irrespective of the language in which a person is operating, there is one integrated source of thought. This means that they way in which bilingual speakers think is seamless even though they code switch between languages.

Capacity to store two or more languages

Bilingualism and multilingualism are possible because people have the capacity to easily store two or more languages. People can also function in two or more languages with relative ease. This means that there is no limit to how many languages you can learn.

Information processing skills

Information processing skills and educational attainment may be developed through two languages as well as through one language. Both channels feed the same central processor. 

Assists cognitive development

The language a student uses in the classroom needs to be sufficiently well-developed for them to be able to process the cognitive challenges that are presented.

Benefits of a balanced development of first and second languages

Speaking, listening, reading, or writing in the first ( L1) and second languages ( L2) helps the whole cognitive system to develop.

However, if students are made to operate in an insufficiently developed L2 without recourse to their L1 (as is often the case in mainstream education), the system will not function at its best.

When a negative impact could arise

When one or both languages are not functioning fully (for example, because of an unfavourable attitude to learning through a Pasifika L1 or pressure to replace a Pasifika L1 with English), students’ cognitive functioning and academic performance may be negatively affected. 

Is being bilingual an advantage?

Thinking in two languages

When children continue to develop their abilities in two or more languages throughout their primary school years, they gain a deeper understanding of language and how to use it effectively. In other words, bilingualism is a cognitive, social, and educational advantage.

When bilingual students are in contexts where being bilingual is valued and used, they show definite advantages over monolingual students in the following four cognitive or learning areas.

Other advantages of bilingualism

As well as the many cognitive benefits of bilingualism, there are also more wide-ranging advantages.

Bilingual people can communicate with a wider range of people within families and communities, across generations, and in other social contexts. They are able to read and write in more than one language opens up new literatures, traditions, and ideas to bilingual students. 

Being bilingual, and being exposed to two languages and cultures, often fosters greater tolerance for other cultural groups.

Knowing two languages:

  • makes it easier to learn additional languages.
  •  provides bilingual people with additional skills in the employment market – skills that are increasingly important in our globalised world.

When bilingual learners also become biliterate (that is, able to read and write well in two languages), they are known to achieve extremely well in education, often better than their monolingual peers. 

Exploring your practice

Is bilingualism an advantage?

Metalinguistic awareness (being aware of how languages work) is an interesting area to explore with your own students.

Do a little preliminary research yourself first, by finding out how many sounds there are in English. (Look at the pronunciation key in an English dictionary.) How does this compare with the number of letters in the English alphabet?

Part 1

Ask a group of bilingual Pasifika students about the letters and sounds in their language(s). How do these differ from English? What is the difference in spelling conventions between their Pasifika language and English? Ask them what challenges spelling in English presents for them.

Ask some of your students who know only English why English spelling might be hard to learn. How do the students’ explanations differ? (You may also choose to explore the differences between spelling conventions in British and American English.)

Ask all the students to work in small groups and make lists of other things they think are hard to learn in English. Do you or they notice any differences in the lists?

Part 2

Other languages express many concepts that are different from English ones. A simple area to explore with your students is kinship terms – the concepts and words for family members.

Ask the students to make a large imaginary family tree with four or five generations and many aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins at each generation.

Get the students to choose pairs of people on the tree and then say what the relationship between them is. Do this for English, for Pasifika languages, and for any other languages your students know.

Ask them to explain which relationships are equal, which ones involve respect and obedience, and which ones are usually particularly close and loving.

What do you notice about your students’ explorations of the concepts, and of the differences between languages, in relation to kinship terms?

Affirming biliteracy

Bilingual students perform well academically when they learn in a supportive bilingual context. The long-term educational success of Pasifika bilingual students is more likely when teachers and others affirm their biliteracy in English and their Pasifika language.

"In programs in which minority students’ first-language skills are strongly reinforced, the students tend to be more successful … Educators who see their role as adding a second language and cultural affiliation to students’ repertoires are likely to empower them more than those who see their role as replacing or subtracting students’ primary language and culture in the process of fostering their assimilation into the dominant culture." 

Jim Cummins, ERIC Digest, 1991

A key place to begin affirming biliteracy is in the wider school environment.

Many schools already do a lot to acknowledge and embrace Pasifika languages and cultures – for example, they may make extensive use of Pasifika languages for signs, newsletters, and so on, or provide books and other resources written in the various Pasifika languages. This is a crucial first step, particularly for schools with a high Pasifika student population.

The wider challenge, particularly for teachers in mainstream contexts, is to find ways to incorporate Pasifika languages and cultures meaningfully into the instructional programme of their classrooms.

This process is particularly challenging for the many New Zealand teachers who do not know or speak a Pasifika language. What can they do?


Cummins, Jim. (1991.)  Empowering Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students with Learning Problems. ERIC digest, ED333622.

Exploring your practice

Affirming biliteracy

  • Make an inventory of classroom roles or activities that students can undertake using their first languages.
  • Notice and record how this use of their  L1 affects the students’ work.
  • Ask your bilingual Pasifika students to work together on a curriculum activity in their L1. Observe them working together, and record your impressions of their  language use and of how they explore the curriculum material.
  • Were there parts of the activity that they preferred to do in their first language?
  • Were there parts of the activity they preferred to do in English?
  • Why do you think that was?

What if students aren’t strong in either language?

Bilingual people may vary in the degree of bilingualism they demonstrate. These varied bilingual patterns are likely to be evident among your Pasifika – and perhaps other – bilingual students. 

In most cases, the varied bilingual patterns are quite normal, although this should not stop teachers from trying to improve students’ ability in both their languages wherever possible. Sometimes, though, particular students may appear to have little competence in either language. 

Reasons for bilingual language use

Many bilingual people use their two languages for different purposes and events. Language use may also be specific to a context. A person may be competent in some language contexts but not in others. (Of course, this is also true for monolingual learners.)

Find out the contexts and purposes for which a bilingual student’s language ability is most well-developed and build on this expertise. For example, a student may exhibit extensive language and literacy skills in relation to the language of technology or popular culture (for instance, hip hop), which could then provide a basis for learning classroom language.

Guidance for school-based language tests

Be cautious in interpreting school-based language tests, particularly in relation to bilingual students. Language tests may measure a small, unrepresentative sample of a student’s daily language behaviour. The apparent deficiencies may simply reflect the assumptions of specific tests and fail to recognise the wider language competencies of students.

In addition, because tests used in schools are generally based on "standard" academic language, there is an implicit bias against both speakers of different varieties of that language and second language learners who take longer to learn the academic language register of a second language. This latter phenomenon is called the second language learning delay.

Shift your focus

Focus on the conditions necessary to maximise opportunities for bilingual students to improve their language skills and develop them to high levels. 

How to shift your focus

You might try some or all of the following.

  • Encourage your students to talk in their Pasifika (or other) language in class as well as in English. Doing so fosters the development of oral proficiency (particularly in relation to classroom language) in both languages. 
  • Reassure your students to read and write – in class – in their Pasifika (or other) language as well as in English, to promote biliteracy. 
  • Invite your students and their families to talk, read, and write in either or both languages in contexts outside school.
  • Actively assure a student’s parents or caregivers, who are either stronger in a Pasifika language than in English or who usually use a Pasifika language at home, to continue speaking, reading, and writing in the Pasifika language with their children at home. This will help the students to become literate in the Pasifika language and make it easier for them to become literate in English. This is because of the principle of language interdependence.

Activities and approaches teachers can use

Mainstream teachers and schools can provide opportunities for Pasifika students to work in their first langauge( L1) in a number of different ways. Some examples of activities you can use with Pasifika students in a mainstream classroom follow.

Using concepts, exploring, and discussing

Encourage your students to draw on concepts and explore and discuss their ideas in their first language.

Ways to do this include the following.

Bilingual dictionaries

Promote the use of bilingual dictionaries.

Encourage students to make their own bilingual dictionaries and to build their vocabulary.

Additional resources

Provide other resources in Pasifika students’ L1, such as printed and electronic materials.

Print resources that are readily available from the Ministry of Education include the Tupu series in five Pasifika languages (at a range of early childhood and school levels), the Folauga series in Sāmoan (for primary schools), and the Folauga Ua Loa series in Sāmoan (for secondary schools). The Tupu and Folauga Ua Loa books have associated teachers’ notes.

Draw on other resources, including people who know Pasifika languages (for example, you could invite parents or caregivers to participate in class activities).

Discuss, develop, write

Provide group-based discussion in the students’ L1 as a basis for addressing curriculum content.

Help your bilingual students to develop knowledge about their two languages and the relationships between them. For example, you could encourage the students to choose particular languages for particular activities.

Encourage the students to write in their L1, especially in the early stages of learning English.

Teachers often feel worried about giving students the opportunity to write in their first language. However, in view of the key principle of language interdependence, there is no need for concern. We know that it is helpful to provide support for aspects of writing – for example, helping students to plan and brainstorm reduces some of the cognitive load when they subsequently come to write their text.

This is also true of giving students the opportunity to brainstorm, plan, or even draft a text in their L1.