What Does It Mean to Be Bilingual?

Recently, I attended a forum called “Save Our Spanish” because I wanted to lend support to the bilingual education programs that are an important part of the school district where I live. This is, after all, south Florida, and we’re fortunate to have a large bilingual population here.

The forum — which featured a panel of women who were proponents of strong bilingual education and more than 100 attendees that included three school board members, representatives from the media, academics, teachers, community activists, and students — was, by many accounts, a success.

While I was pleased with the turnout, I was put off by the way the panelists referred to our linguistically and culturally diverse community. It’s true that the participants advocated for bilingual education, but they simultaneously denigrated the languages that many of their fellow community members use, referring to “Kitchen Spanish,” “Social Spanish,” “Spanglish,” “Arroz con frijoles Cubans” and claiming that there were very few people who were “truly bilingual.”

The Flexibility of Bilinguals

Let’s back up a bit here. When we talk about this topic, it’s critical to understand what it means to be bilingual before engaging in a conversation about whether certain ways of using language are better than others. Bilingual individuals draw on all of their linguistic resources in each area of their lives. For example, they may read in one language and discuss what they read in another. They may listen to a newscast in one language and text a friend about it in another. And they may choose to mix their languages when they carry out these activities. In fact, research, such as that from Francois Grosjean, Ofelia Garcia, and Li Wei, shows that bilinguals use two or more languages to different degrees of proficiency for a variety of purposes. Unfortunately, this understanding often gets lost when proponents talk about bilinguals. Instead, the common refrain is that a true bilingual can do everything equally well in both languages — and when someone can’t, supporters of bilingualism and bilingual education often negatively judge the instances in which they believe bilinguals fall short.

Translanguaging

The fact is that bilinguals “translanguage”; that is, they draw on their many experiences with all of the languages that they use to make sense of their world and to be understood. As a result, they often use combinations of each language to listen and express themselves. You may hear bilinguals mix languages by creating new words, such as “parquiar” (a combination of “park” in English and a Spanish verb suffix, -iar, to create the bilingual verb “to park”). My 3-year-old daughter has often said, “Look, she’s chuping (“chooping”) her dedos!” when watching her infant sister. She has combined elements of English and Spanish to create a sentence that expresses her understanding that her sister is sucking (chupar in Spanish means “to suck”) on her fingers (dedos).

This linguistic dexterity is not only normal for bilinguals, but it is also a mark of creativity as well as a necessary part of the act of sense-making. It is not a sign of failure to attain true bilingualism; rather, it is a result of their use of one linguistic system that takes advantage of two-plus languages.

Proficiency

It’s important to distinguish between the terms bilingualism, which refers to a person’s oral and aural use of two languages, and biliteracy, which relates to a person’s use of two languages when reading or writing. Depending on the activities for which each language is used, a child may have varying levels of ease and competence with each language when speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Bilinguals tend to be more proficient in one of the two languages they use, but this mastery is closely aligned with the settings and expectations for using a particular language. For example, a child might learn to play a video game and speak fluently with family members in Spanish, but read a favorite book and communicate in English while in school. As a result, she is likely to be more proficient talking to her teacher about an academic question in English than she would be describing a video game to her brother in this language — and likewise, when playing video games with her family, she will express herself more easily in Spanish than in English.

Setting Expectations

None of this is to say that a child can’t gain a high level of proficiency in both languages, but it’s unrealistic to expect her to be perfectly balanced, or a “true” bilingual. Moreover, proficiency in each language will evolve over time as what’s required in different settings, such as work and personal life, changes.

Even professional interpreters don’t have equal proficiency in two languages in all cases. Although a Spanish interpreter may be comparably biliterate and bilingual in the area of medicine because she works as an interpreter in a hospital, she may not have the same level of proficiency in both English and Spanish when she is ordering a meal in a restaurant.

Benefits

Regardless of a student’s bilingual proficiency, bilingualism and biliteracy boast a variety of benefits: cognitive, academic, social, cultural, and economic. Bilinguals experience great brain tissue density, enhanced problem-solving and analytical skills, and a heightened understanding of the ways that languages work. They have greater facility with concept formation and verbal and math problem-solving, a deeper level of creativity, and enhanced vocabulary. They are often characterized by a strong sense of identity, sensitivity toward others and other cultures, and wider communication networks. Their cultural experience is amplified, and they have greater access to literatures and world cultures. Moreover, bilinguals tend to have more job opportunities than their monolingual counterparts, which leads to increased financial opportunities.

So, when people — whether advocates or opponents of bilingualism, biliteracy, and bilingual education — disparage the ways that bilingual students use language, they often fail to recognize the complexity of bilinguals’ linguistic practices. And while it is perfectly acceptable to aim for high levels of proficiency in each target language, we have to harness the plethora of strengths that students bring with them to the classroom to reach that goal. Their knowledge and experiences across both languages support, rather than undermine, their growing bilingual proficiency and expand future opportunities.

Learn more from Ryan Pontier and his series on bilingualism in contemporary education by reading A Truly Bilingual School: What Classes Are Really Like and Should You Consider a Bilingual Education for Your Family?.

Sources:

Garcia, O., & Wei, L. (2014, November 1). Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education. Retrieved June 1, 2015, from Palgrave Macmillan.

Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Retrieved June 1, 2015.