Bilingualism is the ability to effectively express oneself in two languages.
As simple as the definition of bilingualism is, it is not simple to confine to a single definition of bilingualism.
The concept of bilingualism varies alot from person to person, language to language, and the degree of proficiency the person has.
People usually become bilingual out of the need to be bilingual in their daily lives, either due to usage in their homes or professional environment. Due to this, people have variable degrees of proficiency in the languages that they speak. It's very common to have a dominant language.
When we define bilingualism as the ability to express oneself in two languages, it means that a person can hold a natural conversation in either of their two languages. One can’t simply be called bilingual after 6 months of learning a language, simply because they don’t have the proficiency to hold conversations effortlessly.
Misconceptions about bilingualism
With varying degrees of language proficiency, learning process, and expected outcomes; it is not surprising that there are a whole lot of misconceptions surrounding bilingualism. These aren’t only applicable to children or toddlers, but pretty much surround language learning in general.
“A real bilingual knows both languages perfectly.”
This gatekeeping mentality toward bilingualism hurts new learners alot, in most cases impacting their confidence the most. The expectation that bilinguals should know how to speak, read, write and comprehend both languages is immense and unreal. It is very common for bilinguals to have a dominant language, which can change based on context, environment, activities, and personal and professional domains.
Bilinguals can be weaker in one language compared to others. As long as they can express themselves in the provided context, they can be considered bilingual. Think of an English soccer player playing in a European league, while they may not know Spanish completely, they can effectively communicate with their teammates and talk to media in the context of the sport. That's all that is needed.
“My child will learn the language if he just hears it.”
We have covered various strategies of teaching your child a second language on this site. While hearing a language is a crucial part of the quality and quantity of input that a child needs, its not an absolute truth. Language learning takes long-term quality exposure and in most cases professional education, in order to truly be fluent. Your child won’t learn simply by hearing a language and neither will anyone else.
“Bilinguals should be able to translate on the spot and if they can’t, they aren’t bilingual.”
Google translate has helped but also hurt the meaning of bilingualism. There are times when bilinguals are put on the spot and asked to translate. The conversation is like “What is this in French?” which is a plausible question. Sometimes other languages don’t have the correct words for something that exists in one language, while other times, the rules of the second language are entirely different.
Bilinguals can’t be judged on their ability to translate. Contextual cues highly impact the usage of language and this can’t be done in an instant, unlike google translate.
“Bilingualism is an exception.”
There’s always one person in everyone’s life who is like “Wow’ you’re so lucky, you speak two languages.” It's a great compliment, but it's not something special, rather it's the norm.
Most countries around the world are bilingual. Some countries around the world like Africa and India have people speaking up to 5 languages at once. Most cultures have two languages and with intercultural marriages, the rise of bilingualism is not going to stop. Research puts the number of bilinguals in the world at nearly 70%, so it's very common to be bilingual if you take all humans into consideration.
“Mixing two languages is just fake bilingualism, stop showing off.”
I can see why someone would confuse this phenomena of mixing two languages as showing off. However, it's pretty common for bilinguals to use two languages because a word in one language sounds better in one language. A common example is RSVP which stands for Rendez Vous, s'il vous plait in French being commonly used on English invitations. Loosely translated it means Meet up Please. RSVP is now a norm everywhere simply because it sounds more personal.
Code mixing is common in both children and in adults. Children do it out of ease of expression, adults do it to express themselves with more passion and conviction. Its not showing off in most situations, simply a matter of preference and is extremely normal.
“Children with language disorders should just stick to being monolingual.”
We have covered this topic in detail in our blog Bilingualism, language, and cognition in children with disabilities. However, this is a widespread misconception. There is no evidence that suggests that language disorders get affected by learning a language. Language learning on the other hand has been shown to have positive cognitive benefits for children.
As for language disorders, they will present themselves when learning any number of languages, be it one or ten. If a child is in an environment that requires them to be bilingual, it is better for them to know the second language, than to be alienated by it in the real world. This myth is baseless and should not be believed at all.
Advantages of bilingualism
Being bilingual is truly amazing, even when it's the new norm. It comes with a slew of advantages, which have led to a huge push for bilingualism around the world. 2 in 3 American children are said to be bilingual, and here are the advantages they can expect to experience.
Better access to the world
When you learn a language, you also learn a culture. Being bilingual allows you to interact with people from those cultural backgrounds and speak to them in a language they understand. You have better access to the world, be it at the french bakery near your house or the espresso place near the Eiffel Tower. You are a more connected global citizen compared to your monolingual counterparts.
When you are bilingual, and you are having a conversation, your brain is actively suppressing one language, while allowing you to use this other. This means that the brain applies its executive function more often than that in a monolingual brain. This effective ability to suppress a certain thought while letting the other one soar, influences focus on bilinguals as well, where you can limit distractions while trying to focus on work. You actively suppress distractions and let the primary thought be the one that you need to focus on. Bilingualism even makes people better multitaskers, since they can switch between thoughts with great consistency and accuracy.
A gym for your mind
Language learning leads to building stronger neural pathways. The more you switch between languages, the more exercise your brain gets. In turn, increasing the actual number of neurons in your brain, leading to faster synapses. This is not different than going to the gym to grow muscles, here its “thinking more” to increase neuron density in your brain. In a bilingual child’s brain, MRI shows larger grey and white matter as well!
Better chance of learning a third language
When you are bilingual, you are accustomed to hearing different sounds for the same thing in different languages. Often drawing parallels between the two languages. When languages share the same script or origins, you are more likely to understand words in a third language because you have two points of reference rather than one.
A better understanding of languages as a concept
Languages are tools for expression and this is far more apparent to bilinguals as compared to monolinguals. Bilinguals understand how language and expressions change based on context, environment, and connotation. They don’t ignore language as something that's a given but know what it enables them to do, and why languages are a major part of someone’s identity.
More job opportunities
This is a given when it comes to being bilingual. Bilingualism opens many new job opportunities, often a whole new sphere of professional opportunities. Being a translator is only the tip of the iceberg, alot of positions both in your country and abroad can use someone who speaks two languages. From translating to managing client relationships, there’s opportunity everywhere.
This is the exciting part. Yes, you can travel pretty much anywhere as a monolingual but navigating those places without a guide might get complex depending on where you are in the world. A second language gives you the upper hand to navigate countries like a local, and in some cases discover experiences that aren’t immediately apparent to a traditional tourist.
Hopefully you have a better understanding of what bilingualism means and the concept of bilingualism in general. There are no hard lines when you seek definitions of bilingualism. Effective usage of two languages in social, contextual, and environment-related cues is what makes a person bilingual, regardless of their degree of proficiency. This might seem small but it takes years of practice to get to even beginner proficiency. Most misconceptions around bilinguals and bilingualism are largely untrue and baseless, anyone can learn a second language, given the time and quality of input.
Bilingualism is the new norm with over two-thirds of the world being bilingual. Bilingualism is truly awesome and can unlock better communication skills, cognitive benefits, professional opportunities, and higher quality of life for anyone. Why are you holding back?