This week I’ll be starting a five-part series on the blog called “Myth Mondays”: each Monday for the next five weeks we will address a common misconception, or myth, surrounding the topic of bilingualism.
Well, part of the reason I began this blog was to help people unfamiliar with bilingualism to understand the why, what, when, how, and who of this linguistic phenomenon.
Did you know that more than half of the world is bilingual? Cool! So, today we’ll be looking at one of the most common misconceptions surrounding bilingualism:
Myth #1: Being bilingual means possessing a balanced and perfect proficiency of both languages.
When I tell people that I am bilingual, one of the most common responses I receive is, “Oh, I didn’t know you grew up speaking Spanish!”
So, then, what does “bilingual” actually mean? Simply put, bilingual means the ability to speak two (bi-) languages (lingual). But, what do we mean when we use the broad term “language”? How much of a language does a person need to speak before it is considered fluency? And, what does “ability” refer to?
The misconception surrounding today’s myth stems from two words: “balanced” and “perfect.”
You’d be hard pressed to find an individual anywhere who speaks even ONE language perfectly (perfection is pretty hard to attain in any area of life…I mean, I’m still trying achieve a perfectly clean house! Ha!). Consider yourself as an example (be you mono-, bi-, or multi-lingual): how often do you misspell a word?, how often do you make grammatical mistakes (much to your grandmother’s chagrin) like, “I could care less!”?
Most bi- and mono-linguals use one of the languages for certain areas of their life (i.e., to communicate with family, to express emotions), while using the other for different areas (i.e., work, school, etc.). Thus, the adjective “balanced” is also misleading.
Okay, Audrey, you’ve still left me wondering what makes a bilingual! (Well, I’m glad you’ve stuck with me this far!)
In fancy-shmancy academic circles linguists refer to a few types of bilingual. Let’s look briefly at each one:
This is what most people assume to be THE definition of bilingual. This type of bilingualism is when a child learns two languages at the same time from birth. Often (but not always) it stems from the “one-parent one-language” approach. Children who grow up speaking two languages simultaneously have two linguistic systems for one concept (i.e., “dog” and “perro” for the idea of a furry, canine friend). E. (my daughter) is what we’d call a simultaneous bilingual.
Consecutive (or successive or sequential) –
This type of bilingualism refers to a young child who first learns one language from birth, then begins learning a second language shortly after, usually starting between three and six years of age. An example of sequential bilingualism would be my own Czech grandfather, who from birth to about five, spoke only Czech at home with his family. He began speaking English when he began kindergarten, unfortunately to the detriment of his Czech (thus, subtractive bilingualism). Today, he uses only English, but can understand written and spoken Czech (passive bilingual).
This refers to a person who learns a second language after the “critical period” of around twelve years of age. (This is about the age that I began to study Spanish). The critical period hypothesis is a controversial idea that states that there’s an “ideal window” (before about twelve years) within which to learn another language in order to achieve native-like fluency. After this period, although an individual can still become proficient in a second (or third, or fourth) language, he/she may not be able to produce the accent of said language. But, as we’ll see this Wednesday on the blog, there are many people who don’t fit this hypothesis. (So, it’s NEVER too late to learn another language!)
If you’re still left with questions about bilingualism, or if you’re just curious and would like to read more about the topic (awesome!), I encourage you to check out the following sites: Dr. Francois Grosjean, Linguistic Society of America, Bilingualism Matters (there’s so much more, but this is a good start!).
And, as always, I’d love to hear from you! What kind of bilingual are you? Do you know anyone in your life who fits one of the above definitions of bilingual? Drop me a line!
Stay tuned for this Wednesday’s post, “The Many Faces of Bilingual” in which I’ll be spotlighting bilingual (and some multilingual!) folks from around the globe. You’ll get a chance to see how bilinguals don’t fit into just one definition.