Sunday, September 7, 2008

What does it mean to be bilingual?

Bilingualism is the ability to use two languages with equal fluency, and to sound like a native in both. Young children are naturally designed to acquire what ever language(s) they are regularly exposed to. Although adults can study a second language to a high, even fluent, standard, they rarely manage to avoid a foreign accent. That's why true bilingualism has to start early in life - and why you don't need to be 'good at languages' to be bilingual.

The language you speak is closely bound up with your sense of identity, and how you view the world: being bilingual can make you feel at home in a wider set of social situations, and can give you two slightly different ways of looking at things.
Even where two languages are quite similar and you can function perfectly in either of them, things feel different in different languages. Robin puts it like this: "I feel a slightly different person speaking (or thinking) German than English - like everything's slightly more focussed."
It's rare to come across people who are not glad to be bilingual. Letizia in West London says that her children "are very proud to be half English and half Mexican and to be able to speak two languages."
Web reader Sandra sees practical benefits too: "I'm quite proud of being able to speak and understand Polish, as I know it will help in the future - now that Poland are part of the EU, maybe more people will learn it."
Speaking two languages is thought to increase cognitive abilities. In other words, bilingual children often get better mark! Bilinguals are more employable, and earn more on average than monolinguals. They're even healthier in old age! A study at the University of York in Canada in 2004 suggested that speaking two languages can help keep you mentally agile. Bilingual volunteers had faster reaction times than their monolingual counterparts and were less likely to suffer from mental decline in old age.
Bethan from Llanrug believes that bilingualism for its own sake is positive: "Children who are raised in a bilingual household are proven to do better at school as well as being more tolerant of diversity and minorities. In today's climate this can only be a good thing."
New parents who are considering bringing their offspring up to be bilingual will find plenty of information and advice on the internet. The excellent Nethelp site contains a wealth of invaluable personal experience and has a guide to the different approaches.
If you're only fluent in one language and are feeling jealous, don't despair. You don't have to be fully bilingual to feel the benefits of a second language. Harpal Singh from Glasgow was inspired to learn Gaelic by the late Radio Scotland presenter, Ali Abbasi: "Learning Gaelic makes me feel more Scottish and I recommend that everybody at least tries to pick up a few words. Tapadh leibh!"

For further reading:
Growing up with two languages by Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson.


Scott Abbott said...

I've always been jealous of people who are really bilingual, or even trilingual, like Christa Albrecht Crane of the UVU English Department. She grew up speaking Romanian, German, and English.

Loz said...

From a young age, i always wanted to be able to speak another language. My family went on yearly holidays to France and Spain and while we all laughed at my dads comical attempts and conversing with the locals, we all were safe in the kowledge that most people at our holiday camps were actually bilingual or were scottish and alas, another language was on the tips of our tongues but never fully rolled around the mouth.

Since moving to the states and marrying an american, it's always pointed out to me the differences between my language and the "local" tongue. Am I bilingual? Not a day passes without at least two people asking me if i am from Australia, South africa or even Sweden. In the past i had always mocked those english people who affected an american accent, but it dawned on me what english people go through here in the states. Is it easier to affect the accent and not be bothered by people shamelessly guessing and commenting on my accent? I tried my American accent on my wife and friends, who were horrified and entertained. Its not that i don't sound authentic,(although i fall short on certain "Catch" words) just disturbingly different from how i normally sound. We are currently raising our 6 month old to be bilingual.

Jorgen said...


1) If I ever have a child, I am going to do my best to raise her or him bilingual. I am going to learn (as best as I can) German for my second language, my girlfriend is doing French, so maybe Trilingual?

2) Don't ever try to change your accent. It is unique over here and it is who you are (yeah, I'll have some explaining to do concerning IDENTITY and LANGUAGE, right?). But if you try to affect to an American accent or anything else it would just be artificial in my opinion. Just do what is already natural to you.

Not two days go by where I'm not asked to explain my tattoos or if I got them in prison or blah blah. It was my choice to get them, but I never plan to cover them up simply to avoid the redundant attention. Though sometimes I want to.

Anonymous said...

ba=eing bilingual is great and im 15 (: ive been here and their interpeting for family and friends its awesome!