If I tell you I am bilingual, what will you think?
Probably that I understand two languages, speak those languages with no accent, and read & write in those two languages fluently.
That’s rarely the case………
You see I gained that kind of high fluency from learning both languages in my early childhood when I was exposed to communities speaking both languages.
The reality is that this sort of perfect bilingualism — generally called “balanced” bilingualism — is rare.
Most bilinguals have a dominant language, with the weaker being hard to use.
Balanced bilingualism requires constant exposure to two different languages at full fluencies. Even in families that deliberately emphasize bilingual education it is unlikely for both languages to be equally dominant.
In most countries that sort of exposure would be impossible — schools and businesses will function in one primary language, making it very hard to gain similar exposure to a second.
I use the term bilingual and not trilingual and/or multilingual because a) it is used more often, b) learning principals are the same for three and more languages and c) it is easier to read.
If you know and teach your child three, four or more languages, just substitute term bilingual with trilingual and multilingual.
“Bilingual” Is Not a Destination. It Is A Journey
The reality of raising a bilingual child (or even of seeking bilingualism yourself as an adult) is that there is no “graduation moment.”
No one has a fixed benchmark for when an individual is or isn’t bilingual.
For some families, bilingual may mean being able to converse with an immigrant parent or grandparent in their original language, while going about daily life in the local dominant language.
For others it may mean the ability to read adult literature in multiple languages.
To get a sense of how broad the term “bilingual” can really be, think about all of the different people we might apply it to based on their fluency:
- A high school student finishing his or her fourth year of a language could probably travel comfortably in countries where it is spoken. He or she might not be able to read at a very advanced level, and probably could not hold most jobs in the country effectively, but we consider the ability to move about and converse in the language “bilingual.”
- A six month old baby doesn’t speak at all, or makes very few recognizable sounds at best. But if the child is exposed to two different languages and responds to specific stimuli in both, we consider the baby to be bilingual. Even without speech or reading ability, there is still bilingual comprehension — and it may be better comprehension than the high school student’s in the last example.
- A growing child — ten or eleven, say — whose family speaks a language that is not the dominant local language and understands both would be considered bilingual. Children of immigrant families often understand the family language fluently but converse entirely in the local language, only using their “heritage” language when necessary. This is yet another type of bilingualism, called passive.
- An adult immigrant who have changed the country of residence to get better job opportunities. He is thrown into the very new language environment and has to learn fast. He also might be taking language classes in the local collage. His language fluency is increasing in the very fast pace even though his accent is very prominent and people ask him where is he from after his just says “Hello”.
All these examples are based on fluency criteria of languages. But there is another important factor: language use. Some bilinguals make regular use of both their languages, even though they are only partially fluent in one — consider a babysitter who works as an au-pair and uses a second language on daily basis but with limited fluency. Other bilinguals have high fluency but low use, as in the case of someone raised with two languages that can fluently speak both but uses predominantly only one.
Professor of psycholinguistics François Grosjean, the author of the book “Bilingual. Life and Reality” has a great way to define bilinguals by taking into account both of these factors: language fluency and language use. He created a grid where language use is presented along vertical axis (from “never use” to “use daily) and language fluency is presented along the horizontal axis (low fluency to high fluency). I filled the grid with my own languages and here what I have
I was born and raised in Ukraine where Russian and Ukrainian both widely used. That is where I learned both languages with very high fluency (native). For the past six years I have lived in the USA, where I use English on a daily basis with medium fluency. I also use Russian on a daily basis with my children and family who stayed in Ukraine. Although I’m fluent in Ukrainian I use it only once a week when we have Ukrainian Saturday with my kids or for reading. I’ve included Spanish because I was studying it by myself for a short period of time, never reached any significant fluency, and use it only one night a week when we learn basic words and phrases with my kids.
There are also other factors that need to be taken to the consideration when describing a bilingual person:
- Age of the person. A young bilingual child is developing language skills more instinctively than an adult. Young children raised bilingual are more likely to reach fluency faster than adults adding a second language.
- Language pairs that bilingual person knows. We sometimes take for granted that we know what language is, but the difference between a language and a dialect is not always clear-cut. No one can even define exactly how many languages are in the world. The estimates vary from 3000 to 8000.
- Which way languages were acquired and at what age
- Which basic languages skills (speaking, understanding, reading, and writing) person mastered
- In which areas of life languages are used
- Whether a person is only bilingual or also bicultural (more on this concept in another article)
The purpose of this article not to make things more complicated, but to make it clear that the way people communicate in the world is a living matter and is constantly developing and changing. There is no single way to define language or bilingualism. My favorite is by Grosjean as well:
“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (dialects) in their everyday lives”.
It puts stress on use of languages rather than academic fluency, and gives me a great feeling that my kids are bilingual even if their minority Russian is weaker then dominant English.
Conclusion: “Bilingual” Is What You Need It To Be
So what is here for you, who is thinking about raising the child bilingual or already started this long journey?
The key to remember when you define bilingualism is that it can refer to many different ways of learning and communication.
Speaking, understanding, reading and writing are all distinct skills and will develop at different speeds. Someone developing those skills in two different languages should always be considered “bilingual”. But most likely you want your child’s languages skills to move from the bottom left corner to the top right one on the Grosjean’s grid. And it is clear that you child will reach higher fluency if he uses a language more often.