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Review of  El bilingismo en el mundo hispanohablante

Reviewer: Clara Burgo
Book Title: El bilingismo en el mundo hispanohablante
Book Author: Silvina A Montrul
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Spanish
Issue Number: 24.2872

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This book is a necessary introductory textbook, written in Spanish, about bilingualism in the Spanish-speaking world It provides an extensive and thorough review of the linguistic, social, political and educational aspects of bilingualism with the purpose of maximizing the available resources for educational contexts.

In Chapter 1, there is an introduction to different theoretical approaches to the study of bilingualism and a description of the variables that define the degree of bilingualism and the bilingual. It contains an explanation of what being bilingual means, as well as some important related definitions such as primary vs. secondary languages or minority languages. At the end, there is a brief summary of general attitudes towards bilingualism.

The remainder of the book is divided into three main sections: Part I- Bilingualism and Society, Part II- The Bilingualism of the Individual, and Part III- Policies and Education.

Part I covers Chapters 2 to 5. Chapter 2 explains the social aspects of bilingualism, the role of power and identity in language, situations of languages in contact, and how related issues drive the maintenance or loss of a language. Due to this contact, several structural changes, such as code-switching or lexical, morphological, or phonological transfers, have taken place throughout the history of languages.

In the next chapters, the historical, political, cultural and linguistic relationships of minority languages co-existing with Spanish in the US, Latin America and Spanish are examined, in addition to how these relationships affect the communities in question. Chapter 3 describes bilingualism in Spain, where three minority languages (i.e. Basque, Catalan and Galician) share an official status with Spanish. The chapter discusses how Spanish has affected the status of these minority languages and how recent political changes, such as the maintenance and revival of the minority languages, have contributed to the current situation of bilingualism in these areas.

Chapter 4 focuses on bilingualism in Latin American related to pre-Columbian languages, bilingualism in the Colonial period, and modern-day bilingualism. In the cases discussed, Spanish is the majority language that is seen as a symbol of social advance. This chapter ends by addressing Spanish in the United States, where it is a minority language. Montrul draws parallels between processes concerning bilingualism in the United States (i.e. Spanish-English) and that of Latin America and Spain (i.e. Spanish and other minority languages.

Section II focuses on individual bilingualism. Chapter 6 exposes the psycholinguistic aspects that take place in the bilingual’s mind. This is a challenge for psycholinguistics, since it requires explaining how two languages are organized, how they are processed and how the systems are related. Age of acquisition and the degree of linguistic competence in each language have an important role in the connections between the two languages.

Chapter 7 is centered on the acquisition and development of one or two languages during childhood. Bilingual children develop two parallel linguistic systems and go through the same developmental stages as monolingual children. The degree of development and knowledge of a language in a bilingual child depends on his/her bilingual environment, exposure to input in each language, and opportunities to use the language in different domains.

In Chapter 8, the author makes a connection with Chapter 1 in order to explain the importance of the role of age and context of acquisition in characterizing bilinguals, as well as how a second language is acquired. The main difference between the acquisition of the first language and that of the second language are transfer errors from the mother tongue, which are typical of interlanguage, and have nothing to do with the second language. One of the possible reasons for non-native competence of a language is the critical period hypothesis. According to this, if a person is not exposed to a language from childhood, he/she cannot acquire native-like competence in that language. Adults learn faster in initial acquisition stages, but younger speakers do in later stages.

Chapter 9 focuses on Spanish in the US from a psycholinguistic perspective, specifically, regarding attrition (i.e. the weakening of the mother tongue during schooling). Many heritage speakers incompletely acquire Spanish and many patterns of their use of the less dominant language are similar to adults acquiring a second language. For many Spanish heritage speakers, there is a change of competence and the dominant language becomes the second one. However, they tend to have advantages compared to second language learners in terms of pronunciation and fewer structural transfers.

Section III closes the book by addressing politics and education. Chapter 10 starts with a discussion of the foundations of bilingual education. The goal is to examine its role in sociopolitical contexts. Governments decide what language(s) will be diffused. Therefore, minority languages have to be standardized in order to be transmitted in school. Bilingual schools are subjected to linguistic and educational policies that need to be considered for implementation. As such, these schools have different focuses regarding the type of education, students or political status of languages.

In Chapters 11, 12 and 13, the current situation of linguistic policies in Spain, Latin America and the United States is examined. In Chapter 11, it is claimed that bilingual education and the use of minority languages for instruction contribute to expanding their use as well as their political and social status. A lack of education in the minority language contributes to its loss. In Spain, there has been an important investment in the revitalization of these languages through linguistic planning and education.

In Chapter 12, Montrul explains that there are two models of bilingual education that are contradictory in Latin America: bilingual intercultural education and elite bilingualism. The former explains subtractive bilingualism in indigenous communities, while the latter promotes additive bilingualism (Spanish-English) in middle and upper social classes. These modalities of education respond to the actual breach between classes in Latin America. After the 1970s, there were radical movements advocating for indigenous rights and access to education in their languages. Therefore, bilingual intercultural education has been adopted, since its objectives are maintaining and developing indigenous languages and integrating them in school curriculum. This model advocates for the defense of both cultures, but lacks resources. On the other hand, elite bilingualism refers to private bilingual schools in Spanish and English for students of the upper social class, and has many resources.

Finally, Chapter 13 focuses on bilingual education in the United States, which has a long history linked to immigration and social and educational policies. The general norm in educational politics in the United States is promoting English as the only language for economic and social success, which is detrimental for the maintenance of minority languages. Foreign languages are studied at the high school or college level, and therefore, Hispanics have access to Spanish programs, particularly those for heritage speakers, so that they can reconnect with their heritage language and culture.


The goals of the book and the intended audience are clearly and specifically described by Montrul. The book fills an important gap in the fields of Spanish bilingualism and Spanish in contact with other languages and is intended for advanced Spanish undergraduates, graduate students, Spanish instructors, sociolinguists, or students of related fields interested in Spanish in contact with other languages. There was a need for a textbook written in Spanish that includes a general overview of bilingualism and of Spanish spoken throughout the world, including in the US. This is the first textbook in Spanish for students of Hispanic Linguistics interested in bilingualism. Even though it is an introductory book, it requires previous knowledge of basic syntactic and linguistic terms.

As a pedagogical tool, the structure of the book is very user-friendly; there is an introduction in every chapter and the author connects each chapter with others, which gives a type of cohesion to the book that is very helpful for students. At the end of each chapter, we also find a summary, a list of keywords, comprehensive questions, follow-up exercises using data analysis and practical applications, and a relevant bibliography, all of which are very useful for undergraduate students. Some of the chapters even add discussion questions and topics for further research.

Even though the book is divided into three main sections -- Bilingualism and Society, Individual Bilingualism and Politics and Education -- the author does an amazing job of relating chapters to each other in order to give coherence across this structure. This strategy will particularly be appreciated by students because it allows them to easily draw connections between concepts that may superficially seem somewhat disparate.

Specific chapters within the book are particularly strong. For example, in Chapter 2, a good variety of examples are presented to explain structural changes in language contact situations, which include comments on several indigenous languages such as Quechua, Guarani, or minority languages like Basque. As far as I know, this is the first book to do this in such an exhaustive way, and in a student-friendly format, so that the intended audience can account for social aspects that involve bilingualism in these areas. Furthermore, in Chapters 3 and 4, minority languages are presented through representative examples of the situation of most bilinguals living in the areas in question. This effectively introduces the historical context of the contact situation with Spanish of these minority languages in Spain and Latin America.

In Chapter 9, after comparing the situation of second language learners to that of heritage speakers, there is a final section on possible advantages for heritage speakers, despite their similarities in terms of acquisition, which is extremely helpful for teachers or students interested in the psycholinguistics of bilinguals. This seems to be an innovation in books of this kind.

Finally, in the final chapters, readers get a critical review of bilingual education, especially in the United States, as well as heritage programs, which attempt to reconnect Spanish heritage speakers with the language they learned in their childhood, which is typically gradually replaced with English. After understanding what being bilingual means and how bilingualism is understood in other countries, in addition to the role it plays, the information presented here encourages reflection on our role as educators in the US and how to improve how we address the needs of these students.

This book, written by one of the most renowned scholars in the field, raises a critical awareness of the complexity of bilingualism in the Spanish-speaking world in social, cultural and political contexts. It is written in an accessible style for students and teachers, and thanks to its wide amount of exercises and discussion topics, can be used for a Spanish bilingualism course or as a self-study textbook. In sum, Montrul offers an updated overview of Spanish in bilingual situations around the world, written in Spanish, which usefully expands upon previous work by Zentella (1997) and Silva-Corvalán (1995).


Silva- Corvalán, C. (1995). Spanish in Four Continents: Studies in language contact and bilingualism. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown U. Press.

Zentella, A.C. (1997). Growing up bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Clara Burgo is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Spanish at DePaul University. Her research interests are Sociolinguistics and Spanish for Heritage Speakers.

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