What Is Being Bilingual?


Someone sent me an article (which I realized was in fact a native ad, but that’s besides the point) about what it means to be bilingual. In the article they point out that the definition can be murky, and different people (including scholars) have different opinions about who qualifies as being “bilingual”, rather than simply “knows how to communicate in more than one language”. It was sent to me in order to get my take on it, as someone who uses the bilingual label. What do I think qualifies as being bilingual? What follows of course is only my opinion, surely formed by my context, but I can illustrate what I think about it with a story that happened a few years ago.

When I was in college, I used to occasionally take quick weekend trips back to Italy. This involved taking those horrific 6AM flights on Saturday morning. Every time, my friends would enthusiastically invite me over on the Friday night, promising to stay up with me until my cab came to pick me up to bring me to the airport. Every time, they would get sleepy around 2AM, and they would go to bed leaving me to wait out the last hour on my own. Every time, I would fall asleep on the couch, only to be awoken 45 minutes later by my cell phone ringing, which would be the taxi driver waiting downstairs. I would get up, grab my bag and blunder my way down the stairs.

On one of these occasions, I realized I had very little cash on me.

“Listen”, I said to the driver, “I haven’t got a lot of cash on me and I know you don’t take cards, so can we stop by an ATM on the way? I’ll get in and leave my bag in the car. You know what, there’s one just on the corner of the main street. We can go down there and you can wait a minute and I’ll just pop out and grab some cash…”

Meanwhile, in my head: [Why is this guy just staring at me? At least nod to indicate that you’re hearing me! Is he annoyed that I don’t have much cash?]

“and then I’ll get back in and we can go to the airport, alright? Unless you’d rather I get some..”

[This guy is just gawping at me, what’s his problem? Is he also very tired?]

“some cash at the airport? Or do you take cards after all? Unless…”

[Something clicks]

“Unless… um…” I closed my eyes, paused and concentrated. “Have I just been talking to you in Italian?”

He nodded, looking relieved that I had finally started making some sense.

“Crap! Sorry! What I said was…..”

To me, being bilingual means sometimes making those kinds of mistakes. It means not having a foreign accent when you speak either of your two languages. It means struggling to find words sometimes, and having this internal brain battle:

Me: “What is the word for those things that hang in front of your windows?”

Brain: “Tende”

Me: “Wrong language. What is the word for those things that hang in front of your windows?”

Brain: “I’ve stopped searching for that word because I’ve found it already. It’s tende. Just say tende”

Me: Keep looking! It’s the wrong fucking language!!

As I’ve been living in countries and been hanging around people who speak either Italian or English, these internal struggles have become far fewer. When I was a child, and my school friends all spoke both, we would constantly gabble away in a strange mixture of the two, simply saying the word in whichever language it happened to pop up in. This made visiting Italian relatives or American friends and family a pain in the ass, especially if I was tired.

To them, I think I just appeared quite dim. Or like a child struggling to not stutter.

Comments

  1. A. Noyd says

    It means not having a foreign accent when you speak either of your two languages.

    I didn’t learn my second language as a child and so I do have an accent in it, but I have much less of one than people expect for my level of fluency. (Or I’m less fluent than people expect from my accent.) Which can create awkward situations because if you sound more fluent than you are, people don’t tend to adjust how they speak to you.

    Brain: “I’ve stopped searching for that word because I’ve found it already. It’s tende. Just say tende”

    Argggh! That’s so annoying!

    Sometimes a student asks me for the English word for something in Japanese and I realize I don’t actually have an equivalent word I use in English. So I stand there struggling for an approximation and I look like an idiot even though I can envision what the word means perfectly fine.

    It’s also a chore trying to get the kids I teach to recognize that with languages as different as Japanese and English, translating words is always extremely situational. They naively tend towards word-for-word translations, but get tripped up by how the translation of a word in one context will rarely be the same in another.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      The inability to translate word to word is common, even in languages which are not as different as English and Japanese! Many times, when people ask me how to say this word in English or Italian, I follow with a 20 minute discussion about context and concepts. It can be a tough thing to communicate to children who grew up in a monolingual society, but eventually they’ll get it (I hope)!

      • A. Noyd says

        Of course it’s true of all languages to some extent, but even more so in ones with less relation to one another. Like take the word “fork” in English. We use that for the utensil and associated concepts, like splits in roads or rivers or the state of being split. More of the words for those concepts in German are based on the German word for “fork” than you find in Italian or in Japanese.

        The fewer associations that carry over, the more word translations you have to memorize. Unless you go to the trouble of building a separate internal map of word associations for the other language and avoid translation as much as possible. But the latter can be hard if you’re learning mostly from textbooks and dictionaries which tend to rely on translating.

  2. jockmcdock says

    I don’t understand the why speaking with a foreign accent reduces one’s bilinguality (if that’s a word). I live in The Netherlands and I know many Dutch people who speak and write excellent English but have a Dutch accent. I would certainly rate them as bilingual.

    And what is “foreign”? I’m an Aussie and speak with an Aussie accent. If I go to, say, the US, I would be regarded as a foreigner. Does my bilinguality (that word again) disappear just because I’m a foreigner? (I speak Dutch)

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      What I mean by that is how your brain relies on a certain language for reading and pronunciation. It’s a little hard to explain, but I’ll try. For example, I am learning German at the moment. When I was reading texts in my very first week, my German teacher was surprised at my accent. I definitely had an accent, of course, but it was neither an Italian one nor an American one. What I was doing was trying to imitate my German teacher’s accent while reading. I was failing miserably, it was only my first week, but I was not falling back on the “Italian” or “American” way of reading things.

      In that respect, I think that being fully bilingual means that you don’t have one main language that you fall back on. If you’re trying to read something, or pronounce a certain unknown word, you don’t always rely on your native tongue, that in essence you have two native tongues that you can use interchangeably. That does not mean that you might not have a slight accent when you speak one of the two, but it is not an accent that is formed because your brain is “insisting” on your native tongue.

      Once again this is my opinion, as I wrote in the post, and by no means the be all and end all in definitions.

  3. Numenaster says

    Using the measure you propose, bilinguality is something you can have and then lose. I’m an American who learned Chinese (okay, MANDARIN) in college and then spent a school year living in mainland China. At the end of that year I was definitely fluent enough to think, make jokes, and dream in Mandarin. But in the 27 years since, I haven’t used my Mandarin much. At some point I mentally reached for a quick translation and couldn’t find more than a few pieces of it. I knew where the missing words should go in a properly formed sentence, but the words just weren’t there when I expected them to be. I still occasionally dream in Mandarin, but now I don’t understand everything I hear in the dreams. It’s jarring.

  4. usagichan says

    I am certainly not biingual, although my son probably for my daughter English is definately a second language. However because mostly Japanese is spoken at home, I do get some of the symptoms (sometimes I am so used to a Japanese expression that I can’t bring the English equivalent (if indeed there is an English equivalent) to mind). Even though I expect to end my days here, I don’t expect ever to achieve true fluency.

    Probably the hardest thing for me though is being semi-literate at best in a culture where literacy is virtually 100%.

    Oh and I do sometimes dream in Japanese (which I seem to be able to speak far more fluently in my dreams than I can in reality – either my subconscious is filling in my ignorance or I am subconsciously capable of more than my conscious mind permits).

    Perhaps the strangest (and currently hardest for me) is the English that has been subsumed into the Japanese language. I recently moved so I commute on a different line in Tokyo (The 南北線) and was confused by announcements that started with what sounded like “This is a Wham Bam Driver Information Announcement” (in Japanese of course) – after talking to my family about it we worked out the Wham Bam was a Japanese rendering of “One Man” informing passengers the train is single man operated without a Guard.

    • A. Noyd says

      Perhaps the strangest (and currently hardest for me) is the English that has been subsumed into the Japanese language.

      I find it helps to play around speaking English as if it were made into katakana words. (Like: アイ ハヴ ビン リビング イン ジャパン フォア ワン イヤー ナウ.) Though, I try not to do that around anyone who can hear because it can sound like I’m mocking Japanese people’s accents. It’s also useful to know how to do that for my job because sometimes I have to add furigana to English phrases for people who can’t read English.

  5. says

    I’m quite familiar with the annoying “tende effect”! I’m a native Italian speaker, fluent in French, English and German, all of which I often use. Many French people assume I’m a native speaker, albeit with a “Swiss” accent (which really is a remnant of my Italian accent).

    I don’t consider myself bi- or multilingual though, as I usually reserve those words for people who’ve learned several languages while growing up, thus mostly without any conscious effort. But I admit this criterion is not clear cut. For instance, I was only nine when I’ve started to learn French in school, so does it count? And why don’t I count as my first mother tongue my region’s Italian dialect? After all, it is mutually incomprehensible with standard Italian to the point it is considered to be a separate language by linguists, and that’s all I could speak until the age of four. But I guess I don’t feel confortable either counting it as a real language or as one of my mother tongues, since I only use it passively nowadays. And should I count Spanish? I can’t speak it much, but I mostly understand it when spoken and I can read books in Spanish without problems.

    I guess my point is that it can be quite complicated, so no wonder we have trouble defining “bilingualism”! Indeed, I’ve been reading up on this stuff lately, and I’ve learned that possibly most people in the world are actually multilingual in some way, effectively using different languages in different contexts, for different purposes and with various degrees of proficiency.

    • A. Noyd says

      I don’t consider myself bi- or multilingual though, as I usually reserve those words for people who’ve learned several languages while growing up, thus mostly without any conscious effort.

      […]

      possibly most people in the world are actually multilingual in some way, effectively using different languages in different contexts, for different purposes and with various degrees of proficiency.

      Yeah, it’s actually the exception for people to grow up learning several languages to the same degree of proficiency and with the ability to use them in all the same contexts. Realistically, it’s very difficult to achieve that and takes access to duplicated environments: school life in X language and school life in Y language; home life in X language and home life in Y language; religious participation in X language and religious participation in Y language; etc.

      Most bilinguals, whether they learned more than one language from early childhood or later in life, apply their languages unequally. And it will take all of them conscious effort to do otherwise. Which is why linguists do not reserve “bilingual” for only those people who are effortlessly and equally proficient in more than one language.

      I had a Japanese classmate in college who was bilingual in English, Japanese and Chinese. But, from adolescence on, she had only gone to school in English. She came to the USA for college because, even though she wasn’t fluent enough in English to be mistaken for a native, she didn’t have the language to understand or express higher level scholastic concepts in Japanese or Chinese.

      But that classmate was definitely bilingual and so am I, despite being a late learner who can’t say nearly as many things in her second language as she can in her native language.

      One of my linguistics professors pointed out it’s kind of weird how those of us in cultures affected by the whole Protestant work ethic mind-fuck tend to fetishize hard work and struggle, but then withhold certain prestigious titles like “bilingual” from the people who’ve worked the hardest to achieve it. So fuck it! Call yourself bilingual!

  6. says

    I agree with jockmcdock that not having a “foreign accent” is not a very good criterion for bilingualism, as some accents way be quite exotic but perfectly native. E.g. Quebec accent to French people can sound like the accent of an English speaker. Or what about the native English accent of many Indians, or of Singaporians?…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *