I am multilingual. A perspective on the bilingualism debate.

There are a lot of different ideas about what “being bilingual” means. Some people think you can only claim to be bilingual if you grew up with two languages. Others link bilingualism to fluency in both languages. And this is where we run into yet another problem: What does “being fluent in a language” mean? Are you fluent if you can speak and read and dream in another language without an accent? If you’re able to communicate in another language in just about any situation? (And now please raise hands if you can do that in your native language … Seriously, take a moment to think about it: Would you be able to communicate without problems with scientists, academic people, teenagers, native speakers from a different dialect area, IT specialists, and so on? Or would you stumble across unknown words and strange phrases from vocabulary fields and varieties you’re not familiar with?) And what if you grew up with two languages but “lost” one of them as you got older? Are you still bilingual if you’re effectively unable to remember your second language?

For a long time, I let those people intimidate me. I let them decide for me not to call myself bilingual although I was able to communicate well in German and English. I let them make me think I didn’t have a right to claim I was bilingual. You see, I grew up with just one native language. I didn’t start learning English until I was eight or nine years old, and even then, it was just a few words and songs. My proper English lessons didn’t start until I was ten years old–far too old for those easy-acquisition processes we use as infants to trigger. I still speak English with an accent (most people call me out on my German accent, yet I’ve also been told I sound Scottish, so…huh?). Guess what? All this doesn’t alter the fact that I’m fluent in English. I’m able to communicate fluently in most situations. I’m able to read fiction and non-fiction. I’m able to write coherent texts in a variety of registers (in fact, I wrote my first academic paper at university in English, and I’ve published children’s and YA books in English). I’m even able to code-switch at the spur of a moment, without thinking–most of the times. Are there still things I could improve on? Certainly. Are there still areas where my vocabulary is insufficient? Definitely. So what makes me think I’m fluent?

First of all, there are definitely areas where my German vocabulary is insufficient, and German is my native language. There are still things in German I don’t know, or could improve on. Does that make me any less fluent in my native language? No, it doesn’t. So why should the bar be higher in a foreign language?

Secondly, I am able to communicate. And that’s the main goal of language; that’s what language is all about. I may not be able to handle every conceivable situation equally well, but I am able to communicate my feelings, my intentions, and my opinions.

So why am I saying I am multilingual? Well, that’s easy: Because I can communicate in more than two languages. Mind you, I’m not claiming to be fluent in all those languages, but I am able to read books, write (business) letters, and given some time to adjust, I’ll even be able to hold more or less fluent (yet probably not eloquent or correct) conversations again.

You don’t have to be perfect in a language to count it. I’d wager no one is 100% perfect in any language, not even our native languages. If you’re able to communicate in any given language, count it. So, how many of you out there can rightfully say they’re bilingual or multilingual as well? 🙂

 

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3 thoughts on “I am multilingual. A perspective on the bilingualism debate.

  1. I agree. It’s the same for me; I don’t understand all dialects in my native language, and I run into a new word once in a while (usually more technical terms or slang words, obviously). I used to be fluent in French, and I still understand most of it, though I forgot how to speak and write because I didn’t use it for years.

    Right now I’m fluent in English and German, I’ve written stories in both, and at the time also in French, and translated to and from all three languages. I usually call myself bilingual, but if I were to move to France again, I’d probably be trilingual within a month.

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    1. Likely. Languages tend to “come back” very quickly once we try to use them again. When I was in Spain for an internship, I arrived with literally a few words and sentences as far as my active vocabulary went, and a passive understanding (in writing) of more. Fast forward two weeks and I was able to hold spontaneous conversations in Spanish with customers and co-workers.

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      1. Yes, that’s my experience, too, especially when you’re in the country and surrounded by monolingual native speakers. Which is great for learning a language in the first place, too, obviously.

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