Defining bilingualism in just a few words is not easy, as each individual has different bilingual characteristics. There may be distinctions between ability and use of a language, or differences in proficiency between the two languages.
Let’s define bilingualism simply as the ability to express oneself with ease in two languages.
People usually become bilingual because they need it in their day-to-day lives. As a result the degree of bilingualism may vary from one individual to another. Bilinguals are not necessarily perfectly fluent in their languages; it is in fact quite common to have a dominant language.
It is to be noted that being able to express yourself in two languages takes time. It is not after studying a language for six months that one can become bilingual.
“A real bilingual knows both languages perfectly.”
One of the main misconceptions about bilinguals is that they are equally proficient with both languages in speaking, listening, writing, reading as well as having a perfect knowledge of their respective cultures. Bilinguals usually don’t speak both languages equally well and that is because they use each language in different contexts, activities and domains (home, school, work…). This misconception can damage bilinguals’ confidence as they go through life thinking they are not proficient bilinguals and that something is wrong with them if they are not equally fluent.
“My child will just pick up the language if he hears it”
People often think that children will pick up languages if they’re simply exposed to them. However research shows that it takes consistency, commitment, and creative reinforcements, inside and outside the home, for children to learn and maintain a second language.
“Bilinguals should be able to translate on the spot, if they can’t they are not real bilinguals.”
I am very often asked to translate on the spot, and I find it quite hard at times. Very often this is interpreted by monolinguals as a lack of proficiency in the language. However, it has nothing to do with a lack of proficiency. Sometimes the word simply doesn’t exist in the second language. Anther reason is that each language is learnt and used in different situations, to find its equivalent out of context requires a lot of concentration and can take a bit of time to come to your brain. This is why Bilinguals are not necessarily good at translating.
“Bilingualism is an exception.”
This is a myth rooted in people’s mind. How many times have I heard: “Oh you are so lucky to speak another language”. I am definitely lucky but I am normal. Bilingualism shouldn’t be seen as an exception, it should be seen as the norm.
Most of the world is actually bilingual. With more and more marriages between people from different countries, it is very common to have two or more languages spoken within a relationship or home. Some African nationals understand and speak five languages! Although it is hard to get precise statistics due to the flexibility of the definition and the consideration of many of the local dialects around the world, the estimates place around 60% to 75% of the world as bilingual (Baker, 2000). Moreover, bilingualism is on the rise and in most places of the world it is becoming more and more common (Shin & Bruno, 2003; Graddol, 2004).
“Mixing languages is a sign of fake bilingualism and is used to show off”
Mixing languages is often used by bilinguals when they speak to each other. Most of the time they stick to one language if speaking to monolinguals but sometimes the word just sounds better in one language or cannot be expressed the same way in the other language. This often happens to me when I speak to someone close to me who understands both the languages I speak. Some people might use foreign words to “show off” but most bilinguals actually try to avoid mixing languages. If they do, it is usually because a word has a stronger meaning in a particular language.
“You can only become bilingual if you start when you are a child.”
Bilingualism can be attained at any stage in your life. However, it is easier if you have acquired your second language growing up as the brain is more flexible but anyone can become bilingual. The difference in bilinguals who acquired the language later in life is that they often have an accent.
“If you have an accent you are not a real bilingual”
My mother, who is English Canadian and now a Professor in a French University, has been living in France for some 40 years but she still has an English accent when she speaks French. Does that mean that she is not bilingual? Having an accent does not affect one’s proficiency in speaking a language. In other words, someone with an accent can be bilingual.
“Children with language impairment should switch to just one language”
This is a myth that is still alive in schools today. I still hear teachers advising parents to speak one language rather than two to improve a child’s speaking disorder. Bilingualism is not the cause of language delay or language impairment. In fact, switching to one language might have negative consequences on the child’s language acquisition. Reverting to one language in the family will not improve the disorder. However, maintaining a well-structured bilingual setting in the family is crucial in helping the child in its development.
There are many advantages in speaking two languages.
1.Access to a larger world: When you learn a language you also learn the culture. Being able to speak two languages means you are able to speak to people in a different cultural and linguistic context. Bilinguals can use the right language with the social codes that go with the language. In other words you are able to step into another culture. Rudolf Steiner a famous pedagogue says: “Each language says the world in its own way”.
2.Better ability to focus : Bilinguals find it easier to focus and can avoid distractions (Dr. Judy Willis, 2012). Indeed, the part of the brain called the executive function, which is used for staying focused has proven to be stronger in bilinguals. Every time a bilingual speaks, both languages are actually active, and the brain has to work to suppress one language while the other is being used. That mechanism employs the executive function of the brain more regularly in bilinguals which makes it become more efficient.
3.Intellectual Gymnastic: Learning another language stretches your mind intellectually. When you learn another language you have to focus on the structure of sentences, you have to recognise sound patterns and make inferences. Research even shows that learning a language would help delay Alzheimer disease (Dr. Ellen Bialystok).
4.Better at multitasking : Bilingual kids can switch from one activity to another faster and are better at doing multiple tasks at once than monolinguals (Ellen Bialystok, 1999). That is thanks to the executive function of the brain, which gives bilinguals better cognitive control over information that allows them to switch tasks.
5.Linguistic facilities: Being bilingual helps you to learn another language. As you are constantly switching from one language to another you become accustomed to expressing yourself in a different way. Moreover, you have been exposed to two sets of sound patterns rather than one. This gives you more chances to encounter known sounds in the new language. All this combined makes learning an additional language easier.
6.Deep understanding of the concept of “language”: Bilinguals have a deeper appreciation of what is a language. They know that there is more than one way to label a word and that a word can have different connotations. As Professor Clyne says: “They [Bilinguals] have a better sense of the arbitrary nature of words, and the difference between form and meaning.”
7.More job opportunities: Fluency in more than one language can open many doors.
8.Travel: Being fluent in more than one language creates opportunities for travel.