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…”
“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?”
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.