A colleague and I were debating the meaning of bilingualism the other day. We were talking about the definition of it and how it applies to ourselves (both of us English speakers relocated and living in Spain) and our kids (born and raised here). You can see a couple of definitions below. I always fixate on the “native speaker” and “equal fluency” aspect found in almost all dictionary definitions. In this case, my son is indeed bilingual (trilingual, in fact) but I am not.
[bahy-ling-gwuh l or, Canadian, -ling-gyoo-uh l]
Adjective 1. able to speak two languages with the facility of a native speaker. 2. spoken, written, or containing similar information in two different languages: a bilingual dictionary; Public notices at the embassy are bilingual. 3. of, involving, or using two languages: a bilingual community; bilingual schools.
Noun 4. a bilingual person.
My colleague posited, and is supported by many linguists, that “sure, native-like proficiency is important, but what does “native-like proficiency” mean?” Is it the same for a person who has never received more than a high school education and one who has a Ph.D.? It should be- they’re both native speakers of their own languages.
Bilingual adjective bi·lin·gual \ (ˌ)bī-ˈliŋ-gwəl also -gyə-wəl \
1: having or expressed in two languages; a bilingual document; an officially bilingual nation
2: using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency; bilingual in English and Japanese
3: of or relating to bilingual education
In this second case I am in fact bilingual. I couldn’t manage the choppy waters of diplomatic affairs, but I feel more than comfortable with my level of Spanish to have a life: I can do a job interview, give a presentation, talk to clients and to co-workers, have friends round for dinner, go to the market, and talk to my son’s teachers. Even so, I still don’t feel bilingual.
But my original idea here was not to look at what bilingual means and doesn’t mean. What I want to focus on is the process of having opposing opinions and still being able to listen to the other side. And then, possibly, change your mind (or theirs) a little.
What happened after we talked (and disagreed) about what being bilingual means is this: I went out and got informed. I looked for facts, I read some scholarly and some not-so-scholarly articles, watched a couple of videos, and I talked to other people. I listened to experts and I heard people’s testimonials. I listened to other points of view, and some echoed my own ideas. Some didn’t.
If you aren’t willing to listen to the other side and (possibly) amend and adjust your ideas, then you are closing yourself off from learning more about the world than you have already internalized. This is true whether the conversation is at work, at home, among friends, or among rivals. Closing your ears leads to closing your mind. Not listening to others leads to truly dire monologues with your listener trapped as a captive audience. That is not a conversation at all. What’s the point of talking to other people if you don’t want to hear what they have to say?
You may listen to the other side and change your mind. You may listen to the other side and still stand firm in your ideas. The important thing is to truly listen. You might surprise yourself at what you learn.
In this case, what I learned is that even after debating the idea with a colleague and seeking info from other sources, I still don’t agree with him. I don’t consider myself bilingual; I’ve decided to think of myself as multilingual. I did however learn that other people think that I am bilingual- and that’s frankly a boost to my self-esteem.
But more importantly, listening to what my colleague thought set me on a path to finding out more– and I did find some interesting studies on bilingualism, multilingualism, cognitive abilities, and staving off Alzheimer’s through keeping your brain active. One of the ways experts say helps you to keep your brain active is by speaking more than one language! It’s all come full circle.
So listening, keeping my ears and my mind open, has led me to learning more. It didn’t change my mind, but it did open a new avenue for thought- and debate!
What does “bilingual” mean to you?
If you want concrete tips on how to have better conversations, go watch Celeste Headlee’s talk.
fixate on: (verb) focus on
dire: (adjective) awful, horrible
boost: (noun and verb) lift, raise up